InuYasha was the first comic that I actively collected, the manga that introduced me to the Wednesday comic-buying ritual and the very notion of self-identifying as a fan. Though I followed it religiously for years, trading in my older editions for new ones, watching the anime, and speculating about the finale, my interest in the series gradually waned as I was exposed to new artists and new genres. Still, InuYasha held a special place in my heart; reading it was one of my seminal experiences as a comic fan, making me reluctant to re-visit InuYasha for fear of sullying those precious first-manga memories. VIZ’s recent decision to re-issue InuYasha in an omnibus edition, however, inspired me to pick it up again. I made a shocking discovery in the process of re-reading the first chapters: InuYasha is good. Really good, in fact, and deserving of more respect than it gets from many critics.
What makes InuYasha work? I can think of five reasons:
1. The story arcs are long enough to be complex and engaging, but not so long as to test the patience.
There’s a Zen quality to Rumiko Takahashi’s storytelling that might not be obvious at first glance; after all, she loves a pratfall or a sword fight as much as the next shonen manga-ka. Don’t let that surface activity fool you, however: Takahashi has a terrific sense of balance, staging a romantic interlude between a demon-of-the-week episode and a longer storyline involving Naraku’s minions, thus preventing the series from devolving into a punishing string of battle arcs. The other great advantage of this approach is that Takashi carves out more space for her characters to interact as people, not just combatants; as a result, InuYasha is one of the few shonen manga in which the characters’ relationships evolve over time.
2. Takahashi knows how to stage a fight scene that’s dramatic, tense, and mercifully short.
3. InuYasha‘s villains are powerful and strange, not strawmen.
Though we know our heroes will prevail — it’s shonen, for Pete’s sake — Takahashi throws creative obstacles in their way that makes their eventual triumph more satisfying. Consider Naraku. In many respects, he’s a standard-issue bad guy: he’s omnipotent, charismatic, and manipulative, capable of finding the darkness and vulnerability in the purest soul. (He also has fabulous hair, another reliable indication of his villainy.) Yet the way in which Naraku wields power is genuinely unsettling, as he fashions warriors from pieces of himself, then reabsorbs them into his body when they outlive their usefulness. Naraku’s manifestations are peculiar, too. Some are female, some are children, some have monstrous bodies, and some have the power to create their own demonic offspring, but few look like the sort of golem I’d create if I wanted to wreak havoc. And therein lies Naraku’s true power: his opponents never know what form he’ll take next, or whether he’s already among them.
Sesshomaru, too, is another villain who proves more interesting than he first appears. In the very earliest chapters of the manga, he’s a bored sociopath who has no qualms about using InuYasha’s mama trauma to trick his younger brother into revealing the Tetsusaiga’s location. As the story progresses, however, Sesshomaru begins tolerating the company of a cheerful eight-year-old girl who, in a neat inversion of the usual human-canine relationship, is dependent on her dog-demon master for protection, food, and companionship. Takahashi resists the urge to fully “humanize” Sesshomaru, however; he remains InuYasha’s scornful adversary for most of the series, largely unchanged by his peculiar fixation with Rin.
And did I mention that Sesshomaru has awesome hair? Oh, to be a villain in a Takahashi manga!
4. InuYasha‘s female characters kick ass.
Back in 2008, Shaenon Garrity wrote a devastatingly funny article about the seven types of female characters in shonen manga, from The Tomboy to The Little Girl to The Experienced Older Woman. I’m pleased to report that none of these types appear in InuYasha; in fact, InuYasha boasts one of the smartest, toughest, and most appealing set of female characters in shonen manga. And by “tough,” I don’t mean that Kagome, Kikyo, and Sango brandish weapons while wearing provocative outfits; I mean they persist in the face of adversity, even if their own lives are at stake. They’re strong enough to hold their own against demons, ghosts, and heavily armed bandits, and wise enough to know when words are more effective than weapons. They’re not adverse to the idea of romance, but recovering the Shikon Jewel takes precedence over dating. And they’re woman enough to cry if something awful happens, though they’d rather shed their tears in private than show their pain to others.
5. The horror! The horror!
Takahashi may have the coolest resume of anyone working in manga today; not only did she study script writing with Kazuo Koike, she also worked as an assistant to Kazuo Umezu — an apprenticeship that’s evident in the early chapters of InuYasha. In between Kagome and InuYasha’s first encounters with Naraku are a handful of short but spooky stories in which seemingly benign objects — a noh mask, a peach tree — are transformed by Shikon Jewel shards into instruments of torture and killing. Takahashi’s horror stories are less florid than Umezu’s, with fewer detours into WTF? territory, but like Umezu, Takahashi has a vivid imagination that yields some decidedly scary images. Here, for example, is the demonic peach tree from chapter 79, “The Fruits of Evil”:
Takahashi doesn’t just use these images to shock; she uses them to illustrate the consequences of ugly emotions, impulsive actions, and violent behavior, to show us how these choices slowly corrode the soul and transform us into the most monstrous version of ourselves. (Also to show us the consequences of substituting human bones and blood for Miracle Gro. Kids, don’t try this at home.)
What Takahashi does better than almost anyone is walk the fine line between terror and horror. Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), was one of the first writers to argue that terror and horror were different states of arousal. “Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them,” she wrote in an 1826 essay, “On the Supernatural in Poetry.” Critiquing Radcliffe’s work in 1966, Devendra P. Varma explained that difference more concretely: “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.” And that’s exactly where Takahashi operates: she gives us tantalizing, suggestive glimpses of scary things, then keeps them obscured until the denouement of the story, allowing our imaginations to supply most of the grisly details. We read her work in a heightened state of awareness, which only intensifies our pleasure — and revulsion — when the true nature of Kagome and InuYasha’s foes are revealed.
* * * * *
If you haven’t looked at InuYasha in a while, or missed it during the height of its popularity, now is a great time to give it a try. Each volume of the VIZBIG edition collects three issues, allowing readers to more fully immerse themselves in the story. And if you’re a purist about packaging, you’ll be happy to know that VIZ is finally issuing InuYasha in an unflipped format — a first in the series’ US history.
BurningLizard saysApril 30, 2011 at 12:42 am
I’ve considered reading this, but haven’t gotten around to it because it’s one of those series where the length turns me off (which is ironic, considering that’s the exact reason people won’t read the manga I recommend XD). Or maybe it’s because I already have my Takahashi favorite, and seeing anything she wrote after that just reminds me of how she didn’t give Ranma 1/2 a satisfying ending.
But we both know that the real reason is because the internet will make fun of me if I read it. XD
Katherine Dacey saysApril 30, 2011 at 11:06 am
I don’t know why InuYasha doesn’t get much critical respect; I suspect its popularity among young teenagers is what doomed it among the manga cognoscenti. But now that there are fewer fourteen-year-olds writing InuYasha/Sesshomaru slash and drawing pictures of Kagome and InuYasha’s children, I think it’s safe to revisit the series again.
BurningLizard saysApril 30, 2011 at 2:17 pm
It’s funny, how I’ve been noticing parallels between those with good taste in manga, and literary professors. Both groups generally look down on whatever is too popular, and both groups write papers about what they do like and quote each others’ papers in said papers. So yeah. I think I’m noticing the birth of Manga Academia here. XD
But yeah, it is kind of a scary thought to admit to liking something that a bunch of prepubescents like. Either you’ll have a bunch of them gushing about what they like, and completely missing the point of why you like it in the first place. Or everyone else will think your tastes haven’t evolved beyond that of a fourteen year old.
Logan saysApril 30, 2011 at 3:44 am
I hate to have another long shounen on my list of things to read, but all these points sound like the recipe for a really great manga. I think I’ll have to give this one a try after I finish up with Hikaru no Go or DBZ.
Katherine Dacey saysApril 30, 2011 at 11:11 am
Of all the manga your local library is likely to own, InuYasha is high on the list; given that it’s been available in one form or another for 15 years, there’s an excellent chance the library owns at least the first few volumes. Another inexpensive way to track down copies of the early volumes is to join Paperback Swap, where you can trade books with other members for free. If you’re not fussy about the edition, you could probably snag the first six-ten volumes of the series without paying for them. I’ve been using Paperback Swap to replace all my copies of Ranma 1/2, which I sold several years ago.
Last but not least, the new three-in-one omnibus editions are a good deal. The list price is $19.95, but you can often get them for about $12-$14 apiece by ordering them from Amazon. VIZ has released six volumes of the VIZBIG edition (the first eighteen volumes of the series), and the seventh is on the way later this spring.
Logan saysMay 1, 2011 at 6:30 am
Yeah, my local library is pretty great (King County Library System) so I get a lot of manga from them, especially the long shounen ones that I would never possibly be able to pay for (they even have every edition of InuYasha!). Paperback Swap sounds fantastic though, since there are series that the library doesn’t have, or that I just like so much I’d need to have on my bookshelf. I don’t yet have too many manga I’m willing to part with in order to get one in return, but I’m sure that day will come.
John Jakala saysApril 30, 2011 at 2:00 pm
I just started reading Inuyasha in the VIZBIG format and I’m loving it. I’ve been impressed with how tightly plotted it is — so far all the twists and reveals seem to hold together really well. And I love the moral ambiguity of the villains — I’m only up to VIZBIG vol. 5 so far but already the bad guys all have interesting complexities to them.
For anyone just starting out with the series I’d highly recommend going the VIZBIG route: The series is unflipped from the beginning and it really is a good bargain — I’ve been buying them off Buy.com for $11.19 apiece, which works out to less than 4 bucks a volume. And the artwork looks so crisp on the better paper stock it’s almost like I’m reading it on an iPad!
Jade Harris saysApril 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm
If there’s any manga series worth 50+ volumes, it’s Inu-Yasha. It’s ridiculously good stuff and it’s amazing to think that’s not all Takahashi can do well.
I really liked what you had to say about the horror content. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t even think of it as horror, it’s not a slave to the genre and doesn’t run down a checklist of horror tropes. Takahashi wields the elements effectively in a story that’s broad, original and cohesive enough that it doesn’t easily fit into any genre labels.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 1, 2011 at 10:34 pm
Thanks, Jade! I think you’re right about InuYasha: Takahashi blends genre tropes so seamlessly that it’s hard to find a single label that really describes what it is.
Angela saysMay 1, 2011 at 9:07 am
Funny, I think your feature image is the exact point where I gave up on InuYasha.
I liked the characters, and I loved the story at first. But after a time it just felt too repetitive to me. Once we get all the characters and realize Naraku is our main baddy, each story arch read the same to me: collect the shards, fight Naraku, Naraku gets away, oh no we lost the shards. I got frustrated by that, and by that time I was collecting so many other manga that it couldn’t hold my interest.
That said, the part that I always wished I could read on its own is the story between Sessshomaru and Rin. I loved it.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 1, 2011 at 10:38 pm
If you’re keen on Sesshomaru and Rin’s relationship, you might want to dip into later story arcs, as Rin becomes an increasingly visible and important character. Rumic World has volume-by-volume summaries of the entire series, which you could scan if you were interested in pinpointing the exact chapters in which Sesshomaru and Rin feature prominently. Here’s the link: http://www.furinkan.com/iycompanion/manga/index.html.
lovelyduckie saysMay 2, 2011 at 4:26 pm
I know I’ve mentioned this to you before but I’m DEFINITELY going to be reading Inuyasha sometime soon (I mean hell I own every volume). The Inuyasha anime completely pulled me in for a while in the early years, but lets face it…the anime abused my patience. Back then I was just starting to try out “Shonen” series and didn’t realize that a lot of the episodes that bored me may have been filler. So I’m looking forward to re-experiencing a series I once cherished, and then discarded in disgust after the last episode that resolved nothing. I know there is a new anime that gives Inuyasha a more appropriate ending, but at this point I really should just read the manga instead.
ALSO I didn’t realize that Viz had flipped Inuyasha…I wouldn’t say I’m a purist…but I have an awkward time switching gears and reading the “opposite” way initially. Are there any other VizBig differences? If there was a “better” translation I’d probably re-buy.
OH ALSO I just finish Genkaku Picasso, I HIGHLY recommend that series. I can hardly believe it’s a Shonen Jump title, it’s quite unique and only 3 volumes long. I reviewed it if you’re interested http://bit.ly/ilVSmI
hamster428 saysJuly 18, 2011 at 8:55 am
I don’t know about new translations, but they probably cleaned up the editings. Another big difference is that VIZbig editions also contain extra colored pages that were printed b&w in the old version. I’m buying them now as I never bought the old one, but unless you’ve got money to spare, or really really love Inuyasha, I don’t think it’s worth it. The books are nice, but heavy, so they’re cumbersome to hold (something to consider if you take mangas to read on the train like I do).
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 18, 2011 at 9:27 pm
The new iPad edition of InuYasha is a nice compromise: you get all the perks of the VIZBIG print version (color pages, 600+ pages of story at a low price) without the bulk. (I’m not sure if the text is newly translated or simply revised to suit current industry standards.) If I didn’t have a strong desire to own it in print, I’d be downloading it from the VIZ iTunes store right now!
hamster428 saysJuly 19, 2011 at 10:49 am
To further answer the 1st question, here’s some comparisons for Dragon Ball. Can’t find any for Inuyasha but I’m sure you can expect some editing there too.
@ Katherine… I can’t seem to warm up to the idea of ebooks. I like holding a physical book and flipping through pages. And I don’t know about anyone else, but if I’m going to pay money, I want a real manga (us otakus are collectors like that anyway).
lovelyduckie saysAugust 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm
Has any censoring changed from the original Inuyasha release to VizBig? I finally started reading Inuyasha but I’m wondering if I should switch to VizBig
Katherine Dacey saysAugust 26, 2011 at 5:39 pm
I don’t think any material was censored from the original edition. I’d have to compare the personnel between editions to know if the new version is significantly different translation-wise.
Anand saysMay 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm
InuYasha was also my introduction to manga, and I agree with the above. Except for a few too many ‘power-up’ arcs later on, InuYasha is still a very good series. Which, thankfully, never devolves into a cycle of tournaments. The first 20-something volumes are golden. But the characters don’t really evolve much after that point. 40 Volumes probably would have been the perfect overall length.
Katherine Dacey saysMay 14, 2011 at 11:42 am
You’re right about the length: InuYasha could have been 40 volumes and still reached a satisfactory conclusion. It’s a shame that Takahashi was encouraged to keep it going as long as she did, as I think its length is a real turn-off for many readers. Still, it occupies a special place in my heart, not least for introducing me to Takahashi and to Shonen Sunday.
Maiinkan saysMay 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm
really? I always thought of Inuyasha as being too SHORT… after all, Bleach, naruto, and one piece are much longer…
Katherine Dacey saysMay 14, 2011 at 1:10 pm
Don’t get me wrong: I love the characters, and was perfectly happy to read 56 volumes about Kagome, InuYasha, Shippo, Miroku, and Sango. At the same time, however, I also feel that the later volumes of the series didn’t feel quite as urgent or necessary as the early ones, and was glad that Takahashi did such a good job of resolving the major storylines in the final chapters.
FWIW, I’m a little biased, as I generally find series in the 10-20 volume range to be my ideal length, though there are definitely exceptions to that rule, e.g. One Piece, Lone Wolf and Cub.
steamphunk saysJune 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm
I was pretty young when this came out in 1996 in Japan, and I remember catching episodes of the anime very now and again when it was on Cartoon Network. I grew up knowing about it but I never really cared for it too much. Until a few days ago, that is. I only just started reading it and I can gladly say it has been added to my short list of favorites.
Jordan saysSeptember 24, 2011 at 3:46 am
Sorry, i have to disagree on this series, i read it beginning to end, as i did have enough respect for it and needed to see how it ended to keep it up. However i have to say its way way to drawn out, when you say “The story arcs are long enough to be complex and engaging, but not so long as to test the patience.” i see right where i would easily drop most series, what arcs? it was the same thing over and over, inyuyasha hardly ever got any new abilities, and when he does its not an upgrade for long and almost useless soon enough. alot of the chapters had very similer focuses, even the battles with naraku had the same feel, true ill admit that varied at times but i would have to read 100 or more chapters to even get back to the main story sometimes (don’t correct me its a estimation lol) There was hardly any real catastrophes for the characters to overcome, and the ones there were did not have enough impact on me. Inyuyasha was able to go to the present and yet hardly any of the story forcused there, it would of been very cool to have a real naraku battle there, rather then in the past where entire cities could vanish and hardly anyone would care.
me saysDecember 1, 2012 at 7:42 am
i like the series except the romance. i think half of it could’ve been cut and it wouldnt affect anything. and i dont get what’s the point of attempting a romance if you’re never going to actually go all the way (inuyasha/kagome) i dont mean sex i mean like in shojo where they actually confess, kiss, etc.
yet romance seems to be all people care about in the fanbase. also, filler chapters.