Onibi: Diary for a Yokai Ghost Hunter

Story and art by Atelier Sento (Cècile Brun and Oliver Pichard)

Published in English by Tuttle (2018)

Onibi is a graphic novel that aspires to capture the authentic aspects of Japan. Despite following two young companions on their ghost-hunting holiday, the real protagonist of this graphic novel is Japan. If only she had been given more compelling characterisation, than this piece would shine amongst the other Japanese inspired culture-comics.

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This semi-autobiographical story follows artists Cèline and Oliver, as they travel around the rural area of Niigata, Japan. On their journey, Cèline becomes enamoured by a large camera she finds at a local store, one with the ability to capture images of the spirit world. As they immerse themselves in the Japanese culture and environment, another coexisting world begins to manifest, one that strengthens with the village folklore. Even with only the slightest idea of this piece’s content, it should be very clear that the first thing to discuss about Onibi is its art. In fact, its cover page is what led me to purchasing it in the first place. Through the use of watercolours and pencils, the environment in this piece is given a refreshing glow. The drawings themselves aren’t the most detailed creations, but when met with exceptionally vibrant colours, a compelling experience is created. For example, when the reader, along with the protagonists, are gazing at the acres of rice paddies, we aren’t convinced by their realism. It’s not the drawing itself that makes us feel like we are there, it’s the feeling that seeps into us through the colours. Transportive art doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate in structure, rather, in the feeling it emits/evokes.

Now, that’s not to say that the art is in anyway underdeveloped, in fact, its ability to capture human emotion also added to the (arguably limited) characterisation of the village’s inhabitants. But this piece’s effective use of various facets of artistry is what led to an immersive experience. Another way that the creators use art to world-build is through the use of photography. One of the highlights of this piece for me was the photos provided at the end of each chapter, a way to make the fictitious elements of their journey feel the most real. Some actually led to suspended disbelief, with pretty decent photoshop and framing to manifest various ghosts around the countryside. Others bordered on the more artsy side, which I didn’t have a problem with, though they made the story seem a bit inconsistent. How could a rushed snapshot lead to a bunch of posing ghosts? Chapter six’s story and photo were the strongest, and if the consistency between stories had been around this standard, the piece would have excelled.

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I’m not a massive fan of episodic pieces, particularly when it’s short and there is an expansive environment to explore. I think this type of storytelling hinders the creator’s ability to develop areas and places, as they limit themselves to one chapter for each subplot to be completed. Onibi provided a rare instance where episodic stories actually suit it, allowing many places and creatures to be uncovered in a timely fashion. However, there still were some aspects that supported my previous beliefs. The major gripe I had with this graphic novel was the balance between atmosphere and substance. The concept of the piece was good, the art was phenomenal, but that’s exactly what Seto’s creations felt like; 2D art. Onibi was based on the duo’s trip to these vibrant, yet eerily desolate villages in rural Japan, but it didn’t feel like there was anything behind their creations. Their exploration of each place was incredibly brief, with little more than a quick village tale to flesh out the environment. These rushed feelings were only accentuated when some of local’s stories weren’t particularly… compelling. I appreciated how the two attempted to rid their story of stereotypes and focus on the authentic culture and environment one finds when travelling around these places, but I would have liked to see more development to make the comic feel grounded in reality.

Going back to chapter six, what made it so impressionable was the importance of the photograph. It wasn’t just a secondary source to support the events of the story, it answered a question the reader didn’t even know needed answering. It broke the “villager explains yokai, duo go to new environment, take picture” monotony, instead providing a compelling plot. It showed that this piece was definitely suited as a story, and if certain aspects of the memoir weren’t that compelling, maybe revising them would have led to a more immersive experience. It was such a disappointment discovering that no exploration of the spirits was given, with only titles such as ‘old man’ and ‘old lady in an alley’ to go off of.

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Onibi was a very enjoyable piece. It was a (nostalgic) joy to flip through the pages of immaculate art, and for the most part, the enjoyable stories. Unfortunately, sometimes I felt like this piece didn’t know what it wanted to be; a substantial review of rural Japanese culture/folklore, or an artsy travelogue through an absolutely breathtaking countryside. Sometimes we get a bit of one or the other, but sometimes we also got neither. I never had negative feelings when reading this piece, nor was there any sense of frustration, but there were times when a pervading emptiness resided, indicative of the content’s depth. 

Art – 9

Story – 7

Writing – 6

Overall – 7/10

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