Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Descendants of Darkness
Volume 1 (manga)
In this bureaucratic modern world, matters of afterlife and death are handled by the Ministry of Hades. Although most deaths are routine, wayward souls occasionally wander the earth not realizing they are dead--and that's when the Summons Department steps in to retrieve these souls. Veteran slacker Asato Tsuzuki is a shinigami (guardian of death) for the Kyushu division of the Summons Department, which means low-grade work and low-grade pay. In the introductory chapter, he teams up with rookie Asuka to help out a girl who has lost the will to live. After that quick assignment, Tsuzuki gets paired with the young yet powerful Hisoka as they investigate a string of "vampire murders" in Nagasaki. Figuring out the culprit turns out to be pretty easy--but the true motivation for the murders lies tangled within the roots of Hisoka's dark past.
Often mentioned in the same breath as Fake and Gravitation, Descendants of Darkness (also known as Yami no Matsuei) is that kind of series, you know, nudge nudge wink wink, where perfectly groomed young males cast meaningful glances at each other. Despite its reputation as a gateway drug into shounen-ai and yaoi, Descendants of Darkness focuses quite a bit more on the story than the male-male character interactions. That's a shame, though, because the story isn't nearly as well-executed as the soft-lined artwork with its pretty boys and flowery backgrounds.
The main conceit of Descendants of Darkness--that the land of the dead is run by an organization similar to a police department--has great potential for blending the genres of crime/mystery drama with horror and the supernatural. Unfortunately, the results in the first manga volume turn out to be generic cop investigation stories, with spiritual powers being only a surface element. Imagine replacing Tsuzuki's fuda (those rectangular paper charms) with guns and making the Ministry of Hades a police station; though it alters the logistics of some scenes, the stories remain essentially the same. The main story about the vampire murders, for example, is basically a serial killer case. While these mystery capers provide a solid basis to work with, the motives and storyline presented are so predictable that the only suspense left is whether Tsuzuki and Hisoka will say something vaguely suggestive to each other. And without suspense, there's little else in the story to keep the reader turning the page.
Those who come to this manga looking for more of the "hot guy on the cover," however, will have plenty of reasons to keep the pages turning. Tsuzuki's devil-may-care personality is a refreshing counterpoint to a world that ought to be drowning in angst. Meanwhile, his younger partner has a tortured past that puts Tsuzuki's attitude in perspective. If there ever was such a thing as dark fluff, this is it--a carefree, joke-cracking main character ("This isn't a yaoi comic!" he says in one aside) set against background themes of death and the selfishness of humans. There's potential for some great interpersonal dynamics here, but Yoko Matsushita prefers to tease us by having the boys mutter something to each other and then dive back into the investigation. Sure, they won't be making out anytime soon, but it's the possibility of such that keeps readers interested in these characters.
Of course, the guys wouldn't be nearly as interesting if they weren't gorgeous to start with. The character designs in this manga are typical fare for shoujo, with intense broody eyes and sleek hair dominating. The backgrounds rely a little too much on textures and tones; this is fine during conversations but it undermines the sense of location in action scenes. However, the weakest part of the artwork is the layout--Matsushita can draw pretty pictures just fine, but she lacks the craftsmanship to place them on the page. The scattershot, irregularly shaped panels disrupt the flow of reading rather than create a dynamic sequence from one panel to the next. This flow is also hampered by the ambiguously placed speech bubbles, not to mention the lines of internal monologue that keep interrupting them. From a visual standpoint, Descendants of Darkness is gracefully drawn but stumbles in trying to tell the story.
Viz's translated dialogue makes for smooth reading, with a conversational style and the occasional clever quip. Sadly, the dialogue isn't as enjoyable as it could be for the visual reasons mentioned above. The sound effects are all changed to English in the artwork, eliminating any traces of Japanese, but this results in some rather goofy "sounds" like "attack," "defend," "leap" and "land." Admittedly, the Japanese lexicon of comic book sound effects is more varied than the American one, but translating sounds into verbs is rather clunky compared to simply substituting an onomatopoeic word. A better solution--already adopted by some publishers--is to provide a translation in small print next to the Japanese sound effects. Certainly it would save the trouble of editing every single effect.
Since this is only the beginning of Descendants of Darkness, there's always the hope that the manga improves as it plunges further into the story. Tsuzuki and Hisoka ought to spend more time talking to each other (and comforting each other) about their troubles, but in this first volume they don't; the premise of the manga could yield some intriguing supernatural-detective exploits, but here it doesn't. There's also the issue of the directionally confused panel layouts, which could easily be resolved by the manga-ka getting some more practice. Ultimately, Descendants of Darkness is lacking in some departments, but with a little brushing up, it could become an adventurous and possibly even romantic tour into the land of the dead.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B
+ Unusual yet effective combination of dark themes and fluffy hints of boy's-love
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