Mao Volume 1 Review
There aren’t many mangaka as revered or successful as Rumiko Takahashi. Her creations defined entire generations with classics like Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2, and now she’s back with a new–but decidedly familiar–shounen series dubbed Mao. Though this first volume is brief, it sets the stage for a compelling old-school narrative about time travel, demonic curses, yokai, and the awakening of great power from within.
The story is told through the eyes of Nanoka, a middle school student who miraculously survived a tragic road cave-in that claimed both of her parents years prior. As a result, she grew up with a frail constitution and very few solid memories of that fateful day.
Fast-forward eight years later and as she’s walking home to her grandfather’s house she happens to stop by the site of the accident, which is right in front of a now-abandoned shopping center. Hearing some strange sounds from within causes her to step inside, and before she knows it Nanoka is suddenly transported to another world and abruptly attacked by a bloodthirsty yokai. Enter Mao, the titular exorcist who heals her after the encounter and eventually reveals that she’s stepped 100 years in the past–and that she might not be as human as she once thought.
For better and worse, Mao throws readers right into the thick of the action without much time spent fleshing out Nanoka’s personality outside of her standoffishness at school and her physical weakness. On one hand, this gets the ball rolling towards the action and the fun group dynamic Nanoka eventually establishes with Mao and his assistant Otoya. On the other hand, since readers barely have a chance to get to know her, Nanoka ends up coming off rather bland and uninteresting for the majority of the volume. The role she serves is akin to a blank slate protagonist in a video game; she’s always having things explained to her and reacting to her surroundings rather than being her own distinct person. Nine times out of ten the real stars of the show are Mao and the doll-like Otoya, both of whom are tropey but interesting nonetheless.
Thankfully, the overarching plot is compelling enough on its own to make this first volume a page-turner. Mao’s tireless quest to find the Byouki that cursed him hundreds of years ago is a classic yet potent hook that quickly establishes an end goal while simultaneously tying Mao and Nanoka together in a predictable yet exciting way. It also gives purpose to the series of murder mysteries the trio begin investigating: Mao has been hunting the Byouki down for ages, and Nanoka slots into the team seamlessly as a valuable third. The fact that she eventually does some research and forms her own motivation for wanting to hunt the monster down just reinforces their motivation even more.
While the pacing feels a bit rushed at times, Takahashi does an admirable job of keeping readers invested in learning about both the mystery behind the Byouki’s curse and the moment-to-moment adventures the crew goes on. Part of this is thanks to fantastic monster design; the Byouki and all of the other yokai look truly intimidating and formidable despite how much of a cakewalk they might be to actually face.
For as enjoyable as Mao is chapter-to-chapter, however, there are a couple issues that’ve already popped up in this first volume. The first is how quickly Mao spoils its eventual romance. Fans of Takahashi’s previous works might’ve assumed as much from the outset, but there still could’ve been a playful “will they, won’t they” dynamic between Mao and Nanoka if their romance was inferred rather than outright declared. What’s worse is that there’s absolutely no romantic development in this first volume, making the framing unnecessary altogether when it could’ve been a sweet, gradual build over time. This isn’t a deal-breaker, and it remains to be seen how well the relationship is handled as the series continues, but it’s nonetheless an annoyance that could’ve been easily avoided.
The other misstep is how Mao quickly establishes himself as immortal, largely taking the stakes out of any battle he takes part in. Having an overpowered hero is by-the-numbers for shounen manga, of course, but having it to the point where he listlessly lets enemies attack him once he loses interest in the fight takes some of the excitement out of each encounter. Thankfully, Nanoka starting to awaken her own abilities by the end of volume one instills a bit of hope that future bouts will have more at stake.
The beginning of Mao feels like the start of a grand adventure that Rumiko Takahashi might’ve conceived decades ago. Her art style is as distinct and striking as ever, though it may come off as a bit bland or soft to younger manga readers accustomed to the more bombastic and detailed action sequences favored popularly today. For those itching for a nostalgic action-adventure series that’s shamelessly old-school and traditional, however, Mao may be exactly what you’re looking for.