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by Rebecca Silverman,

Kemono Jihen

GN 1

Kemono Jihen GN 1

When Detective Inugami is called to a remote rural village to take care of a supernatural problem that's eating livestock, he finds an insular inn where the innkeeper has the care of a young teen known as “Dorotabo.” Dorotabo is mistreated by his aunt and cousin, and Inugami soon figures out that the two issues – the dead animals and the boy – are intertwined. There's more to Dorotabo than most people want to see, and as an expert in the supernatural, Inugami just may have the way to fell two birds with one stone.

Kemono Jihen is translated by Althea and Athena Nibley and lettered by Chris Burgener.


You don't have to be a supernatural expert to figure out that when a boy is called by the derogatory nickname of “Dorotabo” and kept away from school to work in the fields, there's probably something bad going on. That's the situation Inugami, a private detective from Tokyo with a specialty in supernatural problems finds when he arrives in the remote village of Kanoko, and while anyone else might have simply written it off as a Cinderella (or Ash Lad) situation, Inugami knows better. That's because the boy's nickname isn't just something they call him because he hangs out in the mud like his fairy tale predecessors. In Japanese folklore, the dorotabo is a specific yokai, one risen from the mud of fallow rice fields, furious that the land he toiled on in life is now being neglected. Dorotabo aren't particularly dangerous (unless you're in GeGeGe no Kitarō), but they also aren't friendly; they're angry spirits, and hardly a welcome addition to a community. Therefore the boy's nickname isn't just a commentary on how he's the lone worker in the family fields, but one that suggests that the people who gave him that name are malicious and see him as a creepy problem in their community.

It also introduces the premise that the world of Shō Aimoto's supernatural action/mystery series is based on: a combination of actual folklore with in-world creatures. The boy, whose actual name is Kabane, isn't really a dorotabo; instead he's an in-world ghoul known as a “khoular,” which has very tentative ties to Middle Eastern mythology. Later in the book we meet Shiki, who is an Arachne, a spider creature with a name out of Greek mythology and some links to the Japanese yokai tsuchigumo. Inugami himself is a more traditional yokai, a tanuki, and we catch a glimpse of what looks like a kitsune towards the end of the volume, with another character implied to be the actual god Inari rather than just someone with their name. It's an interesting approach to the story's folklore, allowing for a base in the familiar while still providing the creator enough space to really make his own world. While it could drive a folklorist a bit crazy trying to place all of the kemono (the term used to refer to supernatural creatures in the manga), it's also pretty neat from a straight fantasy perspective.

The story itself is a combination of humorous and scary, with a little bit of sad thrown in for good measure. Kabane's backstory is obviously tragic; even without knowing what his aunt is really up to, we can see how mistreated he is and that he's very much internalized the idea that he doesn't matter and is somehow vile and disgusting. Shiki's manufactured air of badassery also hides a sad past, and in his brief statements to Kabane about it we can see that he's carrying a lot of grief around with him. (We don't know much about Akira, the third boy at Inugami's place, yet.) The very fact that Inugami has taken in three young teens speaks to the dark underbelly of the kids' stories, especially if we look at the lengths he goes to in order to take Kabane with him back to Tokyo.

Of course, there may be more to his rescue than a desire to show the kid his butt (in the only case where that's remotely appropriate) and to save him from his horrible family. Kabane has a lifestone around his neck, and while all we know is that this is a very, very rare and special thing, it looks like Inugami and Inari may have some very specific ideas about it. Inugami doesn't seem inclined to take it away from Kabane, but in her one appearance in the volume, Inari lets us know that she has no such qualms while practically radiating menace. Whatever else is going on with Inugami, he does seem to genuinely want to help Kabane. Inari seems to make no such promise, and while that's a lot to hang on a single appearance, she really doesn't make a positive impression with her comments about locking Kabane up.

Aimoto's art is just the right amount of horrifyingly gross when the story calls for it, but be warned: if swarms of bugs are your ick-button, chapter two is going to be a tough one to get through. Part of what really works is the contrast between gross imagery and Kabane's lack of affect, as well as the way that his body functions as a khoular; he's basically immortal and lacks blood, so he can have horrific injuries where chunks of flesh are ripped away and just keep going. Part of his lack of reactions is due to his nature, but Inugami notes that some of it is learned behavior as well, a coping mechanism from his upbringing. That almost makes scenes where he's injured or covered in thousands of bugs more upsetting, because he doesn't even know that he's suffering while we can see it so very plainly. But gross things aside, the art is very easy to read with panels set up particularly well.

If you've already seen the anime adaptation of this series, you know that it's going to be worth your time. (Or, conversely, that it's not for you.) But if this is your first encounter with Kemono Jihen, it's worth checking out. A combination of folklore, fantasy, and horror, it's got a beating heart underneath the grimness and this volume is a solid start to the series.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+

+ Good blend of three genres, Kabane and Shiki are sympathetic while Shiki's still a believable bratty teen. Panels are very easy to read.
Not for bug-sensitive readers, chapters all end a bit abruptly.

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Shō Aimoto
Licensed by: Seven Seas Entertainment

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