By Yuki Sato
224 pages, black and white
Published by Del Rey
I think Del Rey is trying to corner the market on books starring yokai (Japanese spirits) in English. Late last year they released Yokaiden, and now they’re translating Yuki Sato’s Yokai Doctor. Yokai Doctor is definitely a step in the right direction for books with yokai in them, but even then it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re seeing a little too much sameness between Yokai Doctor and a lot of other releases.
Kotoko’s a high school student whose grandfather was well known for his exorcisms of yokai, a type of spirit that is almost never up to any good. Now, Kotoko pretends that she has that same ability, even though the reality is that all she can do is see them. When a new classmate, Kuro, turns out to not only be able to see yokai but also acts as their doctor, it’s just too good an opportunity for Kotoko to pass up. But will their new partnership be a good or a bad thing for both of them?
Yokai Doctor is the sort of book that sounded at a glance a lot like Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi, with its protagonist who searches out strange spirits and cures those afflicted. In many ways, though, Yokai Doctor is actually the inverse of Mushishi. Here, our lead is helping the spirits themselves instead of the humans being beset by the spirits. And while Mushishi feels like it’s for slightly older readers, Yokai Doctor is squarely aimed at teenagers. As a result we’ve got obsessions with breasts and typical high school hijinks peppering this first volume of Yokai Doctor. It’s not a terribly serious book, although it certainly is much lighter-hearted. My big problem, though, is that so far I’m not entirely warming to either character. In the first half of the book it was Kotoko and her slightly abrasive personality that annoyed me; when she and Kuro finally agreed to work together, I was disappointed because I was hoping that Kotoko would just be a temporary supporting character and the entire series would be all about Kuro.
What’s interesting, though, is that at the halfway point of Yokai Doctor Vol. 1, the book flips around and starts retelling part of the story from the perspective of Kuro instead of Kotoko. It made me wonder if there might have been a slight gap in time between the publishing of the original two chapters and the later ones, and this was a way to catch new readers up. It’s a good technique in storytelling, but with Kuro kicking this new chapter 1 with talking about his love of breasts, I found myself getting slightly irritated with him, too. I don’t quite dislike either of the protagonists, but so far neither of them feel quite strong enough to make me cheer for them. Hopefully, with time, that will come.
I do, however, really like Sato’s art in Yokai Doctor Vol. 1. It’s clean and smooth, and of all of the childish high school art styles that I’ve seen cross my desk over the past decade, Sato’s definitely one of the best. Sato’s real talent starts shining through, though, when drawing the yokai. Sato’s able to hit all forms, shapes, sizes, and levels of scariness with his spirit drawings. Some of adorable and remind me of the cuter creations from The Muppet Show, while others are huge and terrifying. It’s this mixture of art styles that impressed me with Sato; I’d have figured that the comic would go in one direction or the other, but Sato’s ability to change things up is what gives me the most hope for future volumes of Yokai Doctor.
Yokai Doctor Vol. 1 serves almost entirely as introduction, but it certainly brings the characters and situations to life. If Sato can just make the characters slightly more interesting and noteworthy in future volumes, I’ll definitely be interested. Still, there’s enough here to want to read more, and the concept itself is certainly a good one.