Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Kind-hearted Jiro Azuma is descended from a family of ninja who once were part of the famed Oniwabanshu. Somehow this has resulted in him being able to talk to animals, a skill he uses to help defeat bullies and to save stranded or starving creatures he encounters. When a crow comes to tell him about an injured cat in the forest, however, he finds himself in over his head: the cat is actually a Mononoke named Rago. When Jiro is gravely injured defending Rago from another Mononoke, the cat fuses with him, bringing Jiro to the attention of a secretive government agency and changing his life forever.
Life very rarely works out precisely as you've planned it, even if your plans aren't much beyond “wake up and go to school.” That's what high schooler Jiro Azuma is about to learn the hard way when he rescues an injured cat in the woods behind his house – the cat, Rago, is actually a Mononoke who merely looks like a cat, and in his zeal to protect Rago, Jiro gets himself as close to dead as you can get. That's because he's inadvertently stumbled upon a world he knew almost nothing about: one that involves ninja, monsters, and secretive government agencies.
What's interesting here is that Jiro had a sort of basic understanding that the world isn't quite as it appears on the surface. His grandfather has been training him in the family brand of ninjutsu since he was a little boy, and he and Grandpa have always been able to talk to animals; in fact, his sole mother figure appears to have been a dog. Both of these things should have basically prepared him for the fact that Mononoke exist alongside shady government organizations, so the real surprise is that all of it is happening to him all at once. That largely explains Jiro's reactions to each new revelation – he's surprised, yes, but neither freaked out nor panicky. It's as if some quiet expectations that he had about the world have simply been confirmed, and now he's just going to deal with them because what else can he do?
That's not to say that he's at all happy about any of this, although he doesn't appear to mind being fused with Rago apart from the hassle that comes from other people. Mostly Jiro is displeased with the way he's being treated by the other humans. Once he's fused with Rago, a spy agency creeps out of the woodwork and begins acting like he's as much an enemy as the human-eating Mononoke they're tasked with hunting. Rago, it turns out, was under their control until recently, and they're mistrustful of his motives. That Rago and Jiro might not share goals and motivations doesn't appear to cross their collective mind; since the two are, for all intents and purposes, now one being, that makes Jiro a potential enemy as well.
No one is more certain of this than Ichika, the girl around Jiro's age who works for the agency. We get some indications that her tragic past has led her to be particularly distrustful of monsters and spirits, and she's largely unwilling to try to see Jiro as anything more than an extension of an evil creature. This does make her a bit annoying as a potential heroine, as she walks a fine line between “understandable” and “totally unfair.” She is beginning to soften up a bit by the end of the volume, but if she falls too hard on the “tsun” side of “tsundere” she could become a detriment to the story in general.
Characterization is the weakest point of this volume, although neither Ichika nor Jiro nor Rago feel like cardboard cutouts. It's more that there's just so much plot that Tsuyoshi Takaki is trying to set up that something has to give, and in this case, it's the character development. We know the basics about each of them – Jiro's determined with a big heart, Ichika is emotionally scarred, Rago has a keen sense of obligation – but beyond that we can't really determine how they'd react in a given situation or even to each other apart from the basics. It's an issue that becomes more pronounced as the book draws to its close, but also one that feels as if it will go away as Takaki gets more story under his belt.
There's almost too much going on here to merit anything getting more than the barest introduction, actually. Takaki's thrown in ninja, historic spy agencies, action, folklore, and magic all at once, and that can be a little overwhelming. That it isn't a total disaster with all of that going on speaks to the potential this series has; while things are crushingly complex, they aren't too difficult to follow once you get past the sheer amount of plot devices being thrown at you. The Rago/Jiro partnership is the best-developed aspect of this volume, with a nice partnership shaping up with the bonus that Takaki draws a pretty cute cat. The fight scenes are decently dynamic as well, so we can see how things are going to work between them in the future as they take on supernatural baddies as modern-day oniwanban members.
Black Torch is doing a lot right off the bat, but it largely works. Takaki's art style has hints of Tite Kubo and a few other familiar Shonen Jump artists, but it doesn't feel like an imitation of any of them, and there's a good flow to the pages. If you're in the mood for a new shounen action series, this is one worth checking out, because once it works out its issues, it could definitely go places.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Nice dynamic between Rago and Jiro, interesting combination of story devices
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