When Kotoko was 11 years old, she was kidnapped, and disappeared for 2 weeks. She was eventually found, missing an eye and a leg, on a park bench, but the criminal was never caught. Only Kotoko knows the truth; the spirits and ghosts of the world, known as yōkai, took her and made her their ‘God of Wisdom’. They now rely on her to help with problems amongst their own kind as well as communicating with the human world. Now 17 years old, she takes her job with pride, but also has a particular interest in a boy named Kuro who recently broke up with his girlfriend and seems to, for some reason, have all the yōkai on edge when he’s around. Who is Kuro really? And why does Kotoko have such a fascination with him?
In/Spectre’s origins actually started back in 2011 with the original story introduced as a novel called Invented Inference: Steel Lady Nanase by Kyo Shirodaira, who went on to write the story for the manga. According to the translation notes at the back of the first manga volume, she did not know it would turn into a manga when she first wrote the novel, and a lot of the original story has not changed (even entire dialogue scenes have been lifted) when transitioning to the manga version. Despite its interesting backstory, there’s actually very little to find about In/Spectre online (there’s not even a Wikipedia page) which is a shame because Volume 1 starts the series on a really positive note.
The main genre is supernatural, with a substantial reliance on the reader at least knowing the basic names for various yōkai, or ghosts/demons, such as kappa and tanuki. Although there are translated notes at the back of the book, whilst reading in the panels there’s not much explanation given to their history, where they come from or how they get about in the world outside of their self-elected God of Wisdom. However, the mythology behind a ‘god’ having one eye and/or leg isn’t completely left-field as there are many mythological creatures across Japan and other cultures that see one-eye as a sign of power and/or fear. Kotoko’s condition is given a detailed explanation in the book, with references to Kuebiko – a god of knowledge and agriculture, often compared to a scarecrow due to having only one leg – and broad stroke references to other deities that paint a clear picture as to why such a ceremony exists. It creates an out of the ordinary mythos for the series, but also intrigue to where the series may go and what further lesser-known mythology elements In/Spectre may use in the future.
Nevertheless, outside of two small action scenes, a lot of the supernatural elements in the first volume is mostly world-building and setting the tone for the story; most of Volume 1 is actually more interested in introducing the main characters and their budding relationship. This is accomplished extremely well as the characters are very endearing in their own ways: Kotoko is cute, quirky and plays into her role as God of Wisdom nicely, especially when it comes to her courtship of Kuro. There’s no faffing around or awkward clichés thrown in here, Kotoko is passionate and logical in her proposal to enter a relationship with Kuro. Although Kotoko is very forward with her actions, she also does not push him too far or cross the line into uncomfortable territory, in fact her honesty is extremely refreshing! You admire her getting to the point in her love confession, but you also understand why Kuro is hesitant – who wouldn’t be after a bad break-up? In turn, Kuro’s own brand of oddness, with his forgetfulness and aloof but demure nature, complements hers nicely and as a result the pair have genuine chemistry and funny conversations that make them feel like a natural team rather than taking mean jabs at each other. The only downside, for some readers anyway, is that there is an age gap of 5 years between them, and considering that Kotoko first met Kuro when she was just 15, making him 20, might put some people off.
But then, in a surprising twist, Chapter 2 of the book has the story leap forward by two and a half years then re-introduces Kuro’s ex-girlfriend Saki as seemingly another main character. In all honesty, I could have quite happily followed Kotoko and Kuro’s early day of yōkai adventures and developing romance, but the jump doesn’t feel like a desperate attempt to keep the story fresh, instead it gives a chance for Saki – now a working police woman – to be introduced as the ‘outside person’ or voice of reason against the supernatural antics, whilst potentially setting up a love triangle. Considering how the author has written the romance so far, it’ll be fascinating to see how the love triangle (if they do go in that direction) plays out.
The art is provided by Chashiba Katase, who doesn’t seem to have any other art credits outside of this series, which is a shame as the artist does have talent, especially when designing characters. Although the backgrounds are nothing exceptional, you can really see the attention given to the various protagonists; for example, Kotoko is the one with the most attention being very dynamic, animated, and cute but it never crosses over to the ‘moe’ side of cuteness, and you never lose the impression that the character is most definitely far wiser than her years. Also, it takes a special kind of skill to make the Ghost of a Fallen Warrior character, a side character with half his body and face covered in blood, still appear approachable and charming.
Despite the silly name and lack of fanfare around this title, In/Spectre starts off very well with likable characters, sincere chemistry between the two leads and interesting spin on Japanese folklore. This series already concluded in Japan earlier this year, so now’s a great time to pick up the sequel volumes and enjoy the ride before the final volume is due out in April 2018.