Yuhki Kamatani's Nabari no Ou is an engrossing take on the whole culture of battling "ninja clans", thanks to strong characterizations and a gripping art style, both of which compensate for somewhat erratic world-building.
Just to recap the general plot of Narbari no Ou, I shamefully quote from my review of volume 1:
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 heroics. He's a major smart ass, is incredibly lackadaisical 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.
Volume 2 shows that Miharu certainly has the makings of a hero within him. Or at least a deeply hidden desire to be heroic that ultimately may be his undoing. After a terrible attack -- assault, really -- perpetrated upon him and his fellow comrades by a ninja from another clan, Miharu comes face to face with the undeniable fact that his existence causes others pain. As long as he exists, there is a power -- sealed within him, still untapped -- in the world that simply should not be. At the end of volume 1, Miharu's little band of brothers comes up against Yoite, a rather terrifying young man who can cause others pain as easily as he can snap his fingers. And, of course, he's after the hidden power within Miharu.
Yoite's path of destruction is both somehow casual and devastating as he forces Miharu to experience his true powerlessness as a ninja. Miharu almost loses an eye and can only sit and watch while Yoite practically crushes the skull of his teacher / protector, (another great character in this manga I really love). In the aftermath of this terrible experience -- the group is just barely saved by the head of another ninja clan -- Miharu continues to dissociate from his own life in order to not feel pain, but also to not cause others pain. His decision to withdrawal from his close circle of companions in this volume is less about emotional cowardice and perhaps more about sheer survival. In short, Miharu's dilemma breaks my heart and makes this title a surprisingly compelling psychological drama.
Kamatani's characters are well-developed as people but most significantly they are interesting individuals. They have well-developed psychologies that you can see constantly working beneath the surface and influencing their behavior and attitudes. The art remains a real treat, with starkly beautiful contrasts between black and white spaces on the page. Once again, the art and dark psychological underpinnings of the narrative gives the title a noir-ish feel, supported by the moral ambiguity the characters face in their decision to protect something which perhaps should not be protected at all.
Review copy provided by Yen Press.