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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Yumekui Kenbun

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXLIV: Yumekui Kenbun: Nightmare Inspector

"The end of the Taisho Era in Japan. Mercury lamps exhale steam and cast distorted shadows on the brick buildings around them. Underneath it all, spider webs cling to dusk, as citizens are battered around by an uncaring wind. On one small corner stands a shop covered in perpetual darkness…the Silver Star Tea House…"

Thank you, shojo manga readers, for loving horror so much. Hyoe Narita, one of the Japanese manga editors at Viz, once told me "every manga magazine needs a horror manga," but shojo manga readers seem to love it more than anyone else. (I guess the shonen manga equivalent is the "kick a different monster's ass every week" manga, but that's probably a different genre.) Within the horror genre, one especially common type is the "mysterious little magic shop" story, where people go to a special place to find black magic to solve their problems…although the solution may be worse than the problem was. Sometimes it's an antique shop. Sometimes it's a fortuneteller's shop. Sometimes it's a pet shop. And sometimes it's the Silver Star Tea House in 1925 Tokyo, where you can find Hiruko, who will go inside your dreams…

…and eat them. Hiruko is a baku, a dream-eating monster from Japanese folklore who takes the form of a boy. (With his hair band, he looks an awful lot like Yoh from Shaman King.) He hides from the sun all day, and spends his nights sitting in the corner of the teahouse, waiting for sleepless people to visit him. "Sleep now…leave this world behind," he intones, and puts his clients to sleep with a wave of his magic cane. He walks with them in their nightmares. (Once in awhile he flies on his cane, like a witch on her broomstick.) Sometimes he helps the dreamers. Sometimes he taunts them. ("Your grief will make your nightmare all the more delicious.")

In the end, Hiruko eats their bad dreams and the sleeper awakes with a new perspective on life: personality conflicts resolved, forgotten memories recalled. But this isn't always a good thing. The dreams of Tokyo's citizens are dreams of amnesia, fear of failure and lost love. A blind girl dreams of a strange banging sound…and discovers it is the sound of a boy hammering nails into a tiny coffin. Yoshinori, a rich aristocrat, dreams of the voice of a beautiful telephone operator on the other end of the line…and his story ends with him horribly mutilated and covered in bandages. A boy in military academy has lost the ability to make facial expressions, and tries to get it back…and his dream ends with Hiruko ripping his face off, over and over. A girl dreams of being watched by the boy she loves…but she misinterprets her dream, with terrible consequences. A man in love with a silent movie actress follows his obsession to the bitter end. No matter howbishi the characters are, on the inside, they are dark and rotten. And that's before I get to the vengeful ghosts, the living house that consumes its inhabitants, and the story where Hiruko "solves" everything by murdering every single person in the dream. 

Yumekui Kenbun is full of dark, twisted endings. This is not a very happy manga, and that's one reason I love it so much. Maybe it comes with the era. In Japanese popular culture, the Taisho Era (1912-1926) is kind of the equivalent of the late Victorian Era: a time of decadence and wealth, of technological progress mixed with moral degeneration. The Taisho Era means murder mysteries, psychological perversions, corruption and cool old-fashioned clothes: the style of Edogawa Rampo, Suehiro Maruo (early Showa era, but close enough), Usamaru Furuya's Lychee Light Club. Even Koge-Donbo wrote a manga set in that time. Shin Mashiba has great fun with the time period and uses lots of 1920s Japan historical tropes: the 1923 earthquake, the wars in Manchuria and Russia, stories about artists and writers and dilettantes, stories about shame and illegitimate children, stories about sadism and torture.

I said this was shojo horror, but that might not be entirely true. Yumekui Kenbun originally ran in Square Enix's shojo magazine Stencil, but after that magazine collapsed, it moved to a new magazine, G Fantasy, which is technically shonen. However, as Melinda Beasi has explained, G Fantasy (better known for popular titles such as Black Butler, Pandora Hearts and Zombie-Loan) is a sort of hybrid/androgynous manga magazine, which mixes traditionally shonen stuff (action, demons, craziness, pretty girls) with traditionally shojo stuff (pretty boys, suggestive scenes between two or more pretty boys). Call it "girly shonen" if you want, like one reviewer did, or say that these definitions don't mean much; to me, Yumekui Kenbun feels shojo, if only because of the character designs, and that general (un-shonen) feeling of dark beauty.

One thing that really stands out about Yumekui Kenbun is the art; someone who draws this well would be welcome in any manga magazine, shojo, shonen, whatever. The characters may be hard to tell apart sometimes (too many pretty faces), but the backgrounds and dreamscapes are beautiful and imaginative. One boy dreams of being in the dark, with all the shapes around him represented by kanji floating in the blackness. Another dream takes the form of a silent movie. In another story, Hiruko explores the dream of a mangaka, whose dream is represented as a 1920s-style manga.

It isn't just a series of disconnected stories. Although Mashiba mentions at one point that she only expected it to be one volume long, Yumekui Kenbun lasts 9 volumes, and gradually it develops a plot. The only human who knows Hiruko's background is the owner of the Silver Star Tea House, Mizuki, a friendly young lady who used to run the teahouse along with her now-vanished older brother. Mizuki has been working hard to run the shop and to learn how to make Western-style coffee (alas, Hiruko can never drink her coffee; eating human food makes him spit up blood). For awhile, they are the only continuing characters, but then in comes Hifumi Misumi, a rich wastrel who instantly falls in love with Mizuki and decides to rent a room upstairs so he can always be next to her. Hifumi, whose personality type can be summed up as "passionate hot-blooded idiot side character," is jealous that Mizuki and Hiruko seem to get along so well, but of course, he doesn't know the whole story. Still later in the story, we meet Kairi and Shima, the staff of a rival business, The Delirium. The Delirium is sort of like the teahouse, but instead of showing clients their dreams, it shows them their fantasies.  "Just as you love nightmares more than anything else, I love fantasies," says Kairi, the tall, dark, bishonen owner. In fact, he loves fantasies so much he often goes off on wild fanservicey dreams about Hiruko and the other characters, leading to some really silly omake-style chapters alongside the serious ones. But being trapped inside your fantasies might be even worse than being trapped inside your dreams. Kairi is also the only character who knows Hiruko's true story, all of it. Who is Hiruko? What does he keep in his mysterious suitcase? Gradually, Hiruko's origin is revealed, leading up to a volume-long conclusion which ties together Hiruko, Mizuki and Hifumi, with the fate of all Tokyo at stake.

There isn't much information online about Shin Mashiba. S/he doesn't have a website or a Twitter. In addition to Yumekui Kenbun, Mashiba also wrote Yumekui Kenbun: Delirium (an untranslated 1-volume spinoff), the reality-bending mysterious-school fantasy Torikago Gakyû ("Birdcage Classroom"), and the Heian-era period piece Utau! Heian-kyo ("Sing, Old Kyoto!"). I'd like to see more of Mashiba's manga translated; even if the mixture of dreams and fantasies and madness can be confusing sometimes, the ideas are ambitious, and the art is great. This manga surprised me, in a good way. But be warned: sometimes it's sicker than you'd expect it to be. Sometimes Mashiba twists in the knife just to be cruel. It's a finely drawn manga with a good ending, but it's also the only manga I've ever read which includes the line "I cut off my father's privates", and I mean both shojo and shonen this time.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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