Halloween Week: Nightmare Inspector (Vol 1-3)

Horror manga is a strange beast. Japan has an affinity for complex ideas and abstraction, or sometimes lean towards simple body horror in very unconventional ways (see the works of Junji Ito for an example). Sometimes, their works are less horror and more ironic fairy tales with sinister undertones, as is the case with Shin Mashiba's Nightmare Inspector, the tales of a nightmare eating being that helps people through their problems - though this sometimes causes even larger problems.

Each story starts at the Silver Star Tea House (circa 1920s Japan), where the baku (a dream eater) named Hiruko resides. A customer enters the place at night, wanting to see if the rumors of the baku are true, and ask for help in putting their nightmares to bed for their own sanity. The only price is that Hiruko gets to eat their nightmare when finished, which he collects with his magic cane, and what happens from there is up to the customer. Hiruko does his work by entering the dreams of others and deciphering the true meaning of said dreams, then bringing the result the customer wants. Sometimes, this ends well for customer. Other times, it simply creates new problems, or maybe even well deserved punishment.

Nightmare Inspector has a similar structure to Franken Fran, an absolutely fantastic dark comedy about a brilliant surgeon who has a habit of creating monsters. People come in to get a problem solved, but other problems tend to follow what the main character gives as a solution, and usually as a form of karmatic punishment or a cautionary tale. Where the two series differ is that Franken Fran is meant to be a comedy with a twisted sense of humor, showing real world truths from absurd and horrific situations. Nightmare Inspector is more of an exorcise in character writing. Each customer has a defining trait, usually related to a theme or concept used in their story, and what happens to them is based around how they handle the truths they're trying to hide from. The nightmares are constant reminders of something they're subconsciously blocking out, and Hiruko helps reveal that truth by solving the abstract puzzle the nightmares lay out. The horror part comes from the revelations of these characters, discovering some forgotten sin or hidden pain, leaving them to react to this rediscovered information. There's a lot of twist endings in the first three volumes, and they're all pretty clever in their own way.

There's usually some sort of lesson attached to each of these stories, or they simply focus on getting into the head space of someone you normally couldn't understand, like a stalker or a voice actor. The trick to all of these stories is that the information on who these people are is hidden from the audience as it is hidden from the characters themselves. We get to experience the revelation along with the subject of the story, and make our own judgments from there. The pacing is always the same, but the structure shakes up from time to time, like putting events in a more positive light in the dream, only to catch the reader off guard with a sad ending that paints the character we were just rooting for in a completely different light. There are a few bittersweet endings in the series, so it's hard to get a read on what direction a story will ultimately go, keeping things difficult to predict and engaging.

The dreamscapes themselves are quite something. They balance between surrealism and structured symbolism puzzles, running on fairy tale logic, where some magical force allows people to do strange things with ease. Across the three volumes, some stories include the ability to untangle words, easily putting back on missing body parts, and ripping off layers of one own face to discover hidden emotions. They usually base themselves around grounded fears, like being unable to reach the top floor of a building or being deprived of your senses, or they replay memories is odd ways that don't add up. They're always interesting set-ups, making up for Mashiba's sub-par character designs. She seems to have trouble with faces at times, giving them too little detail and odd shapes, like they aren't round enough. There's also a little of "yaoi hands" on display, where hands are far larger than a character's head. However, she excels at clothing and hairstyles, packing a ton of detail. Hiruko's odd get-up is especially appealing to me, giving you a good idea of what his personality is like from just a glance. Her expressions are also good and get better as the series goes on, doing some great faces for shocked and terrified characters.

The series also has some running continuity and a main plot that builds slowly. The three central characters are Hiruko, caretaker Mizuki, and a later tenant named Hifumi. Hiruko is quiet, supposedly uncaring, but hiding a lot of depth under the surface that starts coming out during a flashback chapter that explains his origins. Mizuki starts as a quiet observer, but eventually grows a cuter personality and acts as the positive counterpoint to Hiruko's cynicism. Hifumi is a rich yuppie who wants to get with Mizuki, while also getting into arguments with Hiruko. He's here solely for comedic relief, but he never gets intrusive to the main story, and occasionally gets to add something from time to time (there's even one story that centers around his past). There's also the presence of Kairi and Shima, the proprietors of the Delirium, a place where people can have their greatest fantasy come true, but at the cost of their soul. They're nether a good or evil force, much like Hiruko, and owner Kairi has some sort of past with Hiruko to boot. It's touched up upon in these first three chapters, mentioning the strange suitcase Hiruko carries around, but ultimately only casting hints. Otherwise, the two play roles in the stories of different customers, usually by surprise to shake up the direction of the plot.

There's enough in the series from keeping the episodic set-up from getting old, but it never really manages to wow. Nothing in the series really sticks out beyond the concept, partly due to a few little issues here and there. The panel layout is sometimes poor, failing to really get across the sequence of events in a scene, while a few characters feel a bit underdeveloped. Shima, the assistant at Delirium, particularly bugs me. He's an innocent kid who thinks he's constantly doing good, and he doesn't really match up well with Kairi or Hiruko's mystical higher understanding of the human condition. Mizuki also never really gets a chance to have any meaningful impact on any of the stories in these first three volumes, despite being so central to Hiruko's identity. The series borders on having a larger story to tell, but never really steps into that idea and chooses to instead meander around with episodic tales. Some also reuse past ideas, like the customer actually being a killer and blocking out said crime. A later chapter also reuses the odd twist of the first chapter's story, although it does try to misdirect through the use of Hifumi. There's more promise here than what the series starts to explore.

While I wish the series went a bit further with its ideas, what it accomplishes here is plenty entertaining. Nightmare Inspector doesn't break any new ground for its genre, but it does a fine job for what it is, and I have hope that the remaining six chapters will use some of this left over promise properly. It's not too horrific, but it's certainly interesting and clever. Nightmare Inspector received an English translation by Viz Media, so look that up if you want to own a copy. It's definitely a solid addition to any manga collection.


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