Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 1st 2011
Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan
Rikuo Nura is the twelve-year-old grandson of Nurarihyon, the great yokai overlord. This makes him the heir to an empire of yokai, demons and spirits stretching across Japan. However, Rikuo's other grandparents are all human, making him only 1/4 yokai! As a result, he can only use his full spiritual powers a quarter of the time, and is reluctant to become the Nura clan's future leader. Rikuo's combat skills are put to the test when Gyuki, a sub-leader among the clan, turns against him and tries to end the Nura bloodline in violent fashion. After the battle, an even greater test awaits when Rikuo has to judge how Gyuki is to be punished. Meanwhile, other threats emerge when Rikuo's schoolmate Kana is abducted by a malicious mirror-dwelling spirit, and onmyoji-in-training Yura faces off against a wind yokai who wants to take down the entire clan.
It would be terribly boring if Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan became nothing more than an endless sequence of fights, with our hero disposing of different spirits every week. So give Hiroshi Shiibashi some credit for not sending Rikuo Nura up an escalator of tougher and tougher opponents. The first few chapters make it seem that way at first—oh no, here comes a big bad villain! Commence hand-to-hand combat!—but the rest of the book is about expanding the world of Nura through its side characters. Sometimes they're the ones that need saving; sometimes they're saving themselves with their own unique set of powers. Varied and action-packed as these battles may be, however, the messy artwork often dampens the experience.
The main storyline surrounding Rikuo in this volume may be as generically shonen as they come—fight the bad guy, discover his tortured past, make amends, and take the next step toward your heroic destiny. But Shiibashi does a couple of things to dress things up, including a fairytale-like flashback that expresses Gyuki's back-story eloquently, and later on, a test of morality when Gyuki is brought to trial. Sure, it would have been easy just to say that Rikuo took up his leadership role after realizing the importance of keeping the clan together. But having the boy explore an ethical gray area—Gyuki's scheme was well-intentioned, but led him to immoral acts—results in some genuine food for thought instead of just boilerplate adventure.
By comparison, the side-character arcs are shallower but still entertaining. Kana's encounter with a yokai trying to kidnap her is has its thrills, beginning with a pursuit through the school halls and ending with a fanciful visit to the yokai realm. But her passive damsel-in-distress nature, and a painfully clichéd conclusion when she asks Rikuo about his yokai alter ego, make this a mindless confection in the end. Yura's battle in the last three chapters is more substantial, at least: her onmyodo skills give rise to some impressive creature-summoning moments, and the fact that she can stand up for herself naturally makes her more compelling. The other combatants also prove to be relevant to the series at large: Rikuo's grandpa reveals one of his own impressive techniques for the first time, and wind-wielding villain Muchi figures to be a key player since his goal is to take down the entire clan. In that way, even side-character escapades can turn out to have major ties to the main plotline.
However, coming up with interesting scenarios and connecting them together is only part of the job. Next comes the task of actually drawing those scenarios, and that's where Nura gets all tangled up. When it comes to illustrating the mysterious creatures and locales of the yokai world, Shiibashi shows great talent, emulating traditional Japanese art right down to the curving brushstrokes. But ask him to string those beautiful drawings together to create an actual manga, and ... well, it just looks like a bunch of beautiful drawings strung together, without the coherence of a proper story. Fight scenes become so crammed with detail, from speedlines to smoke clouds to creature transformations, that the focus of the action is often lost. Thankfully there are occasional interludes of Rikuo's school and home life, but these just end up revealing how ordinary the human character designs are. It's hard to imagine a pair of short-haired schoolgirls more plain-faced than Kana and Yura. Clearly, the yokai battle action is where the fun's at—if only the artist could learn to rein it in a bit.
With the series' heavy emphasis on traditional yokai legends, it's no suprise that this translation leaves a number of folklore-specific words in Japanese. What is a surprise, however—and not a pleasant one—is how many of those words are left unexplained. In the heat of battle, it's hard to tell whether a character is calling out their own particular technique, or referring to an charm or ritual in general. How is anyone supposed to know what a "shikigami reitei" is? It's the translator's job to tell us, not just leave words in there to sound cool and mysterious. At least the rest of the dialogue is readable enough—even a formal discussion between clan leaders ends up being a lively debate. The action-packed nature of the series also leads to plenty of sound effects being used in battle, and while the Japanese characters have all been retouched in English, the sharp, angular fonts allow them to fit neartly into the artwork.
Looking over these 190 pages as a whole, Volume 3 of Nura doesn't offer much in the way of major plot points, unless you count Rikuo officially accepting his role as successor (just a formality, really) and the clan's next major threat making his debut (but only going up against the supporting cast so far). Despite the lack of dramatics, however, there's still enough material to keep readers interested, whether it's the moral complexities of Gyuki's situation, or discovering the wonders of the alternate yokai universe, or seeing the supporting cast wield their talents. These may be diversions at best, but they're passable diversions. Unfortunately, this potpourri of story ideas is thoroughly let down by the art, which often goes overboard with fancy details and splashy effects in an attempt to impress the reader. What would be really impressive is if Hiroshi Shiibashi learned to hold back and put the pen down once in a while. With better visual discipline and a deeper storyline, perhaps the saga of this yokai clan would truly begin to rise.
Overall : C-
Story : C+
Art : D
+ Offers a change of pace with side-character adventures. Creature designs show impressive folk-art influences.
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