Yōkaíden, Volume 1
written by Nina Matsumoto
Every culture has its odd little creatures of folklore, but few are more curious than the Japanese yokai, which include scary monsters, mischievous imps, and even neglected household objects that come to life when they are 100 years old.
Yokaiden brings a generous handful of yokai to life in a story that has both serious and light moments. Hamachi, the protagonist, is fascinated by yokai and hopes to meet one someday. He even sets up a traditional yokai-summoning ceremony but falls asleep before he can finish it. A mysterious long-necked woman carries him away, creating the suggestion that what follows is merely a dream.
Hamachi encounters his first yokai the next morning. Walking through the forest, he finds a kappa, a river-dwelling yokai that loves cucumbers, with his leg in a trap. Hamachi frees him the only way he knows how—by chopping off the kappa’s leg—then fashions a peg-leg for the injured creature, who responds with begrudging gratitude.
This act of kindness leads to a calamity, however: It turns out the trap was set by Hamachi’s harridan of a grandmother, and the kappa seeks her out and kills her in revenge. There is no explicit violence—kappas kill by stealing the soul, which leaves no visible mark—and this scene is solemn but not bloody. With the help of two more yokai, a grime-licker and a bean-washer, Hamachi figures out what has happened and vows to travel to the land of the yokai and avenge his grandmother, despite warnings that the yokai realm is not a safe place for humans. He travels through the portal that separates the human and yokai worlds, recruits a talking lanern yokai as his companion, and has his first adventure, facing down a chimera with the head of a monkey, the body of a raccoon dog, and the legs of a tiger.
Despite some serious moments, Yokaiden is a cartoon adventure, not a horror story, and Matsumoto’s lively art sets the tone. She draws humans and yokai alike with an exaggerated style that brings out the characters’ personalities, and she depicts the many odd creatures Hamachi encounters with imagination and flair.
She also manages to deliver a great deal of information rather painlessly. Hamachi quotes frequently from a book of yokai stories, and each chapter opens with a page from “Hamachi’s notebook” in which he sketches and briefly describes one or more yokai. These notebook pages treat the yokai with irreverent humor and are the funniest parts of the book, and readers who like Japanese culture or simply enjoy learning odd facts will find much to enjoy here.
Many of the yokai do look like monsters, and Yokaiden is not for the easily spooked. Their actions belie their looks, however, and both Hamachi and the yokai indulge in a great deal of smart-alecky humor. Kids who enjoy Spirited Away or even Pokemon will find much to like in this well written, expertly drawn story.-- Brigid Alverson