Manga Review: Yokaiden (vol. 2)

I normally have a policy with this blog to only review the first volume of any manga or anime I receive from the companies. The reason for this is mostly because I don’t want to repeat the same rhetoric for a particular series volume after volume. But I also do this so that I don’t end up reading a later volume of a series without ever reading a previous volume. That way, if I don’t like the series, no one can give me “well, that’s because you didn’t read the first part” as an excuse.

So when Del Rey sent me the second volume of Yokaiden for review, I faced a dilemma. The buzz over this title and its artist, Nina Matsumoto, had been extremely high, so I was really interested in checking it out.

Web comic artist Matsumoto practically exploded on to the scene when a manga-style drawing she did of the Simpsons made its way around the internets. She landed two key gigs from this drawing. The first was for the official Simpsons comic book where she penned a “Treehouse of Terror” special that parodied Death Note with Simpsons characters. The story, “Murder, He Wrote,” won her a coveted Einser award at the last San Diego Comic Con, which is quite impressive for a 24-year-old during her first year as a professional artist.

The other gig she got from the internet exposure was this OEL series from Del Rey, which too has received very high reviews from the manga community when the first volume came out last year. So I decided to give in to the hype and dive into the second volume from this award-winning artist. After all, I did the same thing when I reviewed Black Jack vol. 5 earlier this year without reading the earlier volumes, and I still enjoyed that series.

But unfortunately, it just didn’t work out that way for me this time. I just couldn’t get into Yokaiden no matter how much I wanted to.

Yokaiden tells the story of Hamachi, an optimistic nine-year-old boy who is fascinated by yokai – monstrous spirits in Japanese folklore. When his grandmother dies mysteriously, he ventures into the supernatural realm where he encounters a variety of monsters. They may look scary, but the boy discovers that they are really not all that bad. Along the way he is befriended by a talking lantern, a monster slayer, a kappa, and a talking fan… or what it an umbrella?

That right there is the problem with this volume. A small character profile section at the start of the book and one page of a highly condensed synopsis of the first volume serves as the “story so far” recap for new reader. This is just way too much info to even slightly comprehend, so the newbie is thrown into the middle the conversation with almost no ground to walk on.

The setting is not clearly established. We can tell that Hamachi is in a fantasy world, but did he come from modern Japan, old Japan, or somewhere not Japanese at all? The motivation for his journey is not quite clear. What does his grandma have to do with yokai? It looks like all he is doing there is wondering aimlessly only to talk to new monsters. And what is his relationship to the other characters? Who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?

This confusion and failure to convey the background really ruins the reading experience, and I found it difficult to find any of the positive attributes that other critics have found with this book.

The series has been praised for being an original fusion of Japanese and Western culture. The Japanese-Canadian artist calls the American cartoon The Simpsons her biggest influence and that she learned her craft from there. So I was looking forward to seeing that Simpsons influence in this OEL manga.

But Yokaiden has almost none of that western flavor in it. The story is buried incredibly deep into Japanese folklore, but it is not told with the familiar Japanese tone that we’ve come to expect with stories in this genre. This culture clash doesn’t combine well, and it comes off as being “fake” Japanese, like a North American otaku trying to write an authentic Japanese story.

Besides this tone, I just couldn’t connect with anything to this story, from the characters to the humor. But I know that this was all highly praised by other critics. When I posted this disconnect to the twitter community, the response I got from everyone – including the artist herself – is that I needed to have read the first volume to get what was happening.

So is it the artist’s fault that I couldn’t get into volume two? Is it really a requirement for a reader to have read the previous volumes of a manga series in order to enjoy it?

Well, no. The artist should not expect that of the reader. That goes against one of the fundamentals of manga writing.

The thing about Japanese manga is that most of them are serialized chapter-by-chapter in manga magazines. That means that the artist cannot expect the reader to have read all the previous chapters, as it is highly likely that the reader has missed a issue or is picking the magazine up for the first time.

The way the artist gets the newbie up to speed with the story is not done with a brief “story so far” recap, it is written into the story itself. There might be a little narration panel that gives the reader a one or two line gist of the premise, but not a complete synopsis of everything that’s happened up until that point. Whenever a character first appears in the chapter, something in the dialogue will reintroduce their personality to the reader and reestablish their relationship to the protagonist. And if there is a key event earlier in the timeline that the reader must know about to understand the current story, the artist will always flashback to that event.

“You need to read the first volume” is not a valid excuse because manga is made to be picked up at any time. And since Yokaiden is an OEL manga and is being marketed to the same audience who reads Japanese manga, it needs to be held up to this standard.

But this is just a rookie mistake made by Matsumoto on this, her first multi-volume manga series. It should be easy to fix in the next volume. She doesn’t necessarily have to worry about treating each chapter separately because Yokaiden is not being serialized in a manga magazine. But maybe every few chapters should work on reestablishing plot, characters, and relationships to help out the newbies who do not have access to the previous volumes.

That is why I am neither going to recommend for or against this title. I believe that I would have enjoyed this volume much better if I had been brought up to speed gradually instead of with a condensed recap. Nina Matsumoto didn’t win that Eisner award for no reason – she has got to have some serious talent.

It is a shame that this one flaw prevented me from seeing this talent with this one volume, but I still eagerly look forward to seeing what she does next in her professional career.

Review copy provided by Del Rey Manga.

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