Manga-ka: Youka Nitta
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: February 2010
Synopsis: “Kaname Otonashi is gifted with a super-hearing ability, so much so that he can even hear voices from the “other side”. Having once worked as a top notch detective specializing in Sound Engineering Investigation, Otonashi resigned to work as a private investigator. His partner, Yasuhide, aka Hide, collaborates with the police department to take on unsolved and mysterious cases. Surrounded by a string of mysterious deaths, the police turn to Kaname’s findings to identify suspects…but can Kaname handle the non-stop screaming of the dead?”
Youka Nitta is famous for creating landmark yaoi manga like the popular Embracing Love and The Prime Minister’s Secret Diplomacy. Not knowing anything about Otodama except for the manga-ka when I started reading it, I was expecting more of the same. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Otodama isn’t a yaoi series (or even shounen-ai), but instead a smart police-thriller with supernatural elements. What it does have in common with Nitta’s other work is fantastic art and a gripping story.
Kaname and Hide used to work for the police until an incident made them both decide to leave. The two now do freelance work: Hide as a private detective and Kaname as an audio technician. Hide occasionally relies on Kaname to help him out on cases, putting to use not only his sharp hearing but also his ability to hear the dead.
When the manga starts, a series of bizarre murders have started occurring around Tokyo – young woman are being killed and their bodies hung from signs over busy overpasses. Hide’s older brother, Nagatsuma, is in charge of the police investigation, but they have only a few leads to go on. Meanwhile, Hide takes on a client who is unknowingly a target for the killer, and an old enemy from Kaname’s past gets involved with the case as well.
The manga manages to weave in many themes, plots and characters; the above paragraph only covers the first story, and even then it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Trying to put it all down on paper would make it sound overly complicated, but in the end everything blends together perfectly in a way that makes sense. I liked how very little of the plot twists have to do with convenience or luck: people do things because it’s in their nature, not because the plot requires them too.
The second story continues to keep up the first story’s intricacy. A madman has been setting off bombs over Tokyo, bombs designed not to kill but to deafen anyone caught in the explosion. The killer seems to have some kind of vendetta against the police and is challenging them to step-up their game.
Kaname meanwhile must deal with Shoei Kodama, a disturbed man who also has powers. While Kaname can hear the last thoughts of the dead, Kodama can sense when someone will die in a certain place. This has developed into a fetish for Kodama, and his hobby is taking pictures of dead bodies. One of the more disturbing parts of the manga involves Kaname waking up in a room full of Kodama’s photography and being assailed by the cries of the corpses in the pictures.
Just to throw one more plot element in the mix, a recent hit and run incident in Kaname’s neighbourhood left a child dead. Somehow, all these distinct plot threads tie together to form a multi-layered thriller. There’s also interesting, ongoing sub-plots about office politics within the police and a debate between the Nagatsuma brothers about the merits of being part of a huge organization like the cops versus going it alone like Hide.
While the plot for Otodama is great, there are several things in particular I like about it. I like that Kaname’s powers aren’t ever key to solving a case. Usually, when Kaname hears the voice of a dead person, it ends up being just one more clue rather than the clincher. Instead the focus is on old fashion detective skills: talking to people, gathering clues, and then putting the pieces together. It’s a credit to Nitta that when I went back and re-read parts I picked up on clues that I had missed the first time round despite them being in plain sight. Part of me wonders what the manga would be like if the paranormal aspect was taken out completely. It probably wouldn’t be too different, but it might lose some of its creepy atmosphere.
It’s also interesting to see a manga where sound plays such a key element. It’s not the first manga to place such a prime importance on sound (think of any manga featuring a band, like Ai Yazawa’s Nana) but it’s always interesting to see a silent medium tackle the subject of audio. Otodama does it in an especially interesting way. There’re very little sound effects. Instead the sound gets filtered through the characters and they tell us what they hear and why it’s important. It’s a neat trick that makes the reader dependant on the characters. It makes you think about what it would be like to lose your sense of hearing, to have to rely on other people to tell you what sounds are going on around you. It also nicely mimics how most of the other characters feel when they need to depend on Kaname to use his super-hearing and tell them what’s what.
As mentioned earlier, the series isn’t shounen-ai but it wouldn’t take much imagination to turn Hide and Kaname from friends/roommates/partners into something more. But even without boys’ love connotations they are still interesting characters. Nitta draws really beautiful, solid character designs. Everyone is distinct while still looking like real people. She’s also great at body language. It’s a treat to read a scene where uptight Nagatsuma answers the phone and talks to his brother. While talking to Hide his body language is loose, but once he hangs up he goes straight back to being his straight-laced self. There are little things like this all throughout the manga, extending not only to the main characters but even nameless extras in the background.
Nitta’s brilliance isn’t just confined to the character designs. Her backgrounds don’t just help set the scene, they are beautiful to look at it in themselves. The layouts are fantastic, never falling into a pattern but always interesting.
It’s rare to find a manga like Otodama. It manages to run several plotlines at once without becoming bloated. The paranormal aspects enhance the detective aspects rather than overshadow them, and the writing is smart. In all my praise of this manga, I almost forgot to mention that Digital Manga did a really good job with the translation and touch up work also. If you are looking for an intelligent and dark manga, I can’t push this one enough.