Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Now that he's a member of the Oniwabanshu, Jiro's got to really prove himself – not just to the higher ups, but also to his new teammates, who don't necessarily look kindly on a kid who shares his body with Rago, a Mononoke. But everyone's got their own crosses to bear that will have an impact on Black Torch's missions, especially when Reiji's twin brother Shinji, who was taken over by an evil spirit years ago, shows back up and Rago's got some Mononoke who don't like the idea of his taking a human's side. Things are coming to a head much more quickly than anyone could have foreseen, and how Jiro will come out of it is by no means set in stone.
It's a shame that there's only one more volume of Tsuyoshi Takaki's Black Torch after these volumes, because despite its issues, the story this time is touching on some very interesting issues. Primary among them is the idea that Jiro might not be working for who might strictly be termed the “good guys.” Previously the story allowed us to mostly assume (with some hints of otherwise) that the Oniwabanshu, the secret spy/anti-mononoke organization that everyone assumed disbanded in 1751, was working for the good of Japan. As we get into these volumes, however, particularly volume three, it begins to look a lot more like they're only working for the good of part of Japan – specifically, the human part. The organization has essentially disrupted the balance between human and Mononoke relations in the name of human superiority, and that in turn has led to the mythological creatures of Japan standing up for themselves. Since they're retaliating in kind, however, what's really happened is that the two different groups have entered into a long-running war.
Themes of war and peace certainly aren't foreign concepts to shounen action manga, but Black Torch's approach is a little different. It trades primarily on the idea that it was a deliberate lack of understanding, a fear of the Other, that kicked this fight into action, and that misunderstandings have continued to be spread around in order to fuel it. In other words, the Oniwabanshu has perhaps carefully kept the true origins of human/Mononoke relations a secret in order to make sure that their narrative of spiritual aggression is the accepted one among humans. The Mononoke, for their part, aren't necessarily withholding the information from humans – in fact, they're pretty forthcoming to Jiro – but the spin from the human side is so strong that the mononokes' words start to sound like bitterness at no longer being the objects of human worship.
This makes part of the question how much the high-ranking members of the Oniwabanshu actually know central to resolving the story's rapidly approaching endgame. Given that Jiro's grandfather has resigned, it seems fair to assume that he figured things out and decided that he was done with the organization until his grandson got into trouble, but the more pertinent question is whether or not Shiba and Kusumi have drunk the company Kool-Aid. Kusumi seems much more likely to have bought the whole “evil Mononoke” theory than Shiba, whose actions, and indeed the entire formation of Black Torch as a unit, suggest that he has some skepticism about the Oniwabanshu's mission.
All of this also ties in with one of the story's central themes, that you can't truly know what lies behind the decisions a person makes, even if you were there when they made them. This is best seen with the Reiji/Shinji storyline, where Reiji has assumed one thing about his twin brother for years only to learn that he actually had no idea what was going on. The reveal says a lot not only about the household Reiji and Shinji were raised in, but also about the sort of deep-seated resentment that can fester until it explodes, a direct parallel to how many of the Mononoke feel about their relationship with humans in general. When the Mononoke describe their pasts, they frame it as they had a mutually beneficial relationship with humans: the humans offered them food and prayers and in exchange the Mononoke protected them from natural disasters and sickness. We don't know precisely what changed, but it seems fair to assume that fear is what ultimately turned the tide – and whether that was justified, brought on by a few angry people on either side, or just the result of whispers and rumors, we don't know. That mystery is what makes the whole fight feel, if not quite futile, then at least foolish.
We readers can see this because we're privy to Rago and Jiro's relationship more closely than most of the other characters. Rago is truly upset when he realizes that he might be inadvertently hurting Jiro, and Jiro cares about Rago just as much (if not more) now that he knows he's a Mononoke as when he thought he was just a cat. The way that the two work together shows that humans and Mononoke can make things work between them, something we might be able to see from Shinji as well, albeit in darker form. The solution may be right in front of everybody if only they could bring themselves to see it.
For all of its thematic strengths, Black Torch does suffer from feeling very rote in other respects. None of the characters particularly stand out, seeming largely like retreads of the usual genre stock figures, and some seem to exist just to be antagonistic, such as Kusumi, or to be “cute,” like Usami. Ichika is grossly underused (although her scenes with Roren are very funny) and Shiba has a difficult time being anything beyond “vaguely frustrating superior.” Likewise the art is fairly derivative in places, with clear notes of Attack on Titan, Bleach, and other popular titles standing out. That's not necessarily a detraction, but it never quite feels like Takaki develops his own art style, which is a bit of an issue. There are a few places where the art stands out – a two-page spread in volume four set in the forest and the color poster in that same book are wonderful – but it's not quite enough to make the whole series memorable.
Black Torch's middle three volumes are in the category of “good enough.” It isn't a stand-out series, but it's also a shame to think that it's getting cut off before it has a chance to truly develop its more interesting themes. Hopefully the creator will have the chance to build on what he's learned writing this piece, because as an author he really has a lot of potential that these books almost live up to.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B-
+ Interesting themes, Rago and Jiro have a nice relationship, great cat art
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