Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 6th 2012
Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan
The devious, power-hungry yokai Hagoromo-Gitsune has already destroyed five of the eight sacred seals in Kyoto. If the entire city falls to Hagoromo's army, the delicate balance between the human and yokai worlds will collapse. Fortunately, young Rikuo Nura—part human, part yokai, and heir to the renowned Nura clan—has just finished training his supernatural abilities. There's only one problem: Rikuo and his allies are still miles away from Kyoto! Instead, the defense of Kyoto's last few temples rests on the shoulders of the Keikain family, a clan of onmyoji that includes Rikuo's classmate Yura. One of the Keikain brothers becomes possessed by a evil yokai, however, and Yura's spiritual talents may not be enough to stop the chaos. Eventually, Rikuo's faction arrives at Kyoto's gates ... but a powerful opponent as soon as they arrive.
With their onmyoji powers on full blast, and prayer charms flying every which way, the Keikain clan steals the show in Volume 10 of Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan. So what does Rikuo Nura do in the second half? He steals it right back. This part of the Hagoromo-Gitsune story arc is a tale of two battles, but distinctly different in personality: one is a beefy, grind-it-out matchup of magical power, while the other is a display of acrobatics and weapon-wielding ingenuity. The first one, Yura's battle, is good—but the second, where Rikuo and his crew show what they're capable of, is great.
A word of warning, though: at this point, Nura isn't even making pretenses about trying to be a well-rounded series. It's one fight scene after another, and any other story aspects—Rikuo's personal and emotional growth as a clan leader, or the activities of his everyday school pals—are put aside. Still, for fans who have been wanting to see yokai, onmyoji, and other agents of the supernatural battling at the peak of their abilities, this is sure to satisfy.
Ironically enough, the Keikain clan's defining moment during the defense of Kyoto isn't anything they do against Hagoromo-Gitsune: rather, it's the showdown between brothers Ryuji and Akifusa, the latter possessed and disfigured by dark forces. The battle is framed as a typical conflict between justice and power (easy enough to guess how that turns out), but even so, dramatic feats of sorcery from both sides make it a thrilling fight. In the end, little sister Yura gets last word, using a summoning charm so powerful that it supposedly signifies a "gifted one" among generations of onmyoji. However, explanations like that one—why a certain attack is powerful, and how it relates to Keikain family history, often interrupt the action in this arc. That goes double for heavily narrated flashbacks that come out as dry as an ancient-history textbook.
Then comes the tale of Rikuo's journey to Kyoto, which thankfully is unencumbered by arcane family history and technical explanations of sacred magic. The setting itself is a stroke of brilliance: everything happens aboard a flying ship, an ideal symbol of wild, unbridled adventure. The feisty, quick-footed combatants also fit the mood: Rikuo's sort-of-headless attendant, Kubinashi, loses his cool while arguing strategy with fellow yokai Itaku, resulting in a contest of supernatural rope against supernatural scythes. These unusual weapons (as well as a surprise from Itaku) pave the way for more creative, more entertaining fight scenes than the book's first half. The best is definitely saved for last, though, when Rikuo himself faces off against the air defenses above Kyoto. A young hero showing effortless cool against a bigger, much more powerful opponent—that's the battle genre at its best, and it ends the volume on a perfect high note.
The series' distinct visual style is also a key element in making these battles come alive: the many creatures of Japanese folklore star in this volume, with an obvious bias toward huge and fearsome beasts. (Let's be honest, no one wants to see cute little spirits when the entire city of Kyoto is about to fall to an ancient demon.) Even simple flourishes, like heavy calligraphic brushstrokes and smoky curls of spiritual energy, add to the feel of modern action-adventure colliding with ancient tradition. As expected, this coming-together of powerful yokai and powerful sorcery is best witnessed when the artwork takes up a full page, or most of it—thus providing enough room too see dramatic battle poses and the unique artistic touches that go into them. But there are also times when page constraints (20 per chapter, as usual) force the action into smaller, messier panels, especially during text-heavy sections of the Keikain arc. The human character designs are also disappointingly bland—one look at Rikuo's ordinary schoolmates, and it's clear that a lot less effort goes into them than the denizens of the yokai world.
With the story being told mainly through action, dialogue serves a secondary role in this volume. When the characters speak, it's usually for one of the following purposes: boasting and arguing, issuing commands, or offering lengthy explanations about their battle techniques. That last one is what drags down the Keikain arc as mentioned earlier—sometimes an entire panel is filled with paragraphs of narration, bringing the pace of the action to a standstill. Even single sentences are often split into separate bubbles, making it a chore to connect the words together. Clearly, dialogue is not this series' strength, but the other textual element, sound effects, are a different story. This is where the translation and touch-up staff gets to shine, figuring out ways to make the English text match the dynamic quality of the art. Not every edit is perfect, but there are definitely moments where the re-worked sound effects—despite no longer being in Japanese—still feel like an organic part of the brushstrokes and curves.
Volume 10 of Nura makes some necessary sacrifices in order to focus entirely on the battle of Kyoto—don't expect to find any sidesteps into Rikuo's family life, or the politics of the Nura clan, or the ups and downs of school here. Instead, it's all about pure action, with bold, distinctive artwork helping to convey the excitement. The family feud and mystical fireworks in the first half are impressive enough, although it does get weighed down by excessive back-story details. What really sells this volume, though, are the later chapters, full of freewheeling combat and a climax where our young hero proves himself to the world. As long as the flavor of Japanese folklore is still here, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan has what it takes to stand out from all the other battle manga.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ The focus on high-stakes combat and a bold visual style lead to lots of action-adventure thrills, especially in the second half.
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