Onkei

8.0 Overall Score
Art: 9/10
Writing/Story: 7/10
Impact: 7/10

Professional, fluid artwork | Thoughtful reminder of virtuous power | Allusive and symbolic | Keen, effective humor | Perfect for fans of Hotarubi no Mori e

Predictable characterization and plotting | Unanswered questions | Too condensed

Onkei

Author: Alisha Cole

Publisher: Dragon Spice

Genre: Fantasy, Slice-of-Life, Supernatural, Romance

“This is me, Kenji Yoshimoto. Or rather, this was me. Like a puddle, my life was stagnant, colorless, reflecting the world around it, without offering anything in return. And I thought that my life would always be that way… But that is the funny thing about water: it never stays still for long. All it takes is that one inevitable disturbance to come along to stir the water, and things are never the same. I just kept walking in my usual haze, blissfully unaware that my day of disturbance had come to catch me by surprise… and that my life would be changed.”

With a balanced blend of poetic charm and symbolic visuals that would do Naoshi Arakawa credit, Onkei tells a deceptively “ordinary” story using extraordinary circumstances. Part slice-of-life and part supernatural fantasy, the narrative walks in the footsteps of Hotarubi no Mori e with dashes of Spirited Away’s mythological encounters.

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Onkei makes itself generously accessible to the average otaku, without delving too far into yokai and kanji to alienate any curious newcomers to the manga medium. Protagonist, Kenji Yoshimoto, feels tailor-made for the reader and narrative. His struggles broadly resonate with the human psyche: he wants love, wants adventure, and wants purpose. And in being a perfectly mundane individual without drive or direction, Kenji eventually surpasses his role as a mere character and becomes a symbol for the narrative’s theme of everyday heroism—that small acts of kindness keep evil at bay and ultimately change the world.

onkei__pg_000_revised_by_tiffa-d9hbjleAfter accidentally absorbing the “blessing of Japan” during a ceremony of spirits, Kenji must live his life as the embodiment of that blessing, even at great personal cost. Provided with god-like powers, Kenji none-the-less struggles with less supernatural things: like asking out that girl he likes and discovering his personal passions.

Accompanying Kenji is a charming, if not stereotypical, cast of characters. Kane Sasaki—bestie and secondary to the protagonist—offers a refreshing take on the “bad boy” trope by stripping away his in-class charm to reveal off-guard moments of stupor and empathy (and an adorable awkwardness reminiscent of Vash the Stampede). The remaining cast generally serve only to advance the story or provide flavor to the world itself.

Onkei, in true slice-of-life fashion, feels like a snapshot of a much bigger picture. As a result, some sub-plots never come full circle and many characters pose unanswered questions. But in leaving a few loose threads, the author seems to imply that her world has much more to offer and wants to leave the reader with a sense of wonder over the unknown—a tactic that Japanese storytellers, including Miyazaki, have used throughout the years to pull audiences in. That said, expanding Onkei from a one-shot to a 3-volume series certainly would have done no harm. Readers are likely to turn the final page, only to glance at the book’s spine for a non-existent “Vol. 1” insignia, signifying that Kenji and co. have more adventures ahead of them.

If the storytelling is unpredictable, it is due only to its whimsical nature. Onkei does not bother with any shocking heel-face-turns or angsty struggles with “glorious purpose,” and the narrative stays comfortably on-track without derailing itself from its themes. But to excuse Onkei as simply predictable is to do it a disservice, as it is rich with allusion and rewards its consumers for multiple reads. Taking time to scrutinize panels reveals both the artist’s and author’s attention to detail, particularly when decorum, angles, and lighting are used to characterize the cast.

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Mangaka, Tiffany Lei, adds nuance to the story with her gentle but kinetic lineart, and no panel is wasted. For example, a drive-by puddle soaking serves to show both the protagonist’s lousy luck and the unpreventable change about to affect his life. Art is often as characterizing as it is metaphorical, which makes most panels double as easily-grasped symbols (characters happily reveal the meanings to readers who aren’t paying enough attention). In that sense, the story tells a bit too much of what is otherwise plainly obvious; however, readers are more likely to accept hand-holding from this timeless tale that’s as concerned with allegory as it is with traditional storytelling.

Characters and scenery flow with life, to the point that immersed readers will easily hear the flap and caw of a crow rustling the leaves of a branch, or feel their neck prickle as the finale coaxes an emotional climax of sights and sounds from the pages. The narrative effectively flatlines for humorous pauses, using timing, distortion, and character contrast for tickling comedic effect. Even while the story rushes certain developments, there’s a strong sense of pacing and rhythm that keeps the pages pulsing (and turning).

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Onkei is refreshing in many ways. There’s no objectifying of characters via fanservice or gratuitous physiology. A strong moral compass keeps the protagonist questioning minor conundrums that readers may have grown callous to, or forgotten the significance of, in their everyday lives. Most noticeably, the art lives and breathes with a desire to impart something valuable beyond mere entertainment.

In the midst of contemporary stories caught up in intellectual arguments and pretentious philosophy, Onkei dares to take a step back to the basics and ask: what power can the smallest act of goodness have? The answers might seem formulated at first blush, but Onkei goes beyond questioning the effect of kindness on others and reveals how offering kindness to others actually empowers and emboldens us as well.

In that sense, the title is more than an appropriate carry-over from the plotline. Readers entering Kenji’s world with an open mind and child-like heart are likely to receive a “blessing” themselves—a gentle reminder of their immense, inherent power to invoke positive change.

Purchase Onkei at the Dragon Spice store

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Author: Casey Covel View all posts by
Casey Lynn Covel (known online as “Cutsceneaddict”) is an award-winning, published writer, avid reader, and aspiring author. She runs a nerdy writing blog called Meek-Geek and founded PROJECT: Magic Kingdom Hearts in 2012. When she’s not writing for Geeks Under Grace, Florida Geek Scene, Beneath the Tangles, or FROM JAPAN, she enjoys cosplaying, and has won several awards for her work. Follow her on Instagram for her latest cosplay endeavors. #meekischic

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