You probably haven’t heard of it.
Being a person who loves reading, but also has struggles with time, depression and ADHD, manga hits a sweet spot for me. Since I can read a graphic novel in about ten minutes, it’s a good way to fill my narrative appetite without having to commit for hours, because you know that novel ain’t gettin’ put down. So, I read manga, like, a lot. I buy manga at the bookstores. I buy it online. I borrow copies from friends and the mobile manga library. When I get done with those and don’t see anything else that catches my interest, I hop online and see what’s popular in Japan that might be fun.
Kids, I’m not saying you should get a degree in Japanese so you can read manga, but learning has its uses.
One of the titles I had the delight of reading through recently is a 17-volume historical fantasy called Sengoku Youko (戦国妖狐, “Warring States Fox Spirit”), written by Satoshi Mizukami. Set in sixteenth-century Japan against a backdrop of both political upheaval and the world of Japanese mythology, Sengoku Youko at first glance feels like a shounen manga setup. The titular youko, Tama, and her half-brother Jinka (she was in love with his adoptive dad, so they call each other siblings, until they fall in love…look, it’s complicated) meet a wandering samurai named Shinsuke. After seeing their prowess in battle against some bandits, Shinsuke decides to travel with them to learn how to become strong. While many a shounen manga would use this as a lead-in to discovering great powers within and supernatural battle abilities, Shinsuke is just a human and has none of that. Thus begins their wanderings across a Japan, where the world of humans and the world of demons often intersect and conflict.
While the series does feature some great, high-powered battles, the story is just as much about its humanity as its action. It starts out comedic. Much fun is made of the initial conflicts between the idealistic Tama, the aloof Jinka, and the average, normal Shinsuke. Shinsuke is not one of the naturally-talented protagonists destined for greatness; he’s an average swordsman at best and can never hold a candle to Jinka (who in addition to being well-trained, can undergo a Saiyan-like transformation into a youko form.)
Some of the demon encounters are whimsical or downright silly, complete with an unfortunate running gag named Tago in the second half. Like many comedy-dramas, the comedy gradually takes backseat to the developing drama and darkness folding around the protagonists. And it comes from all sides–the unfolding war, poverty, man-eating demons, demon-exterminating monks, and Jinka’s possibly dangerous (okay, probably dangerous) desire to give up his humanity and become a youko himself.
Amid all the nationwide and supernatural drama, Shinsuke is the rock of the narration. The fact that he is so normal and that his troubles and fears are often mundane makes him a relatable and understandable view-glass with which to look at a mystical world. He makes friends, struggles against unfairness, sees life and death, and falls into both love and hatred in equal force. All of this is tempering his greatest weapon: not his sword, but his heart. And while he does carry a sword through the end of the series, the heart is the thing he fights with the most.
One of the first to meet that honed “blade” is the protagonist of the second half of the series, Senya. A child with artificial demonic powers, Senya is originally their enemy, but after being saved (literally, this time) by Shinsuke and losing his memories, Senya ends up in his care. Unlike Shinsuke, Senya is someone harnessing incredible supernatural power, and unlike Shinsuke, he does take it into super-powered shounen-style battles. Like Shinsuke, though, his primary journey is about the heart. Power as a weapon is not the driver of his arc, but a look at the ramifications of giving great power to a child. Senya is initially horrified by his great power, and wants to avoid using it in a world that increasingly wants him to. While he does learn how to harness his power for greater effect, the primary point is learning when and how to actually use it.
With Shinsuke in tow as an older, wiser (and occasionally drunken) mentor figure, Senya assembles his own journeying party and sets out to tackle his own enemies: the lingering threads of the first half’s conflict, along with some new antagonists that are unique to his own story. With Senya’s arc having echoes of Shinsuke’s, it feels a bit like series and sequel when sequels are done right, both honoring the original’s themes while introducing new elements. Basically, if you liked the first half, you’re going to love the second half.
Often, the power levels and escalating conflicts and level-ups in a shounen manga can get so extreme they lose sight of the human element. Characterization is cast aside in the favor of battles of different kinds leading up to even more battles (I’m giving you some serious side-eye, Bleach). And that’s not a bad thing; super-powered, over-the-top battles are hella enjoyable by themselves (I’m giving you some serious whole-eye, Gurren Lagann.) But Sengoku Youko, by keeping the powers in check and not focusing as much on fighting, reminds me of why I really love shounen manga (aside from their relatively simple kanji and their putting of ofurigana on everything!).
Sengoku Youko shows off the best of the human heart, the power of friendship, rivals to friends, compromise, and how nothing beats a team working together. Also, Shakugan is freaking adorable.
Caught your attention? The full series is actually available on US/English Amazon!