House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
Manga years are like dog years; a popular shonen or shojo manga lives for 10 or so years, it has a rich, full life (or not), and after it's gone you remember it fondly. (Unless it's a manga that keeps dragging on forever on life support, getting worse and worse and draining more of your money, until…man, this simile got really dark, didn't it?) Some manga live longer than others; One Piece is like the funky-looking neighborhood cat that's still wandering around after 20 years. Other times, it's like, Kekkaishi! I remember you when you were just a puppy, back in 2003, and now you're a completed 35-volume series!
Kekkaishi (“Barrier Master”) is a shonen manga about teenage exorcists who fight demons at a high school, and if this sounds like a familiar plot, we've both obviously read a ton of manga. Yoshimori Sumimura, 14 years old, lives next door to his childhood friend Tokine Yumimura, 16. Four hundred years ago, both their ancestors were severants of the local lords, the Karasumori clan, and though their lords have died off they still maintain the family business: neutralizing demons, ayakashi, who are drawn to the Karasumori shrine. Yoshimori was trained by his grandfather and Tokine by her grandmother, learning the art of making kekkai, magic barriers to capture evil spirits. The shrine is buried directly beneath the modern-day Karasumori High School, so by day they take classes, and by night they put on traditional robes and go back to the school to beat demons! (Their job's a secret, since most people can't see demons: “To ordinary people, it looks like I'm just flailing around by myself.” However, the fights often cause collateral damage, so it must get tiresome repairing the half-destroyed high school every night.)
As neighbors and fellow demon-hunters, Yoshimori and Tokine seem like natural friends, but it's not so simple. Their families are enemies, and Yoshimori's grumpy granddad resents that Tokine is more skilled than his grandson (“I can't have a sissy inherit the family business! Because of your laziness, you keep losing to that Yukimura girl!”). Despite the family rivalry, they were childhood friends, and once Tokine even saved Yoshimori from an ayakashi, getting a nasty scar in the process. The traumatic incident gave Yoshimori a guilty conscience and a motivation: to get stronger so someday he can protect her, and others, the way she protected him (“There's only one thing I fear, and that's seeing someone I care for get hurt right in front of my eyes!”) Yoshimori doesn't care about tradition, but he trains to get stronger for Tokine's sake, even though she's two years older and in high school, which is a major age gap when you're in junior high. Can Yoshimori ever become as good a Kekkaishi as she is? And…not that he feels that way about her, of course, but…will she ever see him as more than just a little kid?
Kekkaishi ran in Shonen Sunday, the mellow underachiever of the weekly shonen manga magazines, compared to the hyper cool kids Shonen Magazine and Shonen Jump. Anyone who's read shonen manga will find familiar tropes here, but the cool thing about Kekkaishi is that it never degenerates into an endless series of power-escalation fights; from beginning to end it's also full of character interaction, occult mysteries and love comedy. (But not much fanservice; in 35 Teen-rated volumes, there's just onesemi-nude shot of Tokine discreetly covered by bubbles.) The manga covers emphasize beauty and mystery (I particularly like the covers of vol. 9, 13 and 17) instead of the usual shonen manga muscles and rageface. There's great art here, romance, humor, and lots of other little treats.
First off, the heroes’ powers are clever and cool. Kekkai masters’ most basic power is the ability to conjure little cubes, to keep demons in or keep attacks out. But it's not just useful for fighting: “It's very practical magic, useful both in combat and daily living,” writes the artist Yellow Tanabe in her notes. Yoshimori and Tokine can create a tiny kekkai to make someone trip and fall, or to bug Yoshimori's grandpa (“Yoshimori, you brat! How dare you pitch a kekkai over my omelet!”) They can make them appear in the air, so he can climb on them like floating platforms in a platform game. Kekkai aren't always nonviolent; if a Kekkaishi is feeling mean they can shout “Zetsu!" and the kekkai will explode, destroying whatever is within. (The advanced form of this is zekkai, a deadly aura that destroys whatever it touches.) They can also conjure shikigami, whose natural form is that of little blobs with squares for faces, but who can take whatever form the summoner wishes, especially convenient when you have to go do some demon-related business in the middle of school and your shikigami can stay in class for you (but watch out if someone asks it out on a date). Yoshimori can also talk to ghosts, and in the early chapters when he helps ghosts find peace the series follows in the familiar style of Shaman King or Yū Yū Hakusho. Later, Yoshimori learns to split off a part of himself into a separate entity, and creates a striped familiar spirit that looks like it's half snake, half traditional horned demon. The connecting thread between all these weird powers (except maybe talking to ghosts) is that they're all about technique and creativity, about making things. Fittingly, one of the final powers Yoshimori learns is that of shinkai, the power to create magical spaces that are like separate dimensions, entire enclosed worlds filled with all kinds of things. (“Imagine that you are building a house. You are about to build something no one has seen before.”)
Second, the monsters. This series is full of interesting, well-drawn creatures: the ayakashi look like bugs, lizards, frogs, and traditional Japanese yokai. Tokine and Yoshimori have talking demon-dog spirits as snarky helpers (“I'll do it if you bring me a piece of fresh deer meat with the soul attached.”). Later they befriend two-tailed demon cats as well. Lord Uro, the quiet but powerful nature deity, looks like a friendly monster from a Miyazaki movie; he causes plants and moss to spring up wherever he grows, but he has a weakness for donuts. There are giant East Asian dragons, spinning fiery wheels with faces inside them (the okubiguruma), and enormous kappa-like demons whose comical Muppet faces conceal their true power. Unlike in some manga where the demons/monsters are drawn in a totally different style from the main characters (aaallllmost as if the assistants drew them), the creatures here have a consistent style with the rest of the character art. From the six-armed flaming centaur-unicorn, to a grotesquely deformed and immensely powerful creature that hides its face behind a giant komusô hat, there's always something new and cool to look at.
Third, the characters, who overshadow the monsters, despite how cool the monsters look (it's hard to give personality to a 50-foot-tall destructive beast!). At the beginning, the core circle is Tokine and Yoshimori and their wacky grouchy grandparents; Yoshimori's non-magical stay-at-home dad (he married into the family), usually seen wearing an apron, seems like the stereotypical manga/anime ‘useless homemaker dad’. But the cast expands outward, and soon we meet other family members who we can't just dismiss as jokes: Masamori, Yoshimori's 21-year-old big brother, is a badass Kekkaishi with a black carp spirit who's cooler—and more ruthless—than his little bro. (“You have a good heart. But you're too naïve.”) Yoshimori also has a little brother, Toshimori, who doesn't get as much development. We meet schoolmates, like Yurina Kanda, a shy girl who can see ghosts, and Julia, an aggressive blonde high schooler with the hots for our middle-school hero (there's a definite older-woman thing going on in Kekkaishi. My teenage self would approve). We meet other magicians and weirdos, such as Heisuke Matsudo, a creepy retired occultist who has a study full of pinned monster skeletonsand keeps ayakashi spirit servants in the shape of women he once loved. Manipulating everything from the darkness are secret societies: the Shadow Organization (a group of special ops ayakashi-fighters who at first seem scary and mysterious but later turn out to be good guys…or are they?), the Dark Watchtower (a group of evil ayakashi disguised as humans by wearing human skins, who live in a feudal castle in another dimension), and the Ogi Clan (a wealthy, privileged family of wizards). Karasumori isn't the only occult site in the world, but it's a powerful one, and everyone wants it. With so many different sides feuding to control Karasumori—or destroy it—who can they trust?
In a world of betrayal, backstabbing, and brainwashed teenage assassins, Yoshimori and Tokine are traditionally heroic and pure-hearted. Yellow Tanabe doesn't bore the reader by dragging out the him-vs.-her bickering; “We should just forget about our 400-year-old feud and team up,” they realize early on. As their relationship evolves, Tokine comes to the slightly upsetting realization that Yoshimori has much more innate power than her, and will inevitably outclass her once he learns to use his full strength. But though it follows the formula of a shonen manga by focusing on a super-cool male lead (“I must become a stronger man!”), Kekkaishi has many strong female characters. “If I'm to have a hero in my story, I don't want her to just scream for help,” Tanabe writes in her notes. Even Yoshimori himself is a bit of an otomen, whose secret dream is to become a patissier and make the world's greatest castle cake (which foreshadows his eventual world-building shinkai powers). And one of the most powerful and important characters in the series is Sumiko Sumimura, Yoshimori's mother, who is absent for ~20 volumes until she finally shows up, leading a giant dragon with a leash around its neck. Her reappearance changes everyone, even turning Yoshimori's dorky dad into a fully fleshed-out character, and in the final story arc she guides her son to his destiny after (spoiler) Karasumori is destroyed.
Many shonen manga ultimately focus on family: one of the most archetypal (or stereotypical) plots is the climactic brother-brother or father-son battle, where emotional issues are resolved in screaming speeches and big explosions. Kekkaishi is about family too, but it's subtler and quieter than the average manga, and the climax happens in an unexpected way. (The anime series only covers the first part of the manga and doesn't go all the way to the end.) It's a fairly fast read, too, one that has lots of character development without wasting too much time explaining exactly how Power X works and whose ki level is higher than who. If the thing you most like about shonen manga is seeing mad battles, there's other manga that do that better, but if you want a more rambling, more interesting story, with good art and surprises and friendship and monsters, Kekkaishi is for you.
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