Reviewby Lissa Pattillo,
Omnibus GN 1-3
In the world of Black Gate, a white gate - technological in appearance - manifests near a being approaching their natural death until such time that they die and their souls are absorbed to the next plane. Occassionally, however, black gates appear where there is no one fated to die. Instead, these black gates cause streaks of unfortunate events that lead to the unnatural deaths of those around it in order to collect the souls regardless. Of the select few born with the ability to see the gates, some have the power to close them. Those of this profession are called Mitedamashi. Hijiri is a young boy living with a Mitedamashi named Senju but what begins as a story about their mission to close black gates together takes a considerably different turn when Hijiri's origins are revealed, his powers begin to awaken and it becomes the Mitedamashi who are at threat of being eliminated with the ability to die itself on the line.
The concept of Black Gate is pretty easy to follow from the get-go. White gates are good and summon in naturally dying souls; black gates are bad and create incidents to draw in souls before their time. Mitedamashi are poorly paid individuals with the ability to close the evil black gates. Done and done. For the opening third of this omnibus, which makes up the first original volume, a Mitedamashi named Senju is front and center of the plot. He's in his mid-twenties and takes his job pretty seriously, though often in tandem with his more mundane day job of selling air conditioners to make ends meet. More demanding of his time however is Hijiri, who with the general all-around free reign he's given past a curfew, often gets in his share of trouble trying to do good.
This whole opening installment of the story carries on predominately like that - Senju tries to make money and close gates, Hijiri tries to help in some way and inevitably there's complication to this combination. As these events play out, be it a deadly train-track or a birthday-party requiring the already androgynous Hijiri to cross dress, the relationship between Senju and Hijri feels odd. This becomes especially true when it's confirmed that Senju has been raising Hijiri since he was born. One may assume this would result in a Father-Son relationship but instead Senju treats Hijiri as someone he cares for to an extent but more like a friend's kid he was left temporarily in care-of, and to his inconvenience at that.
By the end of this first volume-arc however, Senju sits Hijiri down for an alcohol-induced spiel about Hijiri's origins. This tosses the story into flashback mode where readers are introduced to Hijiri's biological family - the most notable of whom was his Father, Yoshituna, an easily moved to tears bishonen with the ability to not only close gates, but open, control and keep track of them. Those with his abilities are aptly named Gatekeepers and work from a semi-secret hideaway in a forest village. It was there Yoshituna lived with his cocky but kind-hearted younger brother, his sweet and sweeter pregnant wife, and a young Senju whom he took in. Things are all magic and mirth until an angry mob of humans attack to demand the closure of all the worlds' gates to bring about the elimination of death itself. This does not turn out well.
The pacing of the story up to this point always felt a little stilted, hopping about one event to the next with a lacking fluidity and some choppy exposition. It isn't helped by the fact that Senju and Hijiri lack any real affection until it's needed for plot purposes. At the end of this flashback segment there's a messy fight scene that results in all Senju's loved-ones being killed one after another, including Yoshituna and his brother, sort of oddly in the same way at the same time. This particular scene is more confusing than it is dramatic at first which spoils the intended flair. Nothing feels more out of sorts though then the return to present-day when Senju, upon finally telling all this to Hijiri, abandons him.
This event throws the story into volume two, taking place six years later. Hijiri has been training to become a Mitedamashi (and failing) while also having not grown a day in either body or apparent-maturity since then, remaining a twelve-year old boy. During another flop-attempt to close a gate, he meets Tsurugi Sugawara (the 'Sword') and Michitate Sugawara (the 'Shield'). The two are apparently destined by blood to protect Gatekeepers, and lo and behold, Hijiri seems to be the last one. The two new characters contract eachother nicely - the first a man-gorgeous sort-of-airhead, the other the serious, glasses-wearing archetype who falls on the cold side. They definitely bring a more interesting element to the story which Hijiri did not seem poised to be able to carry on his own. Along with them, to a point (the challenge of this being an angsty-family issue that's delved into later), is Michitate's younger brother, Michizane, a boy even more androgynous in appearance than Hijiri. Hijiri accepts the arrival and claims of these three with little question and quickly proceeds to harass Michizane until the sharp-tongued boy agrees to be his Mitedamashi gate-closing partner.
But sinister events are afoot as a serial killer has been targeting Mitedamashi and closing gates becomes the least of anyone's worries. The story works considerably better at this point than it had before. Hijiri and his new friends have a lot more engaging character interaction, both comedic and tense depending on the scene, and the serial killer issue presents a lengthier arc than those before which finally allows the plot time to get a comfortable stride going. It also ties together several other elements of the plot including Michizane's true parentage and returning issue from the day Hijiri's parents were killed. The climatic coming-together of these plots is one of the most poignant of the entire omnibus as an actual line is drawn and sides are chosen in what readers finally discover is the real conflict here. Some of the most unlikely of characters take on the most sinister of roles and everything at last feels fleshed out enough to hold the drama it's supposed to.
All these cliffhangers and shock-value reveals carry over into the third portion of the book as Hijiri and the remains of his group race off to rescue Michizane after the young teen is captured. The rest of the book, which is also the conclusion of the series based on the author's afterwords, is the continuation and resolve of this same conflict. It maintains the same kinetic energy the middle part of the book achieved and, though as in the first part there's some confusing moments involving messy death scenes, it was all still coherent enough to follow.
Yukiko Sumiyoshi's artwork is one of the winning features that proves fairly consistent from start to finish. Even when the story isn't winning any favors, the visuals are still really nice to look at. Hijiri and Senju don't offer the most eye-candy at first - Senju falling on the plain side and Hijiri suffering from constant bulbous-head-syndrome - but upon introducing the Gatekeepers and their guardians, suddenly there's a plethora of pretty-boys and diverse designs to tickle an interested reader's fancy. Creative angles and fast-paced action sequences show off the artist's years of experience. The downside to the artwork though is it's role in the slap-dash manner some of the scenes play out, when it's difficult to determine exactly what happened. These are all short-term issues, momentarily blips, but any thing that makes you stop to stare and reread, past being exceptionally entertaining or intriguing to revisit right away, is just a bad distraction.
There's always something to be said for a satisfying ending and Black Gate doesn't quite feel like it reaches it. The big climatic finish though falls a little flat when it just reads sort of silly. The antagonists are out to rid the world of the ability to die out of fear that Hijiri, who for reasons explained is immortal, would need to watch all his loved ones die. Hijiri thinks this is ridiculous, as he should. But he needs to be taught a lesson and thusly his loved ones attempt to teach him the meaning of loneliness by sealing him away with only one person who will eventually grow up and die. Sixty years later and... It all brings the story intentionally full circle, ending the story in much the same way it began. Unfortunately in taking the story back to the beginning, it also returns things to the story's weakest point. Because this is the end of the series it's not as big a deal having the most likable parts of the story resolved into complete removal (ie: all the characters that made it really interesting) but it does leave the bitter taste behind of 'was that really necessary?'.
Black Gate works well as an omnibus collection, excluding perhaps some resulting arm pain from trying to hold a book over 600 pages long. The beginning arc of the story suffers from stiff storytelling and less than promising potential as it sets up Hijiri as the main character. The second volume however picks up considerably and it would've be a waste to have readers slog through the first only to miss out on the second, and subsequently the third, because of it. Dull first volume aside, once you're finally in the thick of it Black Gate really takes advantage of its refreshingly simple-plot to focus instead on a group of well-flawed characters who aren't too hard to look at it either.
Overall : B-
Story : C+
Art : B+
+ Easy to understand plot that takes time to focus on compelling cast of secondary character; attractive artwork and a great value at 640 pages
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