Nina Matsumoto’s Yōkaiden (Del Rey) has a lot of things working in its favor, but the one that really sells it for me is its wry authorial voice. The peppering of sly, smart humor elevates what might otherwise be a fairly generic folklore tour.
Yōkai are spirits that range from benign to mischievous to deadly, and Hamachi is crazy for all of them. The orphaned boy wants to learn and teach about the spirits and prove to suspicious humans that everyone can get along. The people of his village think he’s kind of simple, and they’re kind of right. When Hamachi’s surly grandmother dies, apparently at the hand of a yōkai, Hamachi sets off for their dimension to find out the truth.
Since Hamachi is so well-informed about and enamored with yōkai, Matsumoto has no trouble introducing the various types either in the narrative or in end-of-chapter pages from Hamachi’s journal or in the form of excerpts from “Inukai Mizuki’s Field Guide to Yōkai.” (Mizuki is Hamachi’s inspiration and predecessor in human-yōkai diplomacy.)
Applying a consistently light-hearted tone, Matsumoto presents varied encounters between Hamachi and the objects of his obsession. He saves one from a trap, avoids having the skin of his feet removed by another, protects a surly, talking lantern from bullying, and so on. The individual episodes are fine, but it’s Matsumoto’s wit that really carries things along.
Hamachi is never smarter than he should be, and Matsumoto is able to maneuver him in and out of trouble with imaginative little flourishes. She gives the yōkai amusingly distinct personalities, peppers the dialogue with tart anachronisms (from schadenfreude to Kelsey Grammer), and is game for the occasional, amusing digression. (When the villagers learn of grandma’s fate and Hamachi’s quest, they engage in a discussion of just what kind of irony the situation embodies.)
Matsumoto has a solid visual sense as well. Her character designs, human and yōkai, are varied and charming, and her storytelling and layouts are clear and energetic.
(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)
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