Whether you’re a fan of video games, television, or comics, odds are you’ve heard buzz surrounding Yo-Kai Watch, the latest Japanese franchise to take off around the globe. At the very least, you’ve probably seen some clickbait-y links hailing it as “the next Pokémon.” Curious about the next generation of mon adventures? Desensitized to the old “the next Pokémon” label and regarding the franchise with skepticism? A little bit of both? Understandable.
To be fair, most coverage I’ve read on Yo-Kai leading up to the megalaunch of its four-pronged attack on North American audiences (video games, anime, manga, and toy line) was quick to establish that though there are elements in common between the adventures-with-mons premises of Pokémon and Yo-Kai, that’s about where the similarities end. Clickbait, I tell you!
Pretty much every Japanese hit series since the late 90s that could appeal to the under-13 crowd has been called “the next Pokémon,” in the same vein that every fantasy book series for middle school and young adult readers gets the “next Harry Potter” label. It’s a marketing technique, yes, and perhaps a hopeful premonition that a series in which industry professionals see potential will receive fans’ favor as well.
The first piece of the Yo-Kai puzzle to fall into place was actually the manga. There are a few tie-in titles publishing in Japan right now, but the first series about male player character Nate (Keita), which mangaka Noriyuki Konishi writes and draws under guidance from LEVEL-5 (the company behind the games and launching the franchise), began serialization in Japan on December 15, 2012, in CoroCoro Comic. Also known for publishing manga tie-ins for franchises such as Pokémon and Inazuma Eleven (another LEVEL-5 title), CoroCoro Comic’s primary demographic is younger children. Konishi’s Yo-Kai title has received high praise, winning the 38th Kodansha Manga Award in the Best Children’s Manga category in 2014 and the 60th Shogakukan Manga Award in 2015, as well as clocking in at number ten on the 2014 top ten list of highest-selling manga in Japan.
North American fans will also be able to collect Konishi’s manga, as Viz has licensed the title under its Perfect Square imprint, as announced in April of 2015. Perfect Square, much like CoroCoro Comic, is largely intended for a demographic younger than the Shonen Jump crowd and publishes a number of “All Ages” (G-rated) tie-ins to popular franchises. After a two-book launch on November 3, 2015, Yo-Kai Watch will pick up with volume three in January and continue to publish every other month, an aggressive schedule considering there are only eight volumes currently available in Japan. Interestingly, the series is not currently available in digital format, only in paperback.
In Viz Media’s press release, Senior Editor Joel Enos bubbled with excitement for the “fun, kid-friendly, character-driven” series and said the San Francisco-based office is “thrilled to expand the scope of this dynamic property.” The marketing and publicity connected to the manga have been front-and-center as well. Just a few weeks ago, participating American comic book shops offered free comic samples as part of Halloween ComicFest 2015; spotlighted manga picks included excerpts from horror manga icons Shigeru Mizuki and Junji Ito and a sneak peek of Yo-Kai.
The first two volumes introduce us to Nate Adams, an “ordinary elementary school student,” as he reminds the reader every chapter. One day, he comes across a mysterious capsule machine, but instead of a toy prize, out pops Whisper, the ghostly mascot character who appoints himself Nate’s butler. Whisper is actually a yo-kai, a spirit most humans can’t see. He gifts Nate a magical watch that helps him to see yo-kai, and as Nate meets the various yo-kai and helps them with their problems, they become his friends and offer him coins that will summon them to his aid if he’s in trouble.
So far, the plot follows a pretty standard pattern. Nate encounters strange behavior or phenomena at school or in town, and discovers it to be the work of a yo-kai. Whisper and Jibunyan, the unlucky cat yo-kai who serves as the second mascot character, contribute a page or two of making-it-worse-by-trying-to-help shenanigans, and then Nate solves the yo-kai’s problems and befriends them by chapter’s end. The stories are episodic, but the goofy humor translates well for a young audience, so the title should succeed with kids who are new to the world of manga and/or fans of other parts of the franchise. It’s also a good pick for families who geek together, since it combines zany adventures with positive lessons and usually manages not to come off too preachy.
The names of the yo-kai in the original text relied heavily on wordplay and puns that wouldn’t translate as well into English. To accommodate this, the translation team created its own punny names to keep the, if you will, spirit of the jokes alive. For example, Honobōno and Donyorinne (names drawn from the Japanese words for “heartwarming” and “dull”) become Happierre and Dismarelda, adorable portmanteaus of their powers (making people happy and sad, respectively) and names that give them that extra boost of characterization. Jibanyan (a mashup of Jibakurei, translated as “residual haunting,” and the Japanese onomatopoeia of a cat’s meow, nyan) retains his name, likely due to his prominence in marketing as a mascot (like Pikachu and Monokuma). Whisper also remains unchanged, as his Japanese name was in English. Protagonist Nate Adams was originally Keita Amano, and the rest of the human characters also have Americanized names. This coincides with the names given to characters in both the game and anime localizations as well.
On one hand, having a series meant for younger audiences opt for Western equivalents or names is nothing new. These changes have ranged from tweaking details (Digimon’s choice to nickname their kids, i.e., Taichi “Tai” Kamiya, while still acknowledging that the characters are Japanese and live in the suburbs of Tokyo), to removing any and all Japanese references (“jelly-filled doughnuts”). Nowadays it’s rare to see dub name changes outside of series targeted at younger audiences, and these changes are usually implemented to make the series more accessible for Western children. Where Yo-Kai’s naming conventions are so punny, the localization’s choice to adapt these jokes make perfect sense.
Changing Keita to Nate is more blatant Americanization, though there are some fun details to pick out if name origins are of interest to you. Keita means “a great blessing” and can also be interpreted as “this child is a gift,” which the protagonist is to the yo-kai he befriends. Nate, a variation of the Hebrew Nathaniel, means “gift of God,” a similar meaning, but going with the nickname tones down the religious aspect. Nate also sounds not only like Keita but the English word “mate,” slang for “friend.” The intention stays the same, only translated to a Western version that would be more common and familiar for kids reading the manga in English.
For fans of the game and anime in which she appears, the female player character is adapted similarly. Her Japanese name Fumiko can mean “beautiful child” or “little friend,” while Katie, a variation or nickname of Katherine, means “pure.” Just for bonus fun fact points, Katherine has been debated as a variation itself of Hecate, the Greek goddess of ghosts and magic. Full points for the Yo-Kai localization team!
Yo-Kai creates a few snags on itself where the premise revolves around Japanese culture and concepts. Yōkai are spirits particular to Japanese folklore, after all, and some of the characters Nate and Whisper encounter draw heavily from Japanese culture and values and get a little lost in translation. There is a chapter that takes place in a public bathhouse, common in Japan and unheard of in the west. One yo-kai turns kids into delinquents, which Japanese audiences would recognize from the visual cues (pompadours, long coats, and motorbikes), but look out of place to Western readers (the translation goes with “bad boy,” though that isn’t quite exact). Another yo-kai is the vengeful spirit of uneaten New Year’s rice cakes. I did find it interesting that this character’s translated name kept its nod to the Japanese term for “rice cake,” going from Chikaramochi (mashup of “strong man” and mochi/“rice cake”) to Mochismo (mashup of mochi and “machismo”). Very creative!
Referring to Yo-Kai as “the next Pokémon” is a disservice to the franchise. It undermines the elements that make the series unique and invites prospective fans, Pokémon trainers or otherwise, to dismiss Yo-Kai as an overconfident whippersnapper without giving it a shot. Besides that, if the creative team behind Yo-Kai can’t stop talking about Pokémon, then Yo-Kai is never going to step out of its shadow. Who needs that pressure?
Do I think Yo-Kai is a series to Watch? (I waited this whole article to title-drop that pun, let me have my moment.) Yes. The manga is already a lot of fun, and I hope that it picks up an overarcing plot to keep Nate’s adventure going strong. The first few volumes of the manga have me interested in checking out the other parts of the franchise, too! I look forward to seeing what Yo-Kai does next and how it fares with Western audiences.