Mao Volume 1 by Rumiko Takahashi is a shōnen, dark fantasy, supernatural adventure manga series that follows a young girl named Nanako Kiba. She survived a terrible event as a child and ever since then she lives with her grandfather. She also has a rather weak constitution. One day on her way home from school, she walks by the location of this past tragedy and eventually finds herself transported back to the Taisho Era, where she meets an enigmatic individual known as Mao, a doctor for yōkai and ayakashi. This one encounter shall reveal connections between the two individuals that shall raise many questions about both of their pasts and this strange link that they share.
When I first heard about this new series, I became so energetically excited. Last year I rewatched all of Inuyasha and that series means so much to me for a plethora of different reasons—most of which are heavily sentimental—that I didn’t hesitate in re-starting it again this year after being overcome with a spontaneous sense of nostalgia. Additionally, Mermaid Forest (also known as Mermaid Saga) is one of my favourite horror manga titles. Her artwork and her storytelling prowess are absolutely phenomenal and that’s why she’s one of the best manga creators to have ever existed. When Mao came to my attention, I knew that I would have to read it as soon as it released, and I’m so glad that I did because it didn’t disappoint at all!
As the story kicks off, we learn some brief information about Nanako, her somewhat weakened health, and a hint of what happened in her past. Like most Takahashi stories, there’s a glimpse into an uncommon familial dynamic, some family-friendly, good-natured humour, and then the groundwork of a strong female protagonist to build upon. Because Nanako always has a smile on her face and tries really hard to live in the moment rather than dwell on her past, it makes her easy to like and root for. I also love that she has very short hair and doesn’t follow a standard shōjo or shōnen heroine mould (she’s also wimpy and clumsy). This accentuates her amiability even more.
After a short while and plot shenanigans, Nanako finds herself transported to an old-style town in the Taisho Era where she meets her very first yōkai and a man who seems pretty knowledgeable about them. The chemistry that is displayed between Mao (mystery man) and Nanako is natural and entertaining. He has his suspicions about her, as she does of him, and as they get plunged into more situations together, their interactions simply take on a very comfortable platonic ambiance. It works to pull the reader completely into what they’re talking about or dealing with quite effortlessly, and that’s another characteristic of Takahashi’s writing that I positively adore; the graceful nature in which she can help us escape into her works.
If we put the mangaka and the amazing artwork and storytelling elements aside for a bit, other aspects that make Mao Volume 1 so intriguing are the supernatural traits. Fans of Inuyasha will delight in the familiar and almost homely atmosphere of being transported back in time and then dealing with an abundance of yōkai who range on a spectrum of good to evil, normal to eccentric. The uniqueness to their designs and creations, as well as tossbacks to traditional retro patterns help to combine the new and fresh with the cosiness of nostalgia. I wanted to learn more about the various yōkai and I wanted to keep reading to discover new ones because that’s just how bloody fascinating they are (even the spider ones… *shivers*).
There is an overarching plot that was introduced here that shall probably take Mao and Nanako on many adventures together as they try to unravel the mysteries and secrets surrounding both of them as individuals as well as how (and why) they’re connected to one another. This also reminded me of Inuyasha a bit due to the paranormal attributes, but it’s quite unlike anything that I’ve read within the medium and genre within the last few years that it doesn’t come off as a rip-off of the previous franchise. It’s more a loose inspiration for something original and quite possibly very different than the predecessor, which I’m supremely thrilled for!
All in all, Mao Volume 1 exceeded all expectations that I had, which were all pretty high to begin with. Rumiko Takahashi’s talent for writing strong female characters and multi-faceted relationships, friendships, and atypical family situations seem like they have a chance to flourish here in this serial if given the time to develop naturally and carefully. I honestly don’t think this will be a problem at all, but I am also, admittedly, a bit biased. If there’s anything that could make it even better, it would be a full-colour edition because I’m just that in love with it already. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for shōnen readers that also like good action and serials with Inuyasha, Natsume’s Book of Friends, and Rinne type supernatural fun.
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Supernatural Action
Publisher: Viz Media (North America); Shōgakukan (Japan)
Total Volumes: 1 (North America); 9 (Japan)
Content Warnings: Action. Blood. Gore. Brief scene of mutilation. Mild body horror. Lots of insects.
Official Website: Mao (Japanese)