After reviewing five volumes of Rumiko Takahashi’s absurdist, martial arts, romance comic, Ranma ½, I thought it was finally time to take a look at another Takahashi title, and this one, I believe, is significantly more well known in the U.S.: Inu-Yasha. The story was even picked up, in anime form, by Cartoon Network and ran for what seemed like years as part of the Adult Swim block of more mature animated features. (My older daughter, when she was in high school, was a HUGE Inu-Yasha fan, and she even borrowed my original, Viz, larger format manga collection of volume one to show to some of her friends who had formed an anime / manga club---but she accidentally LOST the book, which I’d had since she was about four years old! I forgave her, but I still have to bring it up every now and then to remind her of the losses one can suffer as a parent---the worst horror of this type happened in 1994, when she was about a year old, and she accidentally dumped an entire glass of grape juice on a fresh stack of comics that I’d just brought home from the comic shop… That one still hurts…) Anyway, this review isn’t about how I’ve suffered, it’s supposed to be about a great comic, which I hadn’t read in at least six of seven years. So let’s get to it!
Rumiko Takahashi – InuYasha Volume 1 (1997/2003)
Where Ranma ½ is primarily played for laughs, and Takahashi had proven herself an absolute master of slapstick, melodrama, and martial arts madness, Inu-Yasha goes in a slightly different direction. I realize that a LOT of people know the story of Inu-Yasha and Kagome already, but for those who don’t, here’s a quick introduction:
This first volume of the story opens with a village under siege. A half-demon, who looks mostly human, aside from his claws and dog-like ears, has stolen a sacred jewel, which he plans to use to become a full demon, but before Inu-Yasha can escape with the prize he’s just stolen, the village priestess, Kikyo, intervenes---firing a magical arrow at the fleeing creature and pinning him to a tree. We quickly learn that Kikyo has been mortally wounded in the battle with Inu-Yasha, and she asks her young sister to burn the sacred jewel along with her body to destroy it and keep any other demons from using it for evil ends.
Compared to Ranma’s adventures, this is a shockingly dark opening, full of real tension, action, and a sense of consequence. This isn’t just somebody getting bonked on the head or random slapstick violence. Kikyo really dies---and her younger sister, Kaede, loses an eye during the battle and never gets it back! (Takahashi doesn’t DWELL on the gore or get particularly graphic with it---but horrible things often happen in this series, and if one were to stop and consider most of them, they could certain become creeped out rather quickly…)
The next sequence in the book brings us to the “present” (or as the text box tells us “Tokyo. 1997.” (p. 13), and we realize that this opening episode has been a tale being told by a grandpa to a young girl, who is only partially paying attention. A sign outside the shrine that the grandpa runs advertises his services: exorcisms, fortune telling, charms, and so on. The girl, Kagome, is utterly uninterested in her grandfather’s tales, and in this scene where we first meet her, she feeds an occult object, a mummified kappa’s hand, that her granddad has just given her to her cat!
In these scenes set in modern day Tokyo, we finally get some of the humor that I’d come to expect from a Takahashi tale, as the interactions between the old priest, swimming in tradition and stories, and his granddaughter, a modern woman, just trying to live her life in the here and now, makes for some great laughs. However, it is at her own peril that Kagome ignores ancient wisdom, as we rather quickly come to learn that she is the reincarnation of the priestess, Kikyo, and that the sacred jewel, that was burned along with Kikyo’s body, has regrown inside of Kagome. Eventually, demonic forces begin to sense the jewel’s power and are drawn to Kagome, hoping to get their claws on the powerful artifact. In fact, as she is looking for her cat, Kagome wanders into the “Bone-Eater’s Well” shrine, and a horrifying creature, half woman and half centipede, bursts from the well, grabs Kagome, and drags her down into the darkness. Kagome is able to fight off the creature’s attack, but when she climbs out of the well, she finds herself not in modern day Tokyo, but in a forest---where she spots a strange young man with dog ears pinned to a tree by an arrow…
Takahashi’s artwork for this series is brilliant. The backgrounds are much more realistic in these pages than in her previous comedy series, and the overall tone is much darker. She still has a mastery of facial expressions, and we see her ability to express fear and loathing and anger, as well as the comedic expressions she’d mastered in her previous work, again using just a few well chosen lines to demonstrate her character's thoughts and moods. In addition to the more human figures, Takahashi also shows a mastery of the ability to create genuinely frightening creatures! A three eyed crow (years before Game of Thrones), animated corpses, and of course the centipede woman are all very creepy and rendered without the slightest sense of irony or ridiculousness. In other words, this book has a dark and EPIC feel to it. The story can be very haunting and unnerving at times, possibly made all the more unsettling because of the occasional jumps back to the modern world, and some humorous interactions with her grandfather, making the trips to the legendary past more creepy by contrast.
The book is also swimming in Japanese cultural heritage. Kappas, kitsunes, and ghost-like creatures are either mentioned or make frequent appearances in this book, and I for one LOVE Japanese folk monsters, like yokai and oni. (For those folks who are unfamiliar with these wonderful creatures, I recommend listening to the MonsterTalk episode in which authors Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt discuss their great book, Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. I will DEFINITELY be reviewing this book…eventually!) In the introduction to InuYasha Volume 1, the series’ American editor, Julie Davis, mentions that much of the story takes place in the “Warring States” era in Japan, from 1482-1588, but more than just being set in the historical past, Takahashi uses the setting to represent what I would call a “Time of Legends,” when magic and ghosts and monsters are just as likely to appear as wolves or traveling samurai. (More like, in all honesty.)
One other point that I want to make, particularly about the word “demon” as it’s used in a book like this---Japanese folk “demons” are NOT the same as Christian demons. In common Christian ideology, demons are the minions of Satan, whose sole purpose is to corrupt and destroy Christians and lead them into Hell… (Although in academic circles even the figure of Satan is not a black and white topic. See Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan or the extremely interesting MonsterTalk interview with biblical scholar, Robert Price, for more info!) In Japanese folklore, however, the “demons” are more like natural forces---creatures that can be dangerous or deadly to humans, but which aren’t necessarily EVIL. They can be harmful or helpful, they can be like tricksters, poking fun at humans, or they can be ferocious beasts, but they aren’t working for a figure, like Satan, who is determined to destroy the human race as part of a cosmic war with a creator god. So when Inu-Yasha says that he is “half-demon,” this means that he is part human and part powerful supernatural force. (In this book we don’t learn much about Inu-Yasha’s history, only that he wants the sacred jewel in order to become more powerful.)
The storytelling in this book is VERY compelling, exceptionally good. It has the feel of a creepy ghost story, along with the action and adventure of a classic fantasy tale. I don’t want to reveal too much of what happens, in case someone who doesn’t already know the story is interested in reading it, but let’s just say, I LOVE this series. The characters are distinctive and interesting. The creepy, folklore laden atmosphere really appeals to me, and the contrast between the humorous and more serious sections of the tale work very well. The first time I read this book I was genuinely shocked at how SERIOUS it was, having just come from reading the frantic humor of Ranma ½, but Takahashi is a brilliant storyteller, and whatever it was that prompted her to try her hand at a fantasy epic, I’m exceedingly glad that she did. As the series develops, it gets more intricate, adding various odd and interesting characters and increasingly darker and more deadly plot points, but even here, in the first 180 pages of the series’ life, Takahashi has created a compelling and exciting story and setting! This is one of my all time favorite manga titles, only really topped by one book, Osamu Tezuka’s Dororo. If you are a fan of fantasy or Japanese folklore or just creepy stories in general, you’ll find a lot to enjoy with Inu-Yasha. It’s a bit gruesome at times, doesn’t shy away from showing blood or killing characters off every now and then, but there is also a solid mixture of humor in the tale to keep it from getting too dark. Overall, it’s a nearly perfect book, in my eyes.
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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