Hyouge Mono is one of those books that I feel like I should really like, but just am not into. I even forced myself to read the whole of the first book in the hopes that it was just off to a slow start for me. (After all, Monster didn’t grab me right away, but turned into one of my favourite series. I have slow starts sometimes.) I mean, it has great art, a silly/interesting story and backstage shenanigans, plus over-the-top expressive faces, and we all know how much I love that kind of thing. Plus, this series won the 2010 Tezuka Prize, among other prizes, and they’ve already turned it into an anime. And yet…
It’s not that I hated it. There is actually a lot to recommend this series (up to Book 14 now). I love the cover design, very reminiscent of an old Blue Note LP cover. And the power of this mustard-coloured cover was enough to get me to buy the book, so kudos to whoever designed it. (Probably the author himself, given that his author picture is also set up like an old LP cover.) The English-captioned portraits on the back were very helpful when reading since I kept forgetting how to pronounce everyone’s names, and Yamada only offers pronunciation help the first time a character appears in a chapter. But I am terrible with names in all languages, so I needed much more than that.
And the story also seems like something I’d enjoy. Sasuke Furuta is a warrior in service to the great Nobunaga Oda, who is torn between his love of tea and his desire to be a real warrior. These two conflicting desires put him in some tight spots, like when he lets an opposing warlord get away so he can keep a famous teapot. He’s clearly not a great warrior, but is always resolving to do better, even though most of the time, he serves Nobunaga by making him laugh.
The larger story that Sasuke is embedded in is mostly true: Nobunaga’s struggle to unify Japan during the warring states period. Not being a Japanese history nerd, I can’t say just how many of the events depicted in these pages actually happened, but I am versed enough in the subject to recognize a lot of the names of characters. A laht of dead people in Hyouge, along with all the scheming and intrigue you’d expect from a story that takes place in a time that’s still regarded as one of the most tumultuous in Japanese history. But Nobunaga is depicted kind of foppishly and in a slightly crazeballs way, so take the whole thing with a grain of salt.
I have absolutely no waffly feelings about the art, though, however ambivalent I might be about the book as a whole. Yamada can draw. Lots of lovely linework, careful bits of shading, detailed backgrounds, distinct faces, there’s a lot to enjoy here. Especially all the facial hair! Seriously! I have never seen so many different kinds of facial hair in one book! Or possibly ever! Every man has his own unique facial hair stylings. It’s useful in telling people apart at a glance, although the faces are so different that it would be hard to confuse them anyway. But I am glad for all the moustaches and beards. They are kind of incredible in and of themselves.
And Yamada really delights in the extreme reaction shot, especially for Sasuke, which is delightful to me as well and makes sense given that we are really following him and inside his head here. He also loves the face over map to show who’s invading what, or face over head to indicate memory or to serve as a reference for just who he’s talking about, which is less delightful. That face over map thing bores me for some reason. It has a documentary feel that seems out of place here.
Which brings us back to: I just didn’t care about this story. At. All. I kept trying to care. I was amused at amusing moments. But the setting is something that barely interests me. (I am not a lover of period dramas.) The language is an attempt at what they would’ve spoken at that time, which makes it hard to follow if you are not a lover of period dramas where they talk like that, and so are not used to people talking like that. I’m more than willing to struggle with unfamiliar terminology and modes of speech for something I’m interested in, but this wasn’t that.
And it’s episodic in the way of popular shonen style manga: go on adventure, encounter enemy, battle!, denouement, repeat in next chapter. So Sasuke sets out to do something to become a better warrior, nearly succeeds, finds tea treasure, fails, tries to hide it. To be fair, this pattern is a lot more subtle here than it is in Inuyasha or other overtly shonen stuff, but it’s there and I could feel it underneath each chapter as I was reading.
My final complaint is probably not fair, given the time and place the story is set in, but there are two ladies in the entire book! And one of them only gets two panels and no lines. The other one is used as a hostage and is almost beheaded. Smiling the whole time, like a good wife with those creepy eyebrows drawn high above where your eyebrows should be. This is in a cast of so many men that I lost track of who was who and what was happening to who where. I get that the Warring States period was not a time when the ladies were in control of things, but come on. There had to have been more than two of them.