The Black Gate is Death
Sometimes I wonder why manga authors put those little self-depreciating notes in the margins of their comics. Too often I find myself agreeing with them. In “Black Gate,” for example, Yukiko Sumiyoshi writes that this is her first time attempting a long story in a comic, instead of the usual short strips that she does, and that she doesn’t really know how to structure a long story.
She is correct. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really know how to structure a long story, and <em>Black Gate</em> suffers for it. All of the elements necessary to a great manga are here. Interesting premise, good plot, nice art…all that is really missing is characterization and good story-telling.
The premise of the comic is that in this world when someone dies their spirit passes through a White Gate into the afterlife. Occasionally, instead of a White Gate a Black Gate is opened, and instead of being content with the single spirit the Black Gate will try and suck up the spirits of the living as well. The very existence of a Black Gate unsettles things, causing accidents that can lead to deaths to feed the hungry gate. Only a few people have the ability to see these gates and close them, and they are known as Mitedamashi.
The story follows Senju, and adult Mitedamashi and his young charge Hijiri. The two are perpetually poor (For some reason being a Mitedamashi doesn’t pay very well even though it is an elite and necessary profession. There is no real reason given for this, other than it is funnier to have Senju and Hijiri poor and scrounging for food) and Hijiri is more of a bother than a help to Senju. Hijiri is a stereotypical “scrappy kid,” thinking he is tougher and more powerful than he actually is and annoying everyone around him. Senju has some deep bond with Hijiri, and some reason for watching over the kid that even Hijiri doesn’t know. Senju does his best to keep Hijiri from danger, even though Hijiri tries to tackle Black Gates far beyond his power level.
Over time, it is revealed that Hijiri is the last of a line of Gate Keepers, a race who had the ability to see and close not only the Black Gates but the White Gates as well. The leader of the Gate Keepers went mad and attempted to close all of the Gates in the world and end death, which is something that never goes over very well. There are those hunting the last Gate Keeper, to ensure that they never mess with the balance again, and there are others hunting the last Gate Keeper because they think the insane leader had a pretty good idea in sealing off all the Gates and ending death, and they want to give it another go.
I like all of the bits and pieces of “Gate Keeper,” but not so much the whole. The premise and plot are great, and if Sumiyoshi had gotten a little help with the story telling and characterization, then this could have been a smashing series. But too many of the characters are flat, especially Hijiri who never moves beyond the annoying kid stereotype (Hijiri never ages either, so even though several years pass in the manga, we have to deal with him as a little kid for the whole series). Some of the story jumps are too abrupt, like the sudden change from Gate closing to hunting a serial killer that murders Mitedamashi.
The art is great in “Black Gate.” You can see from the cover that Sumiyoshi is a very strong artist. And if you are the type of manga fan who likes to look at the art, with just a bit of story stringing it together, you might love <em>Black Gate</em>. But me, I am first and foremost a reader, and the story matters more than the art. And there just isn’t enough story here.
Tokyo Pop has packed all three volumes of “Black Gate”together for this collection. As far as I know, they were never released separately. It makes the collection affordable, although the large size makes it unwieldy for carrying around with you in your backpack if you read your manga out and about like I do.