I really, really thought I was done with manga about ninjas. Then Nabari No Ou, by Yuhki Kamatani, comes along and it is dark, and funny, and kind of messed up, which I really like. Lesson of the day: I guess I was super wrong about being done with ninja manga.
Nabari No Ou (or "King of the Hidden World") is not about a shonen hero who wants to get stronger and protect people and yadda, yadda, orange-jumpsuit, yadda, sealed nine-tailed fox, yadda, yadda and so forth, but a modern day young man who has unfortunately inherited a great power known as "Shinra Banshou," which allows someone with the requisite skills to control "all things in creation." Middle schooler Miharu Rokujou is an unlikely candidate for ninja-hood as well as any form of traditional heroicism. He's a major smart ass, is incredibly lacksidasical about life in general, and has no interest in anything in particular. Yet he's thrust into dangerous situations because sealed within him is the great potential for power -- which can be used for good or for ill -- and there are lot of pretty bad folks who have decided to take it. Using whatever means necessary, of course.
Miharu, who wants nothing to do with ninja, finds that if his own life is in danger than it is likely so are the lives of the people sent to protect him -- particularly his sensei and sworn protector, Kumohira, classmate and not-so-close chum, Aizawa, and Raimei, a visiting ninja who can't believe that small, delicate-looking Miharu of all people has any abilities as a ninja. Kumohira, a skilled ninja in his own right, seems driven to protect Miharu not only out of a sense of duty but possibly because he failed to prevent the violent deaths of Miharu's parents. In response, Miharu is described as the kind of person whose "greatest misfortune to have someone cry over him when he dies." And here we have the crucial emotional element that makes Nabari No Ou so engrossing -- Miharu would probably rather die himself than have other people get hurt trying to help him. In spite of his desire to live as dull a life as possible, and keep working in his grandmother's okonomiyaki shop, he has three people around him who would gladly sacrifice their lives to keep him safe and by the end of the first volume they are all incredibly close to having to do just that.
Miharu is described as "a little devil" in the book, and his personality is quite prickly but for good reason -- would you want the people closest to you to die trying to protect you? After a while, it seems better to just not be close to people. However, Miharu really is quite an *amusing* little devil, and for all his carefully cultivated disinterest in life, you sense he actually has a very strong sense of conscience that drives him. By the end of the first volume, everyone is tested by powerful and dangerous foes, who can kill as easily as they can trample a flower and can do the former with as little consideration as they do the later.
I loved how this book moved from Miharu's smart aleck humor to moments of high drama and intensity. No matter how much Miharu tries to distance himself from the world, his very body has betrayed his intentions and thrust him into the "hidden world" of ninja, a place where danger and death lies beneath the world of the everyday. The art is very attractive, with lots of strong black and white compositions and very little use of gray tones. Some panels are a little cluttered but Kamatani's character work is shockingly lovely even when violence, grief and pain mars the characters' expressions.
Review Copy Provided by Yen Press.