Review: Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter by Atelier Sentō

One of the things that still plagues the “comics market” is the way creative work gets categorized. This is especially true if that work doesn’t neatly fit into any one category.  This is even worse with translated work, and is a major issue for Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter.  Created by Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard who work collectively as Atelier Sentō, the book is marketed as a middle reader book. Because of this, it has fallen into something of an odd niche. Its reviews in the United States have been mostly in children’s publications or in the children’s sections of the major book reviewers, and not as a comic. Tuttle, the book’s English-language publisher, sent me a copy in August, and I’ve been mulling over the book this past week. What I’ve found is a book that seems lost in translation; purporting to be one thing, but existing as another.

Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter was originally published in France in 2016 as Onibi: Carnets du Japon Invisible. The original title captures the unique nature of Onibi a little better; the book is a fictionalized travelogue of that lightly touches on the Japanese mythology of yokai, and features one of Japan’s regions that is rarely discussed in Western media, Niigata Prefecture. Niigata is a port city about 4 hours north of Tokyo, and its prefecture is a more rural place. Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter, in part, is a celebration of rural Japan and its people; their hospitality, their kindness, and their spirituality.

The conceit of Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter is that Cécile and Olivier arrive in Niigata and purchase an old toy camera that they are told will capture images of the spirit world. Their travels around the prefecture, through mountainous parks and old-growth forests, give them access to ancient religious shrines and places where the natural world and the human world collide. Each chapter of the book details an adventure of sorts where Cécile and Olivier eat local food, meet locals who show off their small piece of the world, and try to capture a picture of a spirit with the toy camera.

This kind of storytelling can end up being a little drafty, but Atelier Sentō manages to fill in the space of their storytelling with page upon page of remarkable illustration. Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter is a gorgeous book, its pages full of lovingly rendered food, vistas, and people. Atelier Sentō uses traditional materials, and these are some of the loveliest watercolors I’ve seen in a comic to date. There’s a lot to love here if you are someone who cares about the craft of making comics. Even now, I find myself flipping open the book from time to time just to look at some of the illustrations. The images are utterly transporting; Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter brings you to Niigata prefecture along with Cécile and Olivier in a way that few other travelogues do.

Where the book doesn’t manage to completely amaze is in the writing. There’s a contradiction between the English title of the book and the contents of the book that I have a hard time ignoring. Each chapter is an exploration of a place. It’s a journal entry, and the things that happen during that journal entry can be interesting, or beautiful, and sometimes a little odd. But the story of ghost hunting feels contrived. Atelier Sentō attempts to shoehorn it into each chapter by using the still pictures that Cécile takes throughout the trip and drawing spirits on top of them. But the meat of each chapter is the connection Cécile and Olivier make with the people of Niigata prefecture, or with the natural world in that part of Japan. Ultimately, Atelier Sentō’s use of yokai myths is superficial, used more to create a mood or to emphasize a more spiritually connected place than their home in France.

That’s unfortunate, because yokai stories are fascinating, but in the end, I don’t think it matters to the overall strength of the travelogue. Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter is a lovely book, hands down, and it treats the people and stories of Japan with a reverence and a humility that suits the material well. If you come to the book expecting an exploration of “Invisible Japan,” you will be pleased by Atelier Sentō’s beautiful art and gentle, almost wispy storytelling. Anyone looking for an actual ghost story, look elsewhere.

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