Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 3rd 2013
Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan
Rikuo Nura was born three-quarters human, one-quarter yokai, and he's gotten closer to his supernatural side ever since he became "Underboss" of the Nura clan and all its spirits. He faces his greatest challenge yet in the form of Hagoromo-Gitsune, a demon who has led her armies in a violent takeover of Kyoto. Hagoromo-Gitsune's strongest warrior, the monstrous Tsuchigumo, has challenged Rikuo directly—and Rikuo finds himself powerless to stop him! After being forced into retreat, Rikuo studies with yokai sub-leader Gyuki on how to improve his abilities. Meanwhile, one of Rikuo's most trusted allies—the floating-headed yokai Kubinashi—has lost his sense of purpose after failing to protect the clan. Kubinashi goes rogue and starts attacking enemy forces across Kyoto ... but can he hold his own when Hagoromo-Gitsune's top officers show up?
By now, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan has proven than it can sustain a long-running storyline. The battle for Kyoto has stretched into multiple volumes, bringing with it a host of larger-than-life villains, spectacular feats of magic, several forays into the past, and of course, impassioned fights among major players and minor characters alike. But Volume 12 also reveals a weakness that the series hasn't figured out how to correct: what to do during those lulls between the big, marquee battles. Between the training, soul-searching, and random acts of violence, this part of the story seems unsure of where it's headed—instead, it's just playing for time until Rikuo's next big showdown.
The stalling for time begins with Rikuo's setback against Tsuchigumo, who (in typical villainous fashion) rips the hero's team to shreds, but stops short of killing everyone outright. That leads to the predictable "I've got to get stronger!" scenario, where Rikuo goes off to train so that he can, in Gyuki's words, "surpass himself." It's a noble sentiment, and one that leads to a couple of inspirational scenes—but sadly, the conclusion is set aside for another day, and we're left to assume that Rikuo is off honing his skills while other storylines crop up.
The plot point that ends up occupying most of this volume is Kubinashi's lone-wolf rampage and his desperate search for meaning. Armed with razor-sharp twine, he beats up on low-level demons, frets about the philosophy of "protecting someone important," and eventually meets a more serious challenge in the closing chapters. Like Rikuo's training scenario, this subplot has its moments—a couple of heartfelt flashbacks, some breathtaking fight scenes—but lacks a solid payoff, instead deferring to the next volume for an actual conclusion. And because it happens in a completely different location from Rikuo's part of the story, it makes the series feel disconnected, despite all being part of one sprawling story arc.
Funnily enough, it's the key figure behind the whole story arc—yokai leader and soon-to-be mother of demonspawn, Hagoromo-Gitsune—who gets the best scenes in this volume. Her preparations for a demon birthing ritual highlight the creepy side of the yokai world, one that involves underground caves, pitch-black water, and human organ sacrifices. For once, the villains are doing something interesting ... which makes it all the more disappointing that these moments are so brief, while more time is devoted to pedestrian hack-and-slash battles.
Which isn't to say that the battle scenes are all bad. Yes, they're an expected part of the plot, but they come in a visual style that's unique to this series. Bold penstrokes, curling plumes of smoke and fire, and monsters pulled straight out of the history books all add up to Nura's distinctive "action meets folklore" style. This volume even includes a brief shadow-puppet tale as an origin story for one of the demons, proving that old-fashioned modes of art can work in modern manga. Historical architecture also comes alive in the many shrines and other locations around Kyoto that serve as the backdrop for this story arc. But having a rich artistic imagination isn't the same as knowing how to use it wisely: the pages frequently get cluttered with too many special effects happening all at once, or too many characters trying to squeeze into one panel. Speaking of which, the character designs—creative as they are—often end up being wasted on bit players who appear once, interact with the main characters, then disappear before anyone can even remember their names (if they had any in the first place).
As if that doesn't make it hard enough to remember names, let's not forget that Japanese folklore practically has its own specialized language. From basic words like yokai and ayakashi, to particular monster names like Shutendoji and Ibaraki-Doji, the English translation isn't afraid to keep specific Japanese terms as they are, thus maintaining the cultural flavor. Fortunately, the rest of the text—from attack names to casual conversation—is still translated into plain English, making the dialogue easy to follow, and subtle font variations even indicate when someone speaks in an unusual tone of voice. Meanwhile, sound effects are edited directly into English, wiping out any trace of the original Japanese text—but the artwork is usually so busy that the sound effects blend right in with minimal impact.
The current arc in Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan is obviously leading up to one thing: Rikuo versus Hagoromo-Gitsune, yokai army versus yokai army, right in the heart of Kyoto. But Volume 12 seems intent on taking every possible detour before arriving there: Rikuo wanders off so he can get stronger, Kubinashi has a crisis of conscience and slashes everything in sight, and the big bad villain busies herself with a demonic ritual in the meantime. Each of these subplots has its moments, but they never really come together to form a coherent picture. At least the stylish art provides some visual appeal—but even then, too much of a good thing can backfire, as cluttered layouts obscure some of the action. This volume of Nura could have been something great: a build-up to another high-stakes battle, or a time for the main characters to reflect and plan their next move. Instead, everyone is just casually adrift, waiting for the next major plot point.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B-
+ Unique art style turns action scenes into visual masterpieces, while the main villain gets up to some seriously creepy business.
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