Reviewby Carlo Santos, Feb 17th 2008
Novel 1 - Spirited Away
Kyoichi Utsume seems to live in a world of his own: he dresses entirely in black, shows little concern for human feelings, and has an unusual level of interest in the occult. One day he meets a mysterious girl named Ayame and starts introducing her to everyone as his girlfriend—which seems completely out of character for Kyoichi, who's never been interested in love and wouldn't be attracted to someone as delicate as Ayame anyway. Things get even more bizarre when Kyoichi and Ayame go missing ... could she have been a kami-kakushi, a spirit that kidnaps humans and takes them to the other side? Now it's up to Kyoichi's classmates—simple-minded Takemi, empathic Ryoko, strong-willed Toshiya, and sharp-tongued Aki—to unravel this supernatural mystery.
Like all good mysteries, Missing is careful not to reveal its hand until the last few scenes of the book. In fact, most of the story is spent in a nebulous haze, teetering between the worlds of life and death, unsure of what is reality and what is spirituality. People appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Objects fade in and out of existence as if they were distant memories. Does this all sound mysterious and confusing? Good, because that's exactly how the book wants you to feel, and that's how it'll keep you hooked until the last page to find out just what's going on.
Atmosphere and pacing are the biggest strengths of this mystery, creating an unsettling mood right from the start (Kyoichi meets Ayame on page one) and carrying it all the way to the finale. Why doesn't anyone notice Ayame unless Kyoichi points her out? Why would a guy like him run off with a girl like her? Is she a human, a spirit, or something in between? The gradual revelation of the answers to these questions is what makes the whole book tick.
The world of Missing also has that unique air of real life colliding with the afterlife: the early chapters establish a strong small-town feeling, as if Hazama were the most ordinary place in the world, and then it turns that on its head as the characters uncover the secrets of Kyoichi's past and the folk tales that surround the town. A strong grounding in actual folklore also adds an air of authenticity to the scenario; this story is clearly several shades darker and deeper than the typical "high school supernatural investigative squad" psychic mumbo-jumbo.
Despite the well-researched background material and moody setting, however, the story still sags in the middle, trying to develop the plot with some painfully dull expository dialogue. Although essential to unlocking the mystery, this information is presented in the driest way possible: Mysterious Guy shows up out of nowhere, happens to know way too much about this stuff, and explains it to the characters. And this happens twice: once for Takemi and Toshiya, and once for Kyoko and Aki. (Ultimately, it does turn out that each encounter has a unique role in the finale, but that doesn't make it any less boring.)
Fortunately, the student characters are a lot more entertaining than the Mysterious Information Guys when placed in the spotlight. Their after-school conversations are not only the driving force in solving the mystery, but are also just plain fun to read as they bounce ideas off each other. Some portrayals are perhaps overly one-dimensional—Takemi is almost too stupid and self-deprecating, and Aki comes off as just plain bitchy sometimes—but no single character dominates, so the ensemble ends up being a well-balanced part of the story. Individual flashbacks for each of the main characters also help to establish them as real people with history and motivation behind their personalities.
Story elements aside, even Gakuto Coda's writing style is an essential part of the mystery. With clipped, short sentences and succinct descriptions, the language of the book walks a careful line between showing what's going on and keeping certain things hidden. When the characters perform everyday activities, for example, their actions are quite plain to see, yet the supernatural events in the book drift behind a veil of uncertainty—yes, the words make sense (and don't even demand that high of a vocabulary), but the imagery is fanciful and poetic enough to feel like some kind of waking dream. The only time that the writing style falters is in the super-boring middle chapters, which read more like a regurgitation of folklore research with a few pie-in-the-sky theories thrown in ("Ghosts and monsters become real only when you hear the stories about them," or something). As mentioned above, blame it on the awkward structure that forces a whole chunk of expository dialogue into the middle just to keep the plot moving.
Translations of Japanese novels continue to be a tricky issue—after all, they have a lot more words than manga—but this one manages to strike just the right tone. Even with the succinct style of writing, it never feels like an machine-like conversion from another language; this could just as easily be a young-adult novel written in English. Eagle-eyed readers will spot a couple of typos early on, but overall the reading experience is a smooth one. Since there are no illustrations, this doesn't qualify under the formal definition of a "light novel," but it does happen to be the first in a series, so it looks like there will be more mysteries in store—hopefully as striking and in-depth as this one.
Even at the very end, Missing can't stop exuding its aura of mystery: the final scene presents one last surprise that will leave readers thinking, "How did that happen?!" This book evokes a supernatural sense of wonder all the way through, as its characters navigate the dangerous barriers between human existence and the world beyond. It is by no means a perfect story—the revelations in the middle chapters are presented too awkwardly, like an academic journal of folklore research—but the dramatic conclusions and action-packed finale make up for it, along with the moody atmosphere. If you've ever wondered what it's like to get lost in a dreamlike spirit world, try visiting this one ... just be careful not go missing.
Overall : B
Story : B
+ Moody atmosphere, engaging characters and folklore-based storyline create a supernatural mystery that's worth solving.
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