Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, December 02, 2007
      ( 12/02/2007 10:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SIXTY-MINUTE MANGA: Toru Muhyo and Jiro Kusano, the title leads in Yoskiyuki Nishi's Shonen Jump manga series Muhyo & Roji's Bureau of Supernatural Investigation (Viz Media), look pretty unprepossessing to be a pair of professional ghostbusters. Executor Muhyo, in particular, appears too child-like to wield the mighty Book of Magic Law. Cartoonishly rendered, short and possessing a head one character describes as shaped like a turnip, the magical prodigy nonetheless possesses the power and authority to send troublesome spirits to the afterlife. His second clerk Jiro (a.k.a. Roji) is taller and a few undefined years older, but looks even more like a wide-eyed innocent. Yet, per this teen-rated series, the duo is adept at corralling rampaging supernatural entities.

Clearly, it's a job that needs to be done. "Over 80,000 people go missing in Japan each year," Roji explains to a client. "A full tenth of that is thought to be due to ghosts." Our heroes, it should be noted, operate under a broader definition of ghost than you might initially expect. In one of the six cases featured in the first volume of Muhyo & Roji's BSI, a musical prodigy is harassed by the jealous emotions of her audience made manifest: a featureless creature with arms that reach to the floor and great snapping teeth. ("He bites," Muhyo helpfully explains.) In another, an antique chair becomes parasitized and attempts to devour the hapless Roji. "Happens a lot to older things," Muhyo says. "It lies dormant for years, waiting for a chance to feed!"

Who knew that antiquing could be so dangerous?

All six of the first volume's "articles" essentially conclude the same way: with Muhyo pronouncing the haunter guilty of some transgression of supernatural law ("unauthorized spectral transmutation and the impediment of magic law," for instance) and sentencing them to an imaginative afterlife punishment. The pleasure in each of these tales primarily lies in writer/artist Yoshijuki Nishi's inventive visual realization of these outlandish devices. Unlike the older-aged Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service or Housai Yamazaki's Mail, which also focus on the living's attempts at righting the afterlife, the tone in BSI is meant to be more comic than frightening. Though, as with all three series, the strongest entries are the ones with a trace of sadness to 'em.

Thus, in the first book's opener, "Rie & Taeko," a young high school girl Rie is haunted by a former classmate who had been her best friend until Rie found new popularity as a member of the volleyball team. Turning her back on her former inseperable companion, Rie is unable to reach out and save her when the girl loses balance on a subway track. Now, dead girl Taeko haunts the train line, waiting for the opportunity to be able to hold her old friend's hand. While the story doesn't belabor the point, there's an obvious level of sexual attraction to this undying crush, though perhaps being more explicit about this would've taken the story outside of Shonen Jump's usual age range.

As series leads, Muhyo & Roji are engagingly immature. As the youngest known supernatural executor, "onion-boy" Muhyo can be arrogant and abrupt, regularly lording his position of authority over Roji. Though we don't see the character in the first volume, the executor also has a rival named Enchu, an old magic law study partner who left "for a darker calling." It's Enchu's envious ways that apparently have bolstered Muhyo's disdain for "normal people," though we're fairly certain that he's always had a propensity for snobbishness. Rijo, on the other hand, serves as more of a slapstick foil: in addition to nearly being eaten up by antique furniture, we also see him overwhelmed by a multi-headed "piggybacking" wandering entity. He dreams of someday being in Muhyo's position of authority, but even the simplest kids' magic books presently prove beyond his abilities.

If neither figure are as clearly delineated or as instantly appealing as Shonen Jump's biggest selling superstar (you know: the kid with the fox face), they are amusing enough to get me looking forward to Volume Two, which features a visit to the offices of the Magic Law Association. I'm thinking we'll learn a little more about Muhyo's rival evil rival in this 'un - and perhaps get a piece of Jiro/Roji's story, too.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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