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Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Ever since she was young, Kotoko Kasuga has been able to see spirits, but she never thought it would come in handy until the day she met classmate Kuro Gokokuji. In his spare time, Kuro works as a yokai doctor, curing the ailments of spirits that often remain unseen to the rest of the world. Now Kotoko works as Kuro's assistant and finds herself learning about the many creatures of Japanese folklore: snake women, two-mouthed girls, tofu boys, old men who cry like babies, and many others. But perhaps the biggest surprise awaits Kotoko when Kuro runs into an old friend who knows all his secrets ...
In a world where yokai and other spirits are usually creatures to be hunted, the apparent role reversal in Yokai Doctor looks like a fairly original twist. If anything, the combination of traditional folklore with a light sprinkling of medical science ought to be a font of creativity. But more often than not, it falls victim to the same kind of formula that plagues most episodic monster-hunting series: Kuro meets a yokai, explains its unusual abilities to Kotoko, and then finds some clever solution to fix that yokai's problems. The only difference, in the end, is protecting that creature's life rather than destroying it. Occasionally, some of the stories achieve enough depth to break the mold (or at least, make the best use of the mold), but otherwise, this volume of Yokai Doctor fails to reach its potential.
One of the bright spots comes right in the first chapter, with Kuro telling the story of his bittersweet relationship with his mother. It's hard to go wrong with a tale of mother and son—even if she is a deadly creature—and this tale hits all the right emotional chords. Another similarly heartwarming story comes in the latter half of the book, where a yokai who's abandoned the traditional role of cursing humans learns why giving life to others is a much more rewarding pursuit after all. More sinister in tone, but still well written, is the last chapter where Kuro meets an old friend who may not be all that he seems. This one brings in the first hints of long-term story and character development, and the cliffhanger ending closes things out on a promising note.
The poignant beginning and stuning ending, however, belie the disappointing truth that lies in the middle chapters of this volume. It's here that Yuki Sato resorts to humdrum "monster mystery case files" material, and while the yokai themselves prove to be interesting creatures, the situations that they're in are the kind that have already been covered in other similarly-themed manga. Practically every story is resolved by having Kuro pull out some gimmicky solution that relates to the monster's abilities, sometimes with a schmaltzy moral lesson included (like the girl who learns why it's bad to steal, or the smoke creature who realizes that even non-corporeal beings can be of help to regular folk). Not that these stories are necessarily bad or clichéd—it's just that they're one-and-done in the space of twenty pages, following near-identical patterns each time, which makes it difficult to find any outstanding qualities.
The artwork, on the other hand, fares a bit better when it comes to standing out. After all, the supernatural-folklore genre is all about creating a world of fantastical creatures and phenomena, and that's where Sato's skills are the most developed. Ranging from cute, housepet-sized yokai to massive beasts the size of a multi-story building, the visually striking monsters are definitely the highlight of this volume, and probably deserve to be surrounded by better quality storytelling. By comparison, the human characters fall somewhat on the plain side, although with only two main players—Kuro with his unruly mop of hair and glasses, and typical girl-next-door Kotoko—it's easy to tell them apart. Crisp linework and strong black-and-white contrasts also give the art its distinctive look, and the ever-changing panel layouts help to keep things interesting from page to page.
What is less interesting, however, is the dialogue, which generally falls under the categories of (1) Kuro explaining things, (2) procedural dialogue to advance the plot, or (3) the occasional lewd joke. The more accomplished stories in this volume also get the additional category of heartfelt outpourings of emotion; that's the reason why Kuro's relationship with his mother is such a big deal and why the story of the yokai who turned good leaves such an impression. Most of the time, however, the script turns out to be a reflection of the story: decent enough to do the job, but failing to achieve greater. Even the glossary of cultural notes is like that, skimming over the folklore that's covered in the volume and not even bothering to discuss some of the yokai in greater detail. It's true that each monster gets its own blurb at the start of each chapter, but back-of-the-book notes are practically a defining feature of Del Rey's publications, and it seems a missed opportunity not to make fuller use of them in this kind of series.
A real doctor might be able to get away with doing only what needs to be done—treat the patient, offer some preventive advice, and that's it. But in the arts, it's much more important to find new ways to go beyond the basic requirements, and that's where the second volume of Yokai Doctor fails. It provides the necessary amount of fantastic beasts and other supernatural eye-candy, wraps them up into easily digestible 20-page stories with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end ... then does nothing else to set itself apart. Only in a couple of chapters does the series elevate itself, with poignant tales that reveal the sweeter side of the spirit world, but otherwise the only thing that'll have people gravitating toward Volume 3 is finding out what happens next in a multi-part story arc. Hopefully a longer plotline will be the cure for this blandness.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ The first chapter, the last chapter, and one chapter in the middle show the series' capability for heartfelt stories with a supernatural twist.
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