Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 24th 2007
Mai Taniyama, Kazuya "Naru" Shibuya and the rest of the Shibuya Psychic Research team have a uniquely high-profile case on their hands when an associate of the Prime Minister asks them to investigate a haunted mansion. Visitors and intruders to the old, abandoned house have started to go missing, and the case has even caught the attention of international researchers. Setting up camp in the house, the SPR takes note of its odd history and architectural inconsistencies: doors and windows that open to nothing, rooms that don't match dimensions inside and outside, and secret trapdoors. Some of the more spiritually attuned team members, like Mai, have also noticed a lingering scent of blood. When various other clients and researchers start to go missing, it's time to unearth the secrets of the house before it's too late.
In a world full of whimsical, English-challenged titles, Ghost Hunt is one of those few manga series where the title actually says exactly what it's about. In fact, it's so caught up in trying to obey the traditional principles of a ghost hunt that it ends up being a supernatural whodunit that's solid but unspectacular. The characters all fit precisely into their preordained roles, the plot twists give you just the right amount of the creeps, and the foreboding mood builds up oh-so-steadily throughout this volume. In fact, if it weren't for the well-paced storytelling and serious mood, it'd be all too easy to dismiss this as yet another morass of spooky clichés. Instead, it's something that's halfway decent but also halfway lame.
The biggest problem with this volume is that it's all just setup. As the opening salvo of a bigger arc, it does a meticulous job of putting the characters and the situation into play, but delivers few actual scares or thrills. The most common story mode is one of the characters strategizing, measuring or researching, as if to prove that paranormal study is more brainwork than wards and chants. But guess what? Brainwork, in comic format, is boring. It can help to build suspense, and tease out some key points in the plot, but 180 pages of that and you're ready to go back to good old wards-and-chants spirit hunting. Unfortunately, the introductory nature of this volume keeps the spirits firmly in the shadows.
The dry characters are another damper on the series' potential, being sketched out more as some kind of multi-talented superhero team than actual people. The SPR roster reads like a list of psychic stereotypes: the leader, the brain, the raw talent, the monk, the medium ... even the contentious attitude between Mai and Naru isn't explored as well as it could be. Instead, they're too busy investigating.
Despite these shortcomings, Ghost Hunt does succeed in one department: setting the mood. The scares are few, but they're expertly executed: dark, silent panels taken at tilted angles, reflecting the anxiety that hangs over the whole house. Whether it's one of Mai's blood-scented visions, someone's disappearance, or a hushed discussion about the mansion's architectural deformities, these all-too-rare scenes warn us of the horrors to come—which presumably show up in Volume 7, right after the cliffhanger that concludes this one.
The artwork is a mixed bag that faces the same issues as the story: competent all around, but deadly boring most of the time and only good when it's setting the mood. Clean linework and carefully spaced layouts keep the pacing steady, although at times it gets so steady and so well-mannered that you might as well be falling asleep as the SPR discusses the finer points of strangely-sized rooms. Character designs are similarly lackluster—they're well-drawn but lack any creative spark, relying instead on visual cues that match their stereotypes. Flowing dark hair for the miko, a standoffish stare for the brainy guy, and let's not even get started on the secondary characters who are so nondescript that matching names to faces is a lost cause. Fortunately, the horror scenes add a dash of much-needed tension and atmosphere, whether through shadowy backgrounds (screentone upon screentone) or frightening imagery (Mai's discovery in the bathtub is probably the best one).
There's one good thing to come out of this dry, methodical storytelling, though: an equally methodical translation that avoids stylistic gimmicks, steps into the background and lets the story come forth. Apart from occasional jibes or humorous asides, the dialogue sticks to the essentials of plot exposition so that the situation is clear. Visually striking sound effects—so essential to setting the mood—remain intact, with unobtrusive translations placed nearby. Cultural notes in the back help to explain some of the historical background that plays into the story, and above-average print quality ensures that the nuances of gray in the darker scenes achieve their intended effect.
It's unfortunate—and even unfair—that this volume of Ghost Hunt would be better enjoyed if it were released concurrently with Volume 7. As it stands, this installment is little more than a prelude to a kill, with the pieces being moved into place but not much action actually happening. The haunted house concept is intriguing, and the mood is appropriately dark when it needs to be, but there's just not enough payoff in exchange for the setup. A rather dull cast of characters and too much time spent on strategizing doesn't help, either. You're getting a solid story, but it's only half a story—so the best plan might be to wait for the next volume and then take it all down in one go.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B-
+ Steady story pace and a strong, foreboding mood.
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