Always beware the cute ones. That's a lesson learned early on when Tokiko, in all her bunny-eared moe glory, whips out a knife and fork and gobbles up a Freak. It's one of the few inspired moments in a manga that rehashes every other supernatural mystery series out there. Other things to be wary of include: people dressed as animal mascots, seductive women with a death wish, the haunted corridor of the school—come on, aren't there any different
spooky morals that Category: Freaks can teach us? Maybe one: beware of working in a popular genre and adding nothing new to it.
If there's one good thing to be said about Asagi's agency, it's that they work very methodically. Each chapter of this volume follows the spirit-hunting short story formula so closely that you can predict the exact page when something will happen. Something dire happens within the first five pages, Asagi and company arrive on the scene midway, and Freak extermination happens in the final quarter of the chapter. Adding to the repetition is the fact that the possessed character is always some disillusioned victim of society. It's easy to build a story around familiar subjects, but keeping them interesting is something the series hasn't figured out yet. Nonetheless, the straightforward path towards each ending is a welcome relief from other occult tales that misuse confusion as a substitute for mystery.
Because of the need for a quick setup, Asagi and his friends are sketched out in bold, simple strokes of personality—perhaps too simple, since they're all recycled from well-known character types. Each role is clear by the end of the first chapter: Asagi is the sly leader, Amano is a whiner who gets huffy whenever Asagi makes amusingly suggestive overtones towards him, and Tokiko uses her one-word vocabulary ("Freeksh!") to sniff out the enemy. Later on, Mahime shows up as the token ditzy girl, although her dual nature is more confusing than it is compelling. Somehow she's related to another Stand known as Yahiro, but does she actually turn into Yahiro? Or does she summon Yahiro and step aside? In a series that goes for a straightforward approach, this split-personality character (or pair of characters?) just gets in the way.
The way that the characters are drawn might also confuse the reader. Sakurako Gokurakuin's designs are sharp and stylish, but everyone looks the same—a problem that plagues plenty of mediocre artists. The sparse, angular artwork is appealing to the modern eye, but that appeal won't last long when you realize that you have no idea whether that light-haired person in a scene is Asagi, Mahime, or Yahiro. Of course, the story context ought to make it clear, but when everyone's got supernatural powers, it's hard to say whether someone might have just popped out of nowhere. At least the cleanly lined rectangular panels try to keep things in logical order. Ominous shadows, grotesque body parts and splashes of blood establish the horror tone of the series, along with some gratuitous nudity that earns the book its 18+ rating. (Yep, nothing says scary like a naked woman with a knife in her chest.) However, some of that stark imagery gets diluted through the overuse of gray tones—they're a necessary stage between black and white, of course, but too much at once just muddles the art.
Despite the simple plotlines and characters, the mechanics of the story gets tripped up by poorly placed speech balloons and dry dialogue. To their credit, DrMaster's translation flows effortlessly in conversational English, but what kind of conversation is it if everyone (except for Tokiko, of course) sounds alike? Some scenes may require a second reading just to figure out who was speaking. Fortunately, the sound effects won't need a second reading, since the Japanese text is left alone and a translation placed next to it in a smaller, similar font. Watch out for slight blurring and pixelation on some pages, but apart from that, the artwork comes out sharp, with excellent black-and-white contrasts. In fact, the only real complaint about DrMaster's printing is that they use a duller page stock than other mainstream publishers, making it look "cheaper" than manga that's printed on bright white.
Here's a unique case for Asagi's paranormal agency: track down the guys who stole the series' originality. That's assuming, of course, that there was any originality in the first place. Renaming evil spirits as Freaks and spirit hunters as Stands doesn't do much to breed innovative ideas; the stories may be easy to follow and the artwork pretty to look at, but that's no good if it all feels like a copy of a copy. Maybe they ought to start looking for more interesting Freaks—or getting some plot continuity going. Without the coolness of XXXHolic, the charm of Tactics, or even the insanity of
Bleach's Karakura Superheroes, Category: Freaks will just have to get in line behind all the other paranormal spirit-hunting series out there.