Adachitoka (mangaka); Alethea Nibley & Athena Nibley (translation); Lys Blakeslee (lettering)
Kodansha, September 2014-April 2015
Note: this essay contains mild spoilers; review copies provided by Kodansha.
You’ve got a sassy small god who wants to be a big god. You’ve got a girl who sometimes has a catlike tail. You’ve got a “bad boy” teenage ghost who turns into a weapon. That, right there, is Noragami.
Yato may be a battle god, but he’s not doing so well in 21st century Japan. In fact, he barely has two five-yen coins to rub together, let alone enough scratch to build the temple he dreams of. Without a temple and without followers, Yato has to get by through helping random people with their esoteric troubles. How do they find out about him, you ask? The same way anyone finds a service: the phone book, posters about town, and numbers scratched into bathroom stall dividers.
As if all that weren’t humbling enough—after all, OTHER gods are doing just fine, thank you very much, with their grand temples and palatial homes and legions of followers—Yato can’t seem to keep good help around. And by help, I mean weapons. Weapons who used to be ghosts and have been made into what’s known as a shinki: a sentient partner/tool that a god wields for various purposes, often against demonic ayakashi that prey upon humans. Maybe it’s Yato’s less-than-charming personality, or his brash attitude, or his snap judgments and lack of empathy … yeah, that’s probably why no one wants to work with him or worship him.
Fortunately for Yato, and rather unfortunately for her, a girl named Iki Hiyori gets mixed up with him when she attempts to save him from being hit by a truck. She succeeds—well, he doesn’t get hit, but he wouldn’t have anyway—only to end up in its path herself. The accident knocks loose her spirit, though, and suddenly she can leave her body behind and kick some ayakashi ass using her best pro wrestling moves. There are down sides, though: she finds herself rescuing and helping cranky Yato, and her friends and family think she has narcolepsy.
And then there’s Yukiné, aka Yuki, a traumatized, angry, sulky, delinquent teenage ghost who unceremoniously becomes Yato’s newest (and only, after his previous one quit) shinki in the middle of a heated battle with a particularly grotesque ayakashi. And although he becomes an amazingly sharp katana—you don’t have to be Freud to read into that—Yuki proves to be an enormous amount of trouble for Yato. You see, the sins of the shinki are visited upon the god … or something like that. The upshot is that Yuki’s bad little habits, such as stealing, lying, and ogling Hiyori, are a literal pain in the neck for his master that could end up destroying them both.
Noragami has a lot of the elements that usually reel me in. Cool antihero with a secretly soft heart? Check. (Whoops, did I spoil that? Yes, Yato’s more likable than you’d first think.) Mythological references? Check! A girl with a cat tail? Check. (Okay, I’ll admit it: when I was young, I wanted a cat tail of my own, so there. However, as you may know, manga does not always treat catgirls well, so cat-tailed girls are also a flashing yellow caution light.) Female battle god with a whip riding a lion? Check, check, check.
Here’s what I like about Noragami. First, although it’s treated as a guilty secret, Hiyori LOVES PRO WRESTLING. In fact, she’s obsessed with it, and she uses wrestling moves to beat up ayakashi when even Yato’s at a loss. That’s just awesome. Second, I really like Yato. He puts on a dislikable guise, but he shows that he cares through small actions. He may not seem sympathetic, but he’ll make the hard decisions that he believes are in the best interest of those he’s helping. Now, his arrogance means that these decisions are often made and executed without the consent of others, but … well, I’m hopeful that he’ll grow in that regard.
And you know, the volumes are sexy. The interior art is good, and although the mashed up action scenes with gross ayakashi aren’t really my thing, they’re not poorly executed and I imagine others will dig them more than I do. However, there’s something about the brightly colored, slightly textured matte covers that just makes me want to cradle them and keep reading; I’m tactile like that. You’ve got my number with your book design, Kodansha!
All that being said, I do have some critiques. Over four volumes, the character development is pretty minimal. A lot of time is spent setting up action that will seemingly happen later. Hiyomi doesn’t really grow at all, in spite of gaining cool spirit-walking abilities and becoming a half-ayakashi. Yato’s adversaries are revealed and his past is hinted at alluringly, but that’s about it. (I want more! What did he do to make such powerful enemies? Why do I have to wait so long to find out?)
Most of the story so far is spent on Yuki and, frankly, it’s hard to connect with him. Is he traumatized? Yes, I can absolutely believe dying would do that to a person, and that explains a lot of his behavior—but there’s not enough context for what happened to him, nor are enough details given for him to become a three-dimensional character. Instead, he comes across as a two-dimensional selfish brat, and Yato seems foolish for keeping him on. When the breakthrough happens, it’s so fast that it seems canned, which means I don’t even like the “reformed” Yuki.
And, oh yes, the so-called “fan service.” And by that I mean: panels that frame panties and boobs, jokes that denigrate female characters, and plot devices that put women in pre-made societal boxes. I’ve been reading manga and watching anime for a long time now, and for most of that time I just chalked these kinds of things up to the medium. In fact, it’s so common that I don’t always catch it; I habitually ignore those moments of discomfort and anxiety that crop up when a female is treated like a sex object or when the artist tosses in a sexy pose or gratuitous image of cleavage for apparently no reason (other than titillation, I suppose).
Noragami really isn’t so bad as far as fan service goes. On a scale of one to ten, it’s probably a four. Maybe a three. The raunchy jokes are there, as are the assumptions that someday Hiyori will just give all this up to become a housewife. And you’re not likely to forget that there’s bare butt cheek under those ladies’ short skirts. However, it’s no “Night Shift Nurses” or Dragon Half or even Tenchi Muyo. You might think I’m being hard on Noragami creator Adachitoka for little reason when there are so many other, far worse “offenders.”
Here’s the thing: I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, often. I tell my more analytical friends to shut it and not ruin my precious illusions. Dragons? Demons? Magic? Fairies? Gods? Cyborgs? Giant robots? Aliens? I don’t care if dragon flight is physically impossible. Magic doesn’t need to be practical or real! Science fiction is fiction, fantasy is fantasy, and I like to imagine things. What I’m not willing to do anymore is suspend my disgust. I’m tired of it, and, frankly, it sucks when derogatory portrayals of or remarks toward women vault me out of an otherwise fun story.