We’ve all undoubtedly given it a shot at some point. Although the meaning of “it” varies, it is always “something that works in my favorite story.” The lure of the fantastic is incredibly potent, whether it be putting brushes on your feet and skating around the house like Pippi Longstocking, trying to do a one-handed handstand and landing on your feet like Ryoga in Ranma 12, or using a stand like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. The protagonist of Yji Kaku’s Ayashimon, Maruo, is far better at imitating fiction than the most of us are, though, as where we normally fail, he 100% succeeds.
As conceits go, it’s a deliciously self-aware one that adds a clever novelty to the otherwise fairly well-known supernatural thug story. Maruo frequently makes references to his favorite television shows, like Fist of the North Star, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and Dragon Ball, and Kaku provides plenty of images to support those references (with careful note of copyrights to avoid having to embellish the facts). Maruo may still employ the position to deliver a devastating fist to his opponent’s face even though he is unable to use an energy blast in his Kamehameha. He is in many ways fulfilling his potential.
That covers up the more sinister truth of his past. The very strong suggestion is that Maruo had an abusive father as a child and started idolizing shounen heroes because they could use violence to get out of difficult situations, even if nothing is actually stated or shown. He appears to have arrived to the conclusion that no one was going to save him, therefore he is resolved to save himself. However, when he finally confronts his father, he is disillusioned that the terrifying figure from his youth turned out to be just a guy, and the “victory” ultimately left him feeling hollow. Therefore, Maruo’s journey isn’t only about finding a place to fit in or feeling helpful; it’s also about trying to figure out why he has gone through everything he has. What use is it to be a hero if there are no monsters to defeat?
Fortunately for him, he finds himself at a park when what appears to be a little girl rushes by while being pursued by yakuza. His job search had been going spectacularly and amusingly terribly. It goes without saying that Urara is not at all what she seems. Urara, who is associated with one of Kabukicho’s largest criminal organizations and is seeking to continue on her deceased father’s heritage, is saved from her pursuers by Maruo, who Urara immediately hires as her bodyguard. Urara and the men pursuing her aren’t human, which is the only small element that prevents him from accepting (for people other than him). They are yokai, and the yakuza of Kabukicho are all members of a particular class of yokai known as “Ayashimon.”
It’s common for manga authors to begin their first volumes by claiming that “this manga is full of stuff I like,” but it’s never felt more genuine than in this instance. Before the plot feels like it actually begins, there are a ton of twisted backstories to sift through, to the point where at times it defies comprehension. On the other hand, the idea of “Ayashimon,” apparently a combination of “ayakashi” and “monster” (the word is written without kanji), is intriguing, and Kaku’s choice to make them the underworld’s organized crime is entertaining. It’s vital to keep in mind that Urara is truly in command here; Maruo is only her hired muscle. The plot could be compared to a modern-day version of Helck, which also fights a human against monsters.
But he really enjoys playing the part. Maruo has been searching for a just battle to fight his entire life, and even though he didn’t expect to find one by becoming a yakuza minion, he is just delighted to have a task and a woman to guard that it doesn’t matter. (It helps that damaged Ayashimon bodies can be used to generate cash for manga purchases.) With his enthusiasm for violence and readiness to accept pretty much anything as true, he’s the most reliable character in the narrative, and there’s something particularly endearing about him as a protagonist. The fact that Urara is a bit more of a cipher suggests that this is on purpose; she is trying to play a long game as softly as possible, but she is beginning to realize that the words “subtle” and “Maruo” don’t really fit in the same phrase.
The hole created by the passing of the leader of the Enma family drives practically all of the yakuza activity, and many others are eager to fill it. The end result is a complex web of competing Ayashimon with varied levels of skill. One of the leaders of Enma, Doppo, appears to be positioned as the main antagonist (or at least the first one), and he is suitably evil, disfiguring other Ayashimon in the name of “art.” In Kabukicho, there is also a group of humans tasked with keeping the peace (or anything close to it), and as you can expect, they are all onmyoji. Although some Ayashimon view Urara and Maruo as adversaries, it seems too early to draw that conclusion in their case.
This volume is packed, despite the impression that most of the plot is still being established. That has both a plus and a minus. There is a lot of imaginative world-building occurring, and it largely avoids the dreaded infodump. However, a complicated network of allegiances, authorities, and history are also presented to us, and the art is also quite active. The majority of the time, though, it’s an enjoyable, action-packed, self-aware shounen adventure. It’s worth giving this a shot if any of Yji Kaku’s preferences match your own.