Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Yokaiden, Volume 1 by Nina Matsumoto

Japan has a long tradition of ghost stories and monster spirits, categorized under the general name Yokai (which can mean demon, monster or spirit). Because many of them are malicious, most people want to do away with any Yokai they might encounter. But Hamachi Uzumaki, the son of a village doctor and learned man, isn't so sure that every Yokai is evil and wanting to do harm. Instead, he would rather befriend them.

Because of the death of his parents by tuberculosis, Hamachi lives with his grandmother in the same village where his parents grew up. But she views Hamachi as a fool and an idiot because of hie feelings about Yokai. She isn't the only one, either. The kids in the village who know of Hamachi's Yokai obsession mock him as well.

One night, Hamachi stays up late to attempt to summon a Yokai, but falls asleep before the ritual is over. He's carried back to his house by a woman with a highly extended neck. The next morning, he's woken by his grandmother, who sends him out to chop wood. But what he sees there delights him. A Kappa is lying among the bamboo stalks. And the reason why is obvious- someone set a trap for the Kappa, baiting it with their favorite food-cucumbers, and used a metal bear trap to catch it. Hamachi tries to free the Kappa, but in the end, must cut off its leg to save its life. To help, he makes a peg-leg out of a piece of bamboo for the Kappa.

According to Kappa honor, the Kappa must repay Hamachi for his good deed. First. it offers Hamachi the cucumber, but when Hamachi turns that down, the Kappa says it will repay him at a future date. Hamachi tries to offer to be its friend, and since it won't tell him its real name, he gives it a nicknamr. Mad Kappa, or Madkap. It stumps off home, looking for revenge against the person who set the trap.

Hamachi returns home, only to find out it was his grandmother who set the trap. He lies to her and tells her it caught nothing, but two other Kappa tell the injured one that it was probably "that old crone" who set the trap. She hates Kappa. The injured Kappa asks if this is true, and they confirm it. He looks thoughtful.

Later that day, Hamachi goes to sell bamboo products in the marketplace, and meets a ronin named Kyumon Zaigó, who calls himself a Yokai hunter. He wants to know where the portal to the Yokai lands are, and asks if it is true that it is somewhere near the village. Hamachi, before he knows this masterless Samurai is a Yokai hunter, tells him quite proudly that it is, but he's upset when he learns Zaigó's true calling. He proudly defends Yokai, and Zaigó says that they obviously both have their reasons for feeling about Yokai that they do.

Hamachi leaves for home, but when he gets there, the house is a mess and his grandmother is dead, without a mark on her. Strange noises are coming from the bath room, but it's just a grime licker, who eats the dirt left behind on the walls of the tub after dirty people take baths. From the grime licker, he discovers that Kappa steal the souls of their victims and take them to their leader, so Hamachi decides to go into the Yokai realm and get his grandmother's soul back.

Of course, being human, he knows the portal exists, but has never tried to find it before. He wanders through the forest, being tripped by shin-rubbers and being watched by the other Yokai that inhabit the forest, and even finds a portal to hell, and King Enma Daioh before running into a Namahagé, a yokai who cuts the skin off the feet of bad children to teach them to be good adults. The Namahagé helps him find the portal, but says the only way for humans to get through- be brought in as food by a Yokai, of have a piece of a Yokai with him. And since Hamachi has the Kappa's foot tied around his neck, he's in. But if he didn't have the foot, he wouldn't be able to see through the portal into the Yokai world, and stepping through it would only put him on the other side of the rocks that make up the entrance.

On the other side, Hamachi comes on a paper lantern ghost Yokai being abused by three other Yokai, and asks them to stop. From them, he finds out that the Yokai world is much like the human world, with different levels of society. These Yokai are considered lower class, while the Kappa he hopes to find is Upper Middle Class. These Yokai find it amusing that Hamachi will die in the Yokai land, so they leave him alone for now, along with the Tsukumo Gaki, or Ghost Lantern.

After a conversation with Lumi (as he names her), Hamach asks her to be his guide in the Yokai world, and Lumi can't help but agree, since Hamachi won't take no for an answer- he simply sets her on a branch and walks off with her. But when a predatory Nué takes an interest in taking Hamachi's soul to eat, can Lumi and Hamachi get away from this bad-news Yokai? And at home, Hamachi's disappearance upsets the townsfolk, and they hire Zaigó to get him back and kill some Yokai. But will the Ronin live up to his promise?

This series is both cute and amusing. Most readers of manga will know about Yokai from other manga, where characters often fight villainous Yokai, or fight some and befriend others (mostly in Yu Yu Hakusho), but here we get to see how strange and zany the true range of Yokai often are.

Yokai aren't just one creature or type of creature. Instead, they comprise many, many categories of supernatural creatures and objects. In fact, that would be a good word to describe Yokai as a whole- supernatural. You have Gaki, Yuki-onna, Obaké and other types of creatures all under the same general umbrella (and an umbrella ghost would be a Karakasu-obaké). Some of the creatures considered Obaké are creatures, while others, like Lumi, are objects who were used and abused by humans and then thrown away. After 100 years, an Obaké gets its own existence as a Yokai.

However, I am willing to bet that most of the Yokai that Hamachi encounters will be completely unknown to Western readers. And after each chapter, there are pictures of the Yokai that Hamachi met in the previous chapter, along with their proper Yokai name and some information about them. Most readers will probably find the series as enlightening as entertaining.

This is a cute series, with lots of fun and laughs to be had at the expense of various characters. Despite the serious nature of Hamachi's quest, , it's hard to get down or depressed by the series. Hamachi is so relentlessly upbeat (except for a few moments), that you never feel saddened by what's going on. This series comes off as more of a comedy than a drama. Highly recommended.

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