While I can’t say that I have a love-hate relationship with shonen manga, I do tend to be a bit critical of it at times. In some instances (Fullmetal Alchemist, One Piece, and Cat Paradise come to mind) the genre can be breath-taking, hilarious, awesome, and heart-rending. I think this has a lot more to do with developing a great set of characters, and essentially allowing them to interact in natural ways. It doesn’t matter if the characters are shamans, alchemists, pirates, demon-fighters, or bakers – if the author can give me awesome characters, I’ll generally love the book. The plot has to go somewhere, but good characters are what make the best manga. The same is true for the opposite side of the coin. Books that have poorly developed characters get left at the bookstore, even if the setting and art are awesome. This seems to be the trend for some of the latest shonen offerings from a variety of publishers. Case in point? Nabari no Ou.
Nabari no Ou introduces us to Miharu, a young boy who has been born with the power of the Shinra Banshou written on his being. He is confronted by his English teacher and fellow classmate, who urge him to join their Nindo club – essentially, a masked form of training for Miharu. Things get a little hairy, and after a fight with the Grey Wolves, a faction of ninja intent on capturing Miharu and extracting the secret art out of him, Miharu, Tobari, Raimei, and Kouichi all start a search to acquire the secret arts of the various Ninja clans so that Miharu can activate the Shinra Banshou and become the Nabari no Ou.
In my review of the first volume, I suggested Nabari no Ou as a good read, saying that “[if] you’re looking for something that isn’t Naruto, this is a good place to start. [Nabari no Ou]’s style and characters make it much different than other ninja manga, and that’s a good thing.” Into the fourth volume, I still have to say that Nabari no Ou is definitely not Naruto. Unfortunately, I may have to revise my comments slightly.
It might have been better if it were Naruto.
The plot of the comic isn’t bad. It’s part ninja, part magic, part supernatural intrigue, and it all flows together in some sort of mindless mishmash that you generally see in action-packed books. Mysterious bad guys, ultimate super powers, striving to be the best – it’s all been done before. So it’s not that hard to see that the plot, while serviceable, is generally unremarkable. The art is great, to a point, as long as you can get over the doe-eyed main character and what the author assumes passes for emotive facial-expressions (generally, all the characters in Nabari no Ou do is stare at things).
The characters are another thing entirely. It seems that Yuhki Kamatani, the author of the series, believes that the best way to develop a character is to envelop them in secrets and slowly peel off layers like an onion. This technique can be pretty effective, if done correctly. The trick is that most stories start half-cut into the onion. We already see a complex character, and the secrets covered up in their most inner layers add to the complexity. Nabari no Ou makes the mistake of starting each character at the papery shell of their personhood, so to speak – where the complexity is completely covered up, and only a sliver of character can be exposed. Miharu, the indifferent. Raimei, the spunky samurai/ninja. Kouichi, the nerdy murderer. Instead of knowing more, and getting a sense of the seriousness of the storyline and the character interactions, we have very little information to work with. What happens is that instead of carrying the story, the characters collapse into it.
Now, there are some exceptions to my generalizations. I find the mysterious, murderous Yoite a compelling anti-hero, and he intrigues me, but he is beset by the same character development issues. In the first four volumes he generally just kills things, and coughs up blood. Well, wait, why do I like this character again?
I enjoy a good shonen bash every now and then, and I can certainly understand why some readers might enjoy the bits of action interspersed with snarky, off-the-wall humor. This is certainly not Naurto, and while I may not like the fox and his 50+ volume epic story, I can’t say that Nabari no Ou is a better comic. It lacks strength of storytelling, but this only readily becomes apparent after two or three volumes.
Bottom line: While Nabari no Ou will initially amuse you, its shoddy character development can’t sustain a complex plot into later volumes.