Reviewby Casey Brienza, Aug 2nd 2008
Plagued by nightmares? Head down to the Silver Star Tea House and ask for Hiruko the Baku, the eater of dreams. He will enter your dream and take your nightmare away…but alas, there is no guarantee that you will be free of your problems when you awaken. At the very least, your nightmare will reveal things about yourself that you would rather have kept hidden, and being freed from it may well make things horrifically worse! Hiruko's loyal friends include tea house proprietor Mizuki, whose has a mysterious connection to the Baku, and newcomer Hifumi, a gregarious boarder determined to unveil Hiruko's secrets—and win over the beautiful Mizuki.
Sinister shopkeepers hawking supernatural goods and/or services have become a popular staple of manga. It is a convenient for episodic formatting. Each new customer is a new chapter and plot, and the title can continue for as long as it is popular with the readers and the mangaka can conjure up new ideas. Think Matsuri Akino's Petshop of Horrors or CLAMP's xxxHOLiC. Shin Mashiba's Yumekui Kenbun: Nightmare Inspector (hereafter referred to in this review as “Nightmare Inspector”) continues this venerable tradition of the paranormal, and for a debut manga series, it is pretty darn good.
Its style, in particular, is exemplary. The Taisho Era (circa 1920) is the popular choice for such gothic horror/fantasy stories with a hothouse historical twist, sort of like Japan's answer to the Victorian England of Dracula or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it is, ostensibly, when Nightmare Inspector takes place. Mashiba draws panels with a loving and eminently professional hand that bellies the manga's status as a debut work. Also, the author has an instinct for the scary visual that Panels are all chock-full of detailed architectural details and period costumes that evoke a more genteel era, and the occasional steampunk styling is sure to please fans. Really, the only jarring anachronism is Hiruko, whose character design looks more like something pilfered from a Final Fantasy reject pile than anything else.
Volume two picks up where volume one left off with the second half of the “Facing Mirrors” storyline. In the previous volume, narcissist rich boy Yoshinori requests Hiruko's help finding the owner of the beautiful voice, whose name is Eiko Hojo, he thinks he hears on his telephone. Turns out, however, that he has been talking to himself, and he is actually in love with himself. But now the real Eiko Hojo appears, and she proves to be a humble telephone operator who has in turn fallen in love with Yoshinori and his one-man vocal show. With Hiruko's assistance, she manages to win the him over, despite his narcissism, and soon enough he is coming face to face with his own self-loathing concealed behind the many layers of his self-love. The way that this is represented visually—a figure in the very back of the mirror's infinite images whose head that has been violently scratched out—is one of the creepiest moments of Nightmare Inspector thus far. Anyway, by the end of the story he has lost his wealth, family connections, and social standing. He has even mutilated his face to destroy his beauty! And all of this to prove to Eiko he does not care about himself anymore. The dark irony? She only loved him for his social standing, and now that he doesn't have that anymore, she doesn't love him anymore. His self-sacrifice was for nought.
Two subsequent stories in volume two draw upon Japan's animistic tradition to introduce customers that are not human. In “Night Sound,” the spirit of a black cat is haunted by the sound of (what she believes to be) her beloved owner hammering away forever at her coffin. And in “Kagome,” a humble pillar is the only witness to an elderly gardener's tragic death. A third story called “Painting,” which is comprised of two chapters, introduces The Delirium and its proprietors, an amicable man in eyeglasses who has a mysterious relationship to Hiruko and his spunky young assistant. They, apparently, traffic in madness in the way that the Silver Star Tea House traffics in dreams. The story in question revolves around a painter and his beloved. The girl, mourning his seeming loss to war, wishes herself into the painting of himself that he left for her, so that they can be together forever. The painter, who was not actually dead, comes to grips with her loss by promising to draw an entire life lived for the two of them in the painting.
Arguably the most important story of volume two involves Hiruko and Mizuki's back story, which reveals how the Baku took over her brother's body and then later on that of an unknown boy in The Delirium. But while it loosely connects the main actors together, it explains hardly anything of substance. And, unfortunately, volume three takes the overarching plot no further, returning the manga to a series of one-off episodes that, disappointingly, become less convincing and affective as the volume progresses.
Stories in the third volume include “Continuance,” about a thief whose getaway plan gets caught up in a snag when an earthquake hits and “Voice,” about an actor whose loss of self seems to be causing a loss of voice. The strongest story of the lot comes in the middle and features two lovers in denial about how their elopement was foiled. There is an especially disturbing moment when it is revealed that the “charm” the boy said he hung from the tree for good luck is actually his own dead body. However, “The Wall” is not as good as the stories in previous volumes, and there is a worrying downward trend as volume three progresses. The final two stories, “Writing” and “Masks,” are among the weakest thus far, and the latter especially, while capitalizing on Mashiba's penchant for mutilated faces, really would have required more pages to have been a narrative success. The final bonus chapter, which riffs on the characters' tastes in interior decorating, hits an all-time lowbrow comedy low. Hopefully, this smart and scary series will pick back up in subsequent volumes; it would be a terrible shame if such deliciously piercing, late-night plot chills devolved into lukewarm stabs at high seriousness.
Overall : A-
Story : B+
Art : A
+ Deliciously dark, atmospheric series with attractive art and some genuinely creepy plotlines.
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