Review: Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks

Posted by DarkChaplain at 9/28/2016
In an ancient Japan where the incursions of gods, ghosts, and demons into the living world is an everyday event, an impoverished nobleman named Yamada no Goji makes his living as a demon hunter for hire.

With the occasional assistance of the reprobate exorcist Kenji, whatever the difficulty — ogres, demons, fox-spirits — for a price Yamada will do what needs to be done, even and especially if the solution to the problem isn’t as simple as the edge of a sword.

Yet, no matter how many monsters he has to face, or how powerful and terrible they may be, the demons Yamada fears the most are his own!
I enjoy detective stories, and I enjoy japanese culture and glimpses of the country's tumultuous history. I've watched more anime than I'd care to count, and less than I'd like to, and always enjoyed the old timey feudal-era media. And, obviously, I like fantasy stories and the supernatural. So when I came across Yamada Monogatari, book four of which was recently released, I knew I had to dig into that. No regrets.

The Story:
"In an ancient Japan where the incursions of gods, ghosts, and demons into the living world is an everyday event, an impoverished nobleman named Yamada no Goji makes his living as a demon hunter for hire.

With the occasional assistance of the reprobate exorcist Kenji, whatever the difficulty — ogres, demons, fox-spirits — for a price Yamada will do what needs to be done, even and especially if the solution to the problem isn’t as simple as the edge of a sword.

Yet, no matter how many monsters he has to face, or how powerful and terrible they may be, the demons Yamada fears the most are his own!"

The Review:
Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter is an interesting blend of detective stories, pre-feudal Japan and supernatural folklore. It is a unique take on a setting usually overlooked in literature, and while not massively descriptive of the Heian era's architecture or society as a whole, it works.

The book consists of 10 individual short stories, all told in a first person perspective through Yamada no Goji, a professional hunter of supernatural beings and minor noble. Every story links back to previous ones, so reading them in order is heavily encouraged and will get you the most out of the book. While each could be read as a stand-alone piece, the full impact of Yamada-san's story grows as you progress through the individual pieces, up to a, to me, very satisfying close to it all - at least as far as Demon Hunter is concerned.

This linear, interconnected nature of the stories means that talking about each of the parts individually is tough, especially since I do not want to spoil key elements for you. One of the stories, for example, is a pivotal moment in Yamada's life, and influences the entire rest of the book to greater or lesser extent. To fully address the stories affected by these events, I'd have to talk about them, which would do a disservice to potential readers. The emotional impact of these sections was exciting to me as a reader, and I'd like you to be surprised by them as well.

Either way, the stories all follow a similar pattern: Yamada no Goji is called to "solve", or stumbles upon, a supernatural phenomenon and attempts to untangle the unfolding mystery. Often, this involves more than a simple exorcism, and leads to a more human root of the problem, which Yamada-san has to uncover to bring the perpetrator to justice.

The first story, for example, has him chase down a Fox Spirit, who, in japanese folklore, are shapeshifters. In another, a mysterious Oni barrs an important road, and the protagonist is hired to dispatch it. In yet another story, an important man of the Emperor's court suffers from a haunting, and Yamada needs to figure out who actually caused it. There's always a more emotional, spiritual twist to things, rather than the clinical, factual way of most detective stories.

Every single story is more than a simple hunt for a demon, killing it and collecting the rewards. This isn't like a japanese Witcher story or the likes. Often, the narrative is about very human problems, jealousy, power plays or grief. The supernatural spirits, demons or ogres are rarely openly menacing (well, the Oni are), and often come up in a supporting role to setting a record straight. I loved that Parks didn't go the easy route of demonizing the supernatural, and instead made it a very common, natural part of Heian Japan, the way it was supposed to be.

Heian Japan predates the feudal era of warlords, but you can see the rise of the samurai class and the warring clans from here. Various stories reference skirmishes and campaigns, though as of yet, Japan is still, mostly, at peace, as the name Heian implies. This time period saw a high of spirituality, with Buddhism and Taoism going strong, and people, especially those of higher stations, being more concerned with evil spirits and personal advancement than war and survival. A lot of that is reflected in Yamada Monogatari. The Fujiwara clan is constantly attempting to seize more power over the imperial court, including through inter-marriage with other houses.

Monks and priests appear in many of the stories, most notably Kenji the reprobate priest, who excells in exorcism and writing spirit wards, yet has a few... character flaws. He quickly becomes the Lord Yamada's confidant and, in a way, the Watson to his Sherlock, accompanying him to most assignments and offering support, for a share of the reward. It is often noted how much Kenji deviates from the teachings of his priesthood, yet there are some very neat tidbits about his history that make him more than the sinful, drinking and lustful priest he might be seen as.

The focus of it all, however, is Yamada no Goji's personal drama. His life situation isn't great. He lives in a cheap room at an inn, develops an alcohol problem and, being born the bastard son of a nobleman (who, thankfully, acknowledged him as his own), he has little political clout beyond the respect he earns (and loses) through his actions and abilities. He is a highly intelligent man, but not the youngest anymore, and has many regrets and secrets - and that's great!
Yamada no Goji is a flawed character with some amazing skills, but still very grounded in his humanity. He makes mistakes, and often wallows in self-pity. He isn't a master detective on the level of Sherlock Holmes, but he's got a touch of him for certain, even though he doesn't suffer from the same level of professional arrogance as the resident of Baker's Street.
Most importantly, Yamada-san is a character willing to learn and accept new things. His character develops throughout the book in both negative and positive ways, and ends up proving personal strength. He tip-toes the line between worlds, whether it be firm reality and the spirit realm or near-poverty and the high society of the imperial court. He gives us a good slice of the period's quirks and fantastical elements, as well as japanese philosophy. There's a lot to like about him, and his voice as the narrator is strong, self-aware and easy to follow along.

For me, the formula worked expertly well, to the point where I am a little sad to see the following books in the series being straight novels, rather than mosaic-style anthologies like this one. I am eager to read more about Yamada no Goji and Kenji the priest, their circumstances, and the Fujiwara clan's lust for power. Seeing how the final story here ended, I am in no doubt that the personal stakes will rise even more, resulting in compelling stories in their own right.
As a reader with quite an interest in and familiarity with japanese media and history, this hit right home. The underlying setting seemed respectfully approached to me, and evoked a satisfying atmosphere as a backdrop for the drama.

Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter is a solid, easy read that I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in detective stories, especially in combination with even a passing interest in japanese history and folklore. It is a winning concept that I am surprised wasn't touched on in literature before, but am happy to have stumbled upon now.

Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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