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Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation is a bit of an odd duck. Muhyo is an executor of Magic Law, handing down sentences to malevolent ghosts and Roji is the lowly second clerk working for his practice. Clients come to their office and inflict themselves with Muhyo and Roji to solve their ghost hauntings, Muhyo holds an impromptu kangaroo court and damns somebody to eternal torment, lather, rinse, repeat. Surprisingly, the book actually straddles several genres and is packed with a enough potential to add up to more than the sum of its parts though. I actually picked up volume one on the merit of its art and wasn’t disappointed and the formulaic stories that I was expecting were already straying from their confines by the end of the volume.

It says right there in the title that this book is about Supernatural Investigation, but the specific focus is actually a little harder to pin down. All in all, I’d say this was a owarai comedy routine set to the tune of monster-of-the-week, but there’s actually a lot of slice-of-life sentimentality mixed in there and Muhyo’s magic law judicial rulings come down to a little light action in the summoning of spiritual ‘bailiffs’ to carry out sentences. For the most part, the mood shifts are fairly seemless, but there are some areas when you’ll go from suspenseful horror to a Roji boke moment to sentimental flashbacks in the span of two or three pages and the shifts could certainly be jarring for some readers. I think the mixed bag, much like Hayate X Blade, really works when you accept that there’s just no pinning it down, but many, justifiably, prefer series that are less whimsical.

Still, it’s this mixed bag of themes and moods that really helps keep the stories themselves from becoming too formulaic. Ghost-of-the-Week and supporting characters don’t need to conform to genre definitions and end up very three-dimensional with wildly different motivations from story to story. You also start to see some intriguing hints at a metaplot in this volume and though formulaic in content, the stories vary widely in interesting narrative flow.

Like I mentioned before, the art is really the major selling point of this book for me. Monster-of-the-week templates are really made or broken on the strength of visual design and the design of not only the ghosts, but the ‘bailiffs’ as well are interesting and imaginative. Misshapen dolls, centipede girls, a possessed chair with a face only the Necronomicon could love, they’re creepy without flying fully into the realm of grotesque. The visual narrative is also very solid; this is one of those books you could follow even if the dialog were not translated. Delineation is clean and legible throughout the book and ink techniques are deftly used to set the tone of various scenes: suspense relies on heavier detail and hatching while light-hearted scenes are very light and clean. Overall, the style reminds me of older horror manga styles done in a fun shonen style, but it really still stands on its own as unique.

*sigh* Remember how I mentioned how well-developed the minor characters were? Not the case with Mohyu and Roji themselves. Both are frustratingly one-dimensional and severely limited to their heavy-handed tsukkomi and boke roles. Like many manga heroes these days, Mohyu is an unrelenting stream of ego who is repellingly arrogant about being the best at what he does and is faced with zero real conflict throughout the volume. I’m sorry, but misanthropic arrogance does not dynamic conflict make and I really get tired of seeing The Adventures of Naturally Talented Self-Entitled Egoist:The Still not Breaking a Sweat Saga. On this next point, I may be a little biased by personal spiritual belief against the idea of hellfire and brimstone, but once you also place the ability to sentence formerly living persons to eternal damnation into a vile inverse Mary Sue’s hands, it starts coming off as more than a little fascistic. On the other hand, you have Roji. Roji…I can see how attaching a sympathetic character to the Josef Stalin of supernatural justice might help engender their adventures to the reader, but this one is really too stupid for sympathy. Roji is such an impotent waste of weeping human flesh you can almost forgive Muhyo’s condescending hatred of humanity. Still, when the moral of every story is Muhyo is right, even when he makes a mistake, it ends up reading more like Ayn Rand than fun ghost-hunting shenanigans.

Lots of potential in this series, but so far, I found the main characters seriously off-putting. Throw a little more development at them and tone down their social maladjustments and I can actually call this a must read though.