Yokai Rental Shop is a classic example of Monkey Paw Theater, in which a foolish person comes into possession of a magical object, uses said object to grant an ill-advised wish, then pays a terrible price for his rash decision. Author Shin Mashiba puts a Japanese spin on W.W. Jacob’s famous story, substituting a nekomata and an okuri-inu for a cursed paw, but otherwise conforms the tenets of the genre. The clientele of Pet Shop Crow seek quick or unwise solutions to everyday problems: one mourns the untimely demise of her favorite idol, another dreads his daily encounter with bullies, and a third worries that her younger sister is trying to steal her boyfriend. To help each client “solve” her problem, shop owner Karasu rents them an exotic pet with special abilities. That pet comes with specific instructions — defy them and the deal goes sideways, resulting in bodily harm or emotional trauma.
I liked this story better when it was called Pet Shop of Horrors.
Part of the problem is that Karasu’s clientele is an unsympathetic lot, especially when contrasted with the characters in “The Monkey’s Paw” or Pet Shop of Horrors. The bullying victim, for example, is so enraptured by his yokai companion’s powers that he explicitly ignores Karasu’s instructions, fantasizing about how he will utilize his new-found strength. Within two pages, however, he realizes the folly of his arrogance, as the okuri-inu metamorphoses into a canid Godzilla with a taste for human flesh. Only a quick intervention from Karasu prevents the chapter from devolving into a gruesome spectacle, though you may wish that Karasu had adopted a more laissez-faire attitude towards his foolish client.
The other major issue plaguing Yokai Rental Shop is that Mashiba doesn’t stick with the monster-of-the-week formula for long. A subplot involving Karasu and his half-brother Hiiragi, a fussy civil servant, takes a detour into InuYasha territory when Karasu makes an important discovery about their father. Mashiba tries milking the brothers’ temperamental differences for laughs, but the jokes don’t land with much force; if you’ve seen one episode of The Odd Couple or read a chapter of xxxHolic, you’ve seen this dynamic executed with more gusto and imagination, two qualities that Yokai Rental Shop sorely lacks.
Neither of these deficiencies would be so glaring if the artwork was less perfunctory, but Mashiba’s serviceable character designs and settings do little to imbue the story with its own identity. The shop’s clientele, in particular, are blandly interchangeable; they look like they belong in a government-issue manga about tax returns or recycling, lacking the kind of individuality that might highlight the poignancy of their dilemmas or underscore just how determined they are to get what they want. Even the “turn” in each story — in which the yokai reveal their true natures — is executed in get-the-job-done manner, relying too much on dialogue, smudgy screentone, and slashing lines to suggest what’s happening.
By skimping on these moments, Mashiba misses a crucial opportunity to make the reader feel pity, revulsion, satisfaction, or fear at the outcome of each story; the strongest reaction that any of these scenarios elicits is a shrug of the shoulders. The reader is left wondering why the author even bothered with the horror angle when her true objective seems to be writing a dramedy about a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of brothers—albeit eccentric ones.
YOKAI RENTAL SHOP, VOL. 1 • BY SHIN MASHIBA • TRANSLATED BY AMANDA HALEY, ADAPTED BY JULIA KINSMAN • SEVEN SEAS ENTERTAINMENT • RATED TEEN