Classic Comics: Shi Kaidan

Matt reviews the 1996 comic, Shi Kaidan. 

It's hard to do scary stories well, and all the harder in the form of a comic book.  Scary stories work best when everything is left up to your imagination, where the monster (or whatever) to be feared is seldom seen but always felt.  This is a big problem in comic books because comics are a very visual medium where all the motion on the pages is dependent on the artist's skill.  So let's see how well Stan Sakai, Michael Kaluta, David Mack, Jason Orfalas, and Val Mayerik do in William Tucci's Shi: Kaidan.

Written by Peter Gutierrez, Kaidan is a collection of creepy Japanese ghost stories from the samurai days.  Ana Ishikawa (Shi) tells them to us as remembered from her uncle's tellings when she was a child as she hands out Halloween candy to trick or treaters.  Are the stories real Japanese legends?  I could not find anything on the internet to support their authenticity, however the skill of the artists involved does make them feel very Japanese, they have a pretty good handle on Japanese culture and it really makes the stories feel like a credible part of the folklore of the island nation.

So we have a collection of original stories written by Peter Gutierrez and drawn by an all-star cast of pencillers.  First up is Stan Sakai with The Soul of the Sword, a tale of a swordsmith driven mad trying to make blades worthy of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's six generals.  Master swordmaker Masamura is awarded the commission but is unable to produce flawless blades and decides to ask the demons for help where the beneficent spirits have failed.  Sakai's art is inspired, as always.  He has a unique blend of manga and Western cartoon style that sets him apart from everyone else, and he uses his abilities to their fullest to tell his tale.  Is it scary?  I'm not sure I would say yes, but it is definitely creepy.

David Mack takes us through the next story, the tale of Kido, a Christian hiding his Christianity in Edo Japan.  His love, a local geisha named Okiku, was the only one he told.  One day, some men from Tokugawa's bakufu show up in his village and kill all the reputed Christians, including Kido's entire family.  Kido blames it on Okiku and takes it out on her, losing his eyes in the process.  The story is bloody and deservingly tragic.  Mack's pencils look like a screen painted hundreds of years ago in medieval Japan, giving the story an air of legitimacy.  Is it scary?  Perhaps a bit more than the previous one, but I'm still not losing any sleep.

The Master Puppet is brought to us by Jason Orfalas, whose style could grace the pages of any manga on the shelves of the bookstores of Japan.  He brings to life the story of Minokichi, the adopted son of a puppet maker named Ohatsu who can't understand why his fellow villagers speak of a Curse of Ohatsu, despite many members of Ohatsu's bunraku (puppeteer) troop dying after performances.  Ohatsu's wife appears after Ohatsu dies, and the reasons for the villagers' distrust of Ohatsu is soon clear.  Orfalas is a skilled artist, and I really rather wish I had more of his work in my own collection.  Is this story scary?  Sitting in my living room in Michigan with my family around, no, not really.  But if I were back in Japan with some old Japanese dolls staring at me while I read after the sun has gone down this story would absolutely make my skin crawl.  There are few things creepier than old Japanese dolls and bunraku puppets.  If you're creeped out by ventriloquist puppets, then this story will keep you awake at night.

The most effective of these stories is brought to us by Val Mayerik.  His painted style brings to life the story of Yoshida and Itagaki, childhood friends who grow up to become samurai.  Itagaki is envious of Yoshida's greater skill and honor and it drives him to frame Yoshida for stealing the sword of their daimyo.  Itagaki gets what he wants and sees his life unravel before his eyes as we come to the chilling ending.  Mayerik's art is praised in the foreword by Marv Wolfman and the afterword by Gutierrez, and it is awesome.  It has the feel of an old jidai geki that would run in August, Japan's scariest month.  And is this one scary?  Yes, I would say that it is, the ending is very satisfying and you don't need creepy-ass, old Japanese dolls to set the mood.

Michael Kaluta frames the stories, providing the backdrop for Ana's tellings and leaves us with one last little chill before the ending.

This book is worth going through if for nothing else than for looking at the gorgeous art.  Having lived in Japan for several years myself, I think that these guys know their stuff and these pages would not be out of place in a real manga.  The stories have heavy themes of honor (or rather, the lack thereof), betrayal, and vengeance; their unhappy, often open endings are all very Japanese in their feel.  For fans of the character Shi, this book is a necessity.  For anyone interested in Japanese ghost stories you could definitely do worse than this, and for horror fans, I'm sure you would know better than me where to go for scares.  Still, good stuff by all those involved, and I recommend it to anyone looking for something unique to read.

-Matthew Streeter

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