Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 18th 2008
Ghost Slayers Ayashi
In 19th-century Edo, a task force misleadingly named "The Office of Barbarian Knowledge Enforcement" is committed to hunting down youi, monsters born from the malevolent forces of nature. Among the members of the task force is Ryûdô Yukiatsu, a middle-aged drifter with the unusual ability to see and manipulate "ayagami" characters that give him the spiritual weapons to destroy youi. When a village boy claims that a mountain god is after him, Yuki wonders if a youi might be at work, and eventually discovers is a terrible secret about the boy's hometown. Later on, a much more dangerous problem surfaces when a murderous swordsman claims to be possessed by a supernatural creature, and only Yuki and his comrades can stop the rampage.
If there was ever a need for a supernatural-action series that combined Edo-period Japan with kanji etymology, that need has finally been met in Ghost Slayers Ayashi. But don't be fooled into thinking this is one of those "Learn Japanese while reading comics!" atrocities—the story is really all about historical action and adventure, with the language element serving mostly as a clever flourish. But what a flourish it is, bringing the concept of the pictogram to its full realization; grand swordfights and manifestations of magic are all results of the mere "power of words." There's just one finicky little issue about all this: how do we know it's not going to end up as yet another repetitive spirit-hunting affair?
From the early chapters, it would seem that things don't look very promising. The first half of the volume, which covers the mountain god storyline, travels a bumpy road before getting into the flow of the story—the first couple of chapters seem very self-conscious in trying to establish the setting, with references to all sorts of historical and societal details that in the end don't matter much. Even the introduction of Yuki and the rest of the youi-hunting squad stumbles in trying to present the characters and their personalities. Only when the focus shifts toward the troubled little boy and his mountain god problem does the story really gain a sense of direction, and it rides that momentum all the way into Yuki's confrontation with the beast. Of course, uncovering a disturbing secret about a mountain village along the way doesn't hurt, either—part action, part drama, this story manages to pull itself together in the home stretch.
If those were series-launch jitters, then it's not surprising that the next tale is more self-assured from the outset. "Mermaid" is quick to establish its folktale roots—the familiar legend about becoming immortal after eating mermaid flesh—and then twists it into a suspenseful (if also violent) mystery where Yuki must perform some unlikely surgery to defeat his foe. This set of chapters flows so efficiently, blending action, mystery, drama and just a hint of comedy, that it's only after the thrill wears off that one starts to notice the flaws: Yuki's supporting cast is still just a set of faces and names, and the mermaid arc follows the same monster-slaying formula as the mountain god story (not to mention the formula of dozens of other similarly-themed series). Of course, with just two complete adventures so far, it's unfair to call it repetitive, but we'll find out by Volumes 2 and 3, won't we?
All right, so the storyline comes with a caveat, but there are no such reservations to be had about the art. It may not be as gritty and stylish as the samurai classics of Koike and Kojima, but the scratchy, heavily hatched linework isn't too far off from that style—a refreshingly honest nod to the past. If that's not enough, the artwork also pays homage to an even more distant era, as elements of traditional Japanese art swirl in and out of the backgrounds. Like the storytelling, however, it takes a while for the artistic style to establish itself, and the early chapters really overdo it with bland gray tones before letting the pen and ink speak for themselves. Once they do, however, the results are stunning—the battle against the mountain god, in particular, is beautifully rendered and epic in scale, with well-spaced layouts allowing plenty of room for the action. With such artistic ambition, only the character designs remain bound to the constraints of the original anime, and somehow even those are rendered in a style that's true to the manga while also being true to Studio BONES.
As a series that blends its action-adventure core with other genres, there's a careful balance that has to be struck with the dialogue—some scenes are heavy with text, while others let the swords do the talking. Fortunately, the translation is written with just the right level of flair: the characters can be downright eloquent when discussing mysterious and dramatic matters, but they're not past a little joking around either. Sound effects are left in the art as-is, with translations placed alongside them in a matching typeface. Then there's the kanji factor, of course: when one of the key plot elements is all about the interpretation of Japanese characters, it's only to be expected that the glossary goes into detail about the ayagami that feature in each story. Other cultural elements are also covered thoroughly in the back; between that and the glossy color page at the front, it's clear that this has been translated and published with care.
So, even though one of this series' distinguishing features is the use of written language as a spiritual power, it's really the action-packed swordplay and centuries-spanning visual style that make it succeed. It takes some struggle to achieve that success, though, as the early chapters reveal an artist still trying to figure out how to proceed with the story, as well as deciding on just how to put pen to paper. Once things get rolling, though, it's as thrilling and visceral as any historical saga where the heroes don't use the power of kanji to defeat the bad guys. Is the monster-slaying formula too repetitive and predictable? That's a problem for the next couple of volumes to deal with. What this first one does, though, is provide some exciting, hot-blooded 19th-century entertainment.
Overall : B
Story : C
Art : B+
+ Blends fast-paced swordplay and suspenseful drama to form a gripping, visually striking action series.
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