One of the seminal manga of the early 21st century was Himoru Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. It’s a gripping story full of interesting characters living in a deep and fantastical world with a clear and understandable “magic” system. The story began simply and spiraled out into seemingly ever more complex layers. At the end, however, the place we began turned out to be the place we arrived at: The maxim that mankind cannot gain anything without giving something of equal value in return. The fundamental law of alchemy proved to be the fundamental law of the story.
Arakawa has a flair for characters and simple but striking visuals in action scenes, skills she has levered in her artwork for other series. However she hasn’t produced her own fantasy story in over a decade. Silver Spoon, her love letter to the farmers of her home island of Hokkaido, is a great story but also a very mundane one. When I heard she had launched Yomi no Tsugai (localized as Daemons from the Shadow Realm, a literal but somewhat cringey translation), a new fantasy work, I was immediately interested.
First, and perhaps most interesting, Yomi no Tsugai is set in contemporary Japan. While Arakawa’s previous original creation was set in the modern era adding a layer of the supernatural on top of that added a level of depth and, just as importantly, gave her the opportunity to add a rich symbolic language to her story like she did in Fullmetal Alchemist. I cracked open the first chapter with great anticipation.
I was not disappointed.
That said, I was very, very surprised by the nature of the story Arakawa presented. Fullmetal Alchemist featured what is known as a “hard” magic system, where there is a system of supernatural occurrences that work on a series of concrete, almost scientific rules. The story’s titular alchemy has several solid, predictable maxims. Mass must be conserved. Energy needs to come from somewhere. The dead cannot come back to life. Our protagonist, Edward Elric, is a man of knowledge and reason, as befits a master of what is essentially a branch of science in his own world. Edward and his brother Alphonse are as close and brothers can be. The bonds between Edward and his family are a central driving force in his life and he relies on them from beginning to end.
Yomi no Tsugai has what is known as a “soft” magic system. There are few or no hard and fast rules in a soft magic system, they represent the bizarre and inexplicable forces in life that mankind have always struggled to understand and live with. In this case, these forces are called tsugai, spirits of the netherworld that bind themselves to certain people. Tsugai have abilities based on what they are and usually follow some kind of theme. They’re unpredictable and often hard for people to understand. There’s only one concrete rule about tsugai; but more on that in a moment.
Our story opens on the birth of our protagonist. This is not a normal place to start, in fact it would be downright inadvisable except that Yuru and Asa are children of prophecy – twins born on a day where light and dark are equal, one at night and one during the day. This condemns them to a cruel fate. They have the potential to access phenomenal abilities for the low, low cost of dying once and, whether they want to pay that cost or not, others are happy to force it upon them.
The twins are cruelly separated and then cruelly brought together again. Circumstances conspire to destroy all trust between them and Yuru, our protagonist, is forced to leave his home and doubt almost every meaningful connection he has formed in his entire life. Even the village he was brought up in was a lie. Yuru has been raised in a society still living in the middle ages and when he leaves he finds himself in modern day Japan, with all the culture shocks that come with that. It turns out that Yuru is totally ignorant of the world he lives in. The only thing he has to rely on are Sayuu-sama, the guardian deities of his home village. Sayuu-sama are tsugai, the spirits that live in two stone statues that defended the gates of the village for four hundred years. This brings us to the one hard and fast rule of tsugai.
They come in pairs.
The statue on the Left and the statue on the Right are as opposite as they can be. The Left is a stoic woman, not given to expressing herself much, with a hard attitude and a tendency to go out and solve problems proactively. The Right is a boisterous, outgoing man. He defends what he cares about, expresses his fondness for others readily and encourages Yuru to think for himself. Only their stone bodies and dedication to their master Yuru join them together.
What’s fascinating is that, just like equivalent exchange in Fullmetal Alchemist, this paired yet opposite nature of tsugai is reflected in every aspect of the story. Yuru and Asa are fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. Through the story we quickly learn that they pair day and night, light and dark, binding and release, stoicism and emotivism. They are caught between two warring factions, one of which pursues modernity, the other which tries to restore the past. Asa chooses to align herself with a faction, Yuru announces his intention to stand alone.
It’s as if every aspect of the story is slowly revealing itself as another tsugai who’s character, powers and intentions we have to wrap our minds around in order to understand the narrative. It’s brilliant but also exactly what I should have expected from Arakawa. She’s very deliberate with her storytelling. Perhaps far more so than I ever anticipated. It was only when I got current with Yomi no Tsugai and went back to reread Fullmetal Alchemist while I waited for more of Yuru’s story that I made the final discovery. I’ve hinted at it already. That is, of course, that Yomi no Tsugai and Fullmetal Alchemist are also a pair.
They pair hard and soft magic. A fantasy world and a world like the present. A protagonist of science and reason with intact relationships and a protagonist of ignorance and naivety who’s trust has been broken. The thematic core of Yomi no Tsugai looks like it has been implemented in such a way as to duplicate that theme even when it’s just sitting on a shelf next to Arakawa’s previous work! That’s a very meta inference to make, I know. And yet creating a good story requires such care and intentionality that I can easily believe that Arakawa went to that level when crafting Yomi no Tsugai.
Is it true? I don’t know. But I certainly intend to keep reading ’til I find out.