written by Nina Matsumoto
In between Yokaiden’s debut and its follow-up, creator Nina Matsumoto happened to win an Eisner Award—granted, for a very different kind of work (a Death Note parody published by Bongo), but still a nice additional validation of a talent that’s obvious to anyone who picks up this winning horror/fantasy/adventure manga. The artwork in Yokaiden 2 is, if anything, more stunning than that of its predecessor: Mastumoto demonstrates a mastery of line width, an evocatively delicate use of grays, and a bold deployment of blacks while avoiding the shortcuts in draftsmanship that can mar even the most popular manga. On the contrary, as an artist, she consistently seems to takes the long road, exhibiting a careful precision that, when combined with a certain looseness of hand, creates a style that’s more calligraphic than one typically expects from comics.
As a writer, she’s no slouch either, expertly blending the light and whimsical with the very dark and ominous in a way that, to restate a comparison that’s been drawn before, is reminiscent of Jeff Smith’s work. Volume 2 lacks a bit of the wonder-of-a-whole-new-world-being-unveiled feeling, but that’s to be expected. Rather, it’s clear that Matsumoto is settling in and playing the long game here. The book ends on quite a cliffhanger, one that’s satisfying not just in narrative terms, but thematically, as it underscores the dichotomous relationship between two key characters established in the first book. Our protagonist, Hamachi Uramaki, is the archetypal young boy who manages to keep a sunny outlook on life despite being an orphan (cf. Harry Potter and Oliver Twist), a positivity that extends to yokai. (Western audiences might know these Japanese spirits from a playfully goofy 1960s film series or Takashi Miike’s suitably crazed The Great Yokai War.) Kyumon Zaigo, on the other hand, is a coldly professional yokai-slayer, and although he espouses his own rationale for why yokai must be exterminated, readers can’t help but feel that essentially he’s a bigot, especially when contrasted with Hamachi’s tolerance. Still, in this volume, we get ample evidence of the treachery and cruelty that yokai are capable of that we come to understand why yokai-hunters might exist in the first place.
Zaigo, however, remains largely off-stage here, as the story introduces a new character, Christina, a singularly powerful fox spirit. Her presence allows the story to follow a structural convention common in manga as the plot branches off in a set of mini-adventures before looping around to connect back to the main storyline. As Matsumoto points out in an author’s note, the flavor of these parallel subplots strongly recalls folklore from many cultures, not just Japan, as the antagonist sends the protagonist on a series of quests at which he’s not really expected to succeed. Indeed, these quests are seemingly impossible, and in fairy tales, the hero must use some combination of magic, resourcefulness, and innate goodness to accomplish what no one else can—and the same is true of Hamachi, even if he’s not trying the hand of a princess.
Similarly, despite being a fox spirit, Christina’s temperament and lifestyle mark her as a surrogate for the standard “evil witch” character. That’s one example (another concerns the godlike tengu) of how this book’s emphasis is less on the oddball yokai such as the umbrella-shaped ones—although they’re still present to provide comic relief—than on those yokai who, more creepily, resemble human beings. In developing all of these characters, Matsumoto is careful to balance honoring the expectations of purists by doing ample research on each folkloric figure with the need to maintain a fresh and contemporary tone instead of sounding like a textbook. And of course the comparison that comes to mind in this respect is to Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo.
Indeed, this infusion of the traditional with a present-day sensibility is one of the most appealing aspects of Yokaiden. Throughout the book, readers are treated to expository interludes about the source legends, many of them ostensibly written by a fictional yokai scholar. Most surprisingly, but also most welcome, is the inclusion of “the slit-mouthed woman,” a sinister urban legend from the 1970s that has seen a revival in recent years. Matsumoto incorporates her seamlessly into centuries-old folklore, and in the process acknowledges Koji Shiraishi’s 2007 film about the character, Carved, as a touchstone that Japanophiles as well as fans of the macabre, dark fantasy, and pop culture itself would do well to know…and of course the same thing can be said about Yokaiden itself—in spades.-- Peter Gutiérrez