Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
When she was seven, Nanoka was the sole survivor of a car wreck when a sinkhole opened up beneath the car she and her parents were traveling in. At the time, Nanoka remembers being pulled from the vehicle and seeing what looked like a shopping street burning, but there's no mention of the fire when she goes back to look up the accident. So when she hears girls in her class discussing ghosts at the location where the accident happens, Nanoka returns to the scene for the first time in years – and somehow finds herself standing on a street in the early twentieth century. She meets a strange young man named Mao, who claims that she's an ayakashi. What really happened when she was seven? And did it leave her something more than human?
MAO is the latest series from manga great Rumiko Takahashi. At first glance it has elements of both of her most recent titles and a few others as a bonus: Mao himself is an exorcist (similarly to RIN-NE) and he's involved with yokai à la Inu Yasha, with whom he may also share an originating time period, although I suspect that it's actually earlier. Meanwhile, heroine Nanoka goes back in time like Kagome while sporting Akane's (Ranma ½) hairstyle. The villain is an animal-based yokai, and that animal is a cat, bringing us a couple more RIN-NE and Inu Yasha references. It is, in many ways, classic Takahashi, which may or may not sit well with readers who would be within their rights to wonder if she's just recycling plots and characters at this point.
That's not entirely fair to say, of course, and there are a lot of very interesting elements here even if we don't apply the rule of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Nanoka is the sole survivor of a car wreck that occurred when a sinkhole opened up underneath her family's car, killing her parents, and – if the implications of the opening pages are to be believed – Nanoka as well, if only for a short while. Nanoka's only memories of that day are seeing what looked like an old-fashioned street burning and a giant monster towering over it all. She's understandably avoided the area in the intervening years (she's now in high school, or possibly late middle school), but upon hearing rumors in class of ghosts at the site, she decides that she shouldn't ignore them. When she returns to the spot where the sinkhole opened up, which is in front of an old shopping arcade, she's whisked away to a shopping street in the year Taisho 12...AKA 1923.
If you know your history, that's the year of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which did, in fact, involve fires like the one she glimpsed as a child, and as far as devastating historic events go, it's a particularly bad one. It's also one that isn't quite as frequently occurring in manga as some other time periods and historical events, so that could be a part of this series' appeal going forward. That the main action of Nanoka's story is going to involve the Great Kanto Earthquake seems like a foregone conclusion, both from her memories and from the introduction of cult-leading "psychic" at the end of the volume, who is predicting something that sounds awfully similar.
Mao is a bit more of a cipher at this point. An exorcist by trade (although quite possibly not by choice), both he and Nanoka may have been cursed by the same yokai, a cat monster named Byoki. In Mao's case, the cat's attempt to take over his life resulted in his immortality, and he's been wandering the earth since what looks like the Heian era, although it could be as late as the Sengoku period. What Byoki did to Nanoka is still unknown, but it looks like his possession of her – if that is indeed what happened – may have not only saved her life after the car accident, but also stuck a little more than his attempted takeover of Mao: Nanoka not only presents to Mao and his not-quite-human helper as “ayakashi,” but she also has some unusual powers involving enhanced physical abilities and yokai-killing blood. (Mao shares that last one.) Mao does spend most of this volume being unknowable, but the implication that he's simply tired after nine hundred years of life, hunting for Byoki to put an end to his immortality (I assume) is one that works, because it does sound exhausting. Eternal life, as Tuck Everlasting taught us, isn't necessarily a gift.
The story's differentiation between yokai and ayakashi is one of the more striking world-building elements, and it would be interesting to know more about it. More typically we see the terms used almost interchangeably in English-language manga and anime, so the idea that yokai are bad and ayakashi are good has some interesting implications, while on the whole feeling less westernized than if they were simply termed “good spirits” and “bad spirits” or “spirits and demons.” At this point that's the only really standout feature of the world, although how Nanoka's time travel works will almost certainly be developed into something more, especially given the uncertain flow of time between the modern world and the past.
As always, Takahashi's art is a strong point of the volume. While she may be throwing back a bit to earlier works for character designs, the art is consistent, detailed, and has a good sense of motion when it's called for. Mao and Nanoka both carry themselves in the Taisho era like people who don't belong, which is particularly clear when we see Nanoka in period-appropriate clothing towards the end of the book, and Mao in general looks removed from anywhere he happens to be, like he's uncomfortable wherever he goes. There are fewer gag elements in the art as well when compared to other Takahashi series, with the only real feature being Nanoka's grandfather's housekeeper, whose name involves the word for “fish” and who looks a little fishlike.
There's no guarantee that MAO won't devolve into another same-old, same-old series from the creator. The warning signs are there in the reused story elements and character designs. But there are enough interesting bits and pieces that we should at least get a few good volumes before that happens.
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B+
+ Interesting time period and world building elements, solid art.
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