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– by Donovan Bertch

Jiro Azuma may be a bit of a delinquent, but he doesn’t get into random scraps with local bullies for any reason as basic as “because he’s a grouch” or “a misunderstanding that escalated badly.” Rather, he’s got a soft spot for the animals — cats, birds, dogs, you name it. It kind of helps that he can understand them clear as day, a talent not shared by his peers. This causes all sorts of trouble for his grandfather, who’s not fond of his only kin (and heir to the Azuma clan of ninja, because sure, why not) using his skills out in the open, let alone on the locals. However, Jiro’s bleeding heart ends up being the least of his problems when he runs into a mysterious black cat named Rago.

Probably because it’s splattered all over the ground by the middle of the first chapter.

Attacked by a monstrous creature known as a mononoke, Jiro is left on death’s door. Luckily, Rago is also a mononoke, and decides to fuse with Jiro to keep him alive. While this saves him, it also causes him a bit of trouble when a secret agency comes knocking…

Copyright: BLACK TORCH © 2016 by Tsuyoshi Takaki/SHUEISHA Inc.

Black Torch Volume 1 manages to introduce a wide variety of characters and concepts in the span of a few chapters, for better or for worse. While some of this makes the story move at a nice, brisk pace while still feeling like substantiative material, it also expects you to keep up with that pace with no trouble at all. It goes from what seems like a teen battle manga to a supernatural battle manga to a horror manga and back again within the span of a few chapters. It’s definitely interesting to follow, but it’s a lot to take in at once.

It helps, though, that the characters are (for the most part) distinct and easy to read. Jiro is both your typical shonen protagonist and a surprisingly mellow dude; whereas other manga would have him be utterly abrasive 24/7, it’s clear that he puts up a front for the people around him while his true nature comes out when he’s around his animal buddies. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual “jerk becomes a nice guy” storyline we get with a lot of these kinds of heroes. His grandfather is also a strong presence in these early chapters, with a sense of clout and danger pervading through his scenes (and still no shortage of heart). For a character who more-or-less is just there to emphasize the stakes of the conflict, he does a damn good job at becoming one of the more memorable parts of this volume.

This is likely to change within a few volumes’ time, but the same can’t exactly be said for the members of the Bureau of Espionage just yet. While they’re definitely recognizable archetypes (the “don’t-look-down-on-me” veteran Ichika and the “hey everyone let’s just chill, kay?” laid-back supervisor Ryosuke), they’re not as sharply displayed as Jiro and his grandfather are. We do get some backstory, and it’s not like you don’t feel for Ichika especially once you find out her history. It’s just not as immediately impactful as it could have been, as it seems to come a little early on-teasing out the backstory would make for a little more mystery and intrigue. Rago, the ostensible deuteragonist, fares a little better in this department, but he’s still sort of just there to provide a springboard for Jiro’s quirks and to explain the world around them. This lack of focus on anyone but Jiro is necessary to get the plot moving along in these first few chapters, but hopefully, they build on this cast as the series goes on.

Copyright: BLACK TORCH © 2016 by Tsuyoshi Takaki/SHUEISHA Inc.

Black Torch’s art seems to vary throughout the art, but that’s not a knock on Tsuyoshi Takaki’s work in the slightest. It’s a hard balancing act when making a shonen manga-do you focus more on the world around the cast, or do you want to focus on character expression and anatomy? This first volume seems to strike a happy balance-while we do get some gorgeous backdrops in establishing panels (Jiro’s home in Chapter 1 and the amphitheater for Chapter 2’s fight scene are especially well done), the focus is clearly on the sense of impact, speed, and power shown off by the cast. The character designs are distinct, with a strong grasp of both facial features and body language that convey a wide range of emotions. There’s also a sketchy tint to some of the battle scenes, like the ink was just allowed to flow through the page, particularly in some of the bigger moments of the volume. It lends a unique look to the series that really makes it stand out amongst its peers.

Black Torch’s debut volume is deceptively simple. It starts off as basic as you can get for a shonen action series: a rough-and-tumble teenager with a heart of gold is given supernatural abilities by an animal companion to fight off monsters with the help of a secret organization. It’s Yu Yu Hakusho by way of Sailor Moon, with a little Naruto tossed in for good measure. However, the deeper you look into the story’s plot and imagery, the more complex it becomes, even if it misses the mark a couple of times. The further the story delves into the history of the world around it and the psychology of its characters, the more avenues will open up for interesting developments down the line.

Grade: B

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