The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Kekkaishi

I have a challenge for all you Shonen Jump readers: pick up a copy of Kekkaishi. It may not be as sexy as Death Note, or as goofy as One Piece, or as battle-focused as Bleach, but what it lacks in flash, it makes up in heart, humor, and good old-fashioned storytelling.

The premise of Kekkaishi is simple: Yoshimori Sumimura, a seemingly unremarkable fourteen-year-old boy, is a kekkaishi, or barrier-master. When he isn’t consuming unhealthy amounts of coffee-flavored milk, dozing off in class, or baking architecturally magnificent cakes (one of his pet obsessions), he’s patrolling the grounds of his school, which sits atop the Karasumori, a locus of magical energy that proves irresistible to ayakashi (demons) looking to augment their power. Yoshimori traps unwanted visitors within cube-shaped barriers, then vaporizes them, barrier and all.

Joining him on patrol are his sixteen-year-old neighbor Tokine Yukimura—a more disciplined kekkaishi whom Yoshimori secretly adores—and a small complement of demons that includes two dog spirits, Madarao and Hakubi, and a half-human, half-ayakashi, Gen Shishio. Further complicating matters are the families themselves: the Sumimuras and Yukimuras detest one another. Though their clans have been tasked with protecting the Karasumori for nearly 500 years, the oldest generation carries on an energetic feud, making it difficult for Yoshimori and Tokine to work together harmoniously. In short, Kekkaishi reads like an entertaining mash-up of Bleach, InuYasha, and Romeo and Juliet. (Or maybe Romeo Must Die. Take your pick.)

Each volume unfurls at a brisk clip, in part because Tanabe doesn’t feel the need to explain the entire mythology of the Karasumori site all at once. Nor does she resort to the kind of lazy, expository dialogue found in many shonen series with complicated backstories. (You know the kind: “As you know, Tokine, we’ve been combating ayakashi together for almost a year, and our faithful demon dog sidekicks have played an indispensable role in helping us rid the site of ayakashi. Don’t you think, childhood friend and neighbor of mine?”) Instead, Tanabe reveals details about the Karasumori site’s past gradually as she introduces new characters and confronts her principal cast members with new demonic challenges. In fact, the kekkaishis’ greatest adversaries—the Kokuburo, a group of powerful demons whose plan for world domination involves taking over the Karasumori site—don’t even appear in the first volume of the series.

What makes Kekkaishi such a joy to read is Yellow Tanabe’s consummate skill as both an illustrator and storyteller. Her artwork is clean and attractive, with bold lines and nicely composed pictures. Though her character designs are immensely appealing—and seem ready-made for the inevitable assortment of lunchboxes, t-shirts, shijikis, and coffee milk drinks that the series inspired—it’s her action sequences that really shine. Kekkaishi is one of the few shonen series where the fight scenes are (a) dynamic (b) thrilling (c) easy to follow (d) essential to the plot and (e) just the right length. There’s also a wonderful sense of play in Tanabe’s combat. Yoshimori and Tokine use kekkaishi not only as traps, but also as aerial stepping-stones that allow them to pursue demons mid-air.

There’s another appealing—and slyly didactic—aspect to these fight scenes as well. Though Yoshimori possesses greater spiritual powers than Tokine, it’s Tokine who frequently saves the day. Why? Because she practices creating barriers with the same diligence as she does her homework. Yoshimori, on the other hand, struggles to master his powers, sometimes embarking on marathon training sessions and other times neglecting to practice at all.

Kekkaishi offers readers more modest pleasures as well. Tanabe creates a colorful cast of supporting characters that include Yoshimori and Tokine’s sparring grandparents, who prove surprisingly spry for a couple of sexagenarians; Yoshimori’s father, who reminds me of James Dean’s apron-clad dad in Rebel Without a Cause; Masahiko Tsukijigaoka, a genial ghost who was a baker in life; Heisuke Matsudo, a nattily-dressed friend of Yoshimori’s grandfather with a specialty in weird science; and Mamezo, the grouchy guardian spirit of the Karasumori site who looks a bit like Kermit the Frog on a bender. Tanabe’s villains are a less colorful and distinctive bunch than, say, Naraku’s various incarnations, but I find that refreshing. For once the hero—and pals—are as vivid and appealing as the bad guys without having sordid or unnecessarily complicated backstories.

Like all shonen series, Kekkaishi suffers from an occasional dry spell. In volumes seven and eight, for example, the series seemed to have lost its mojo; I found the fight scenes tedious and felt Tanabe had fumbled in her depiction of Tokine, who went from being an appealing, competent character to a mere tag-along. But Tanabe quickly righted the ship in volume nine, introducing new characters, fleshing out the Kokoburo’s motives for capturing the Karasumori, staging some ecological intrigue at the Colorless Marsh, and revealing that Yoshimori’s dad has some demon-busting skills of his own. Though volume nine features two dramatic fight scenes, it’s the quieter, character-building moments that really shine, raising the emotional stakes by revealing unexpected facets of the heroes’ personalities; what happens in volume ten is all the more devastating because Tanabe makes us care deeply about her characters’ welfare.

If I still haven’t persuaded you that Kekkaishi is more fun than a barrel of demon monkeys, let me sing the praises of Yellow Tanabe’s omake. I don’t usually read sidebars or gag strips for reasons that David Welsh so aptly summarized in a memorable blog entry:

The content is generally pretty repetitive. They’re working really hard, and they’re sorry they’re behind on their fan mail. This volume isn’t as good as they’d have liked, but they’re trying, and reader support keeps them going. They wish they had a kitty. That sort of thing.

Tanabe’s omake steer clear of the usual bowing and scraping before the fandom. Instead, she depicts herself as a slightly tubby penguin with a perpetual scowl and an implacable panda for an editor. Not much happens in a typical strip, but the back-and-forth between penguin and panda is amusing and, for anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of editorial criticism, all too true. She also has a lot of fun explaining her creative decisions:

And if you’re still on the fence, let me pull out my trump card: Kekkaishi is complete. Done. Finished. Finito.

After a successful eight-year run in Weekly Shonen Sunday, the series wrapped on April 6th with the publication of its 334th chapter. And by successful, I mean successful in Japan, where the series inspired a 52-episode television series and a robust assortment of video games, and nabbed nabbed the 2007 Shogakukan Award for Best Shonen Series. Here in the US, however, Kekkaishi has barely made a ripple. VIZ has been making a concerted effort to promote the series, featuring sample chapters on its Shonen Sunday website, licensing broadcasting rights to Cartoon Network, and releasing two budget editions: one digital (for the iPad), and one print. (Look for the first three-in-one edition on May 3, 2011.) I’m not sure why Kekkaishi hasn’t caught on with American audiences yet, but now is a great time to jump into this addictive series. I dare you not to like it!

This is a revised version of an essay that originally appeared at PopCultureShock on 5/14/07.

33 thoughts on “The Best Manga You’re Not Reading: Kekkaishi”

  1. Manga Therapy says:

    “It may not be as sexy as Death Note, or as goofy as One Piece, or as battle-focused as Bleach”

    I think you summed it up right there. Most readers would rather something that has more flash than substance. Though One Piece has a lot of substance.

    Or maybe the fact that some characters don’t have crazy & unnecessarily complicated backstories. Some fans like that.

    I am going to pick it up since it’s ended. I’ve been told it’s a better version of Bleach.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I guess what it boils down to is sensibility: Shonen Sunday stories have a different vibe than Shonen Jump stories. Aside from InuYasha, I can’t name another Shonen Sunday manga that’s been nearly as big in the US as Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, or Rosario + Vampire. And that’s a shame, because I often find Shonen Sunday titles more fun to read: there’s more emphasis on the characters and less on epic fight scenes, which can grow very, very tedious.

      Let me know what you think once you’ve read a few volumes — I’ll be curious to hear new reader responses!

      1. Manga Therapy says:

        I actually enjoy Hayate the Combat Butler, another Shonen Sunday title. I think it’s pretty funny & wacky, sort of Monty Python-esque. Yes, there is lots of fanservice in it, but the humor really makes the story go.

        1. Katherine Dacey says:

          Hayate the Combat Butler — that’s one of my comfort food manga, too! It’s a lot of fun, and silly in all the right ways. I’m thinking it might need to get the BMYNR treatment, since I don’t get the sense it has a very big readership.

          1. Manga Therapy says:

            Good point, I know it’s extremely popular in Asia.

  2. JimYung says:

    I absolutely love Kekkaishi. I picked up a few volumes at the library and proceeded to get up to date with the releases. In recent volumes, I’ve been getting a bit concerned that Tokine might be put aside to focus on Yoshimori and the big conspiracy. The characters are very enjoyable and don’t fall into cliches too often. I miss Gen because I really liked his relationship with Yoshimori. I hope the new guy doesn’t become a Gen clone but I also hope he doesn’t betray them either.

    And I never knew Tanabe was a woman…

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t know Yellow Tanabe was a woman, either — I had several folks correct me when I reviewed a few volumes of the series for another website.

  3. CJ says:

    It’s kinda funny, I got into the series around the time volume 4 or 5 came out when I got a free copy of volume 4, then quickly picked up the ones I was missing. Then I was kinda like “is this ever going to end?” and stopped at volume 13. Then at Otakon that year, I saw volumes 14-17 for $5 each and went “oh, sure, what the hell” and got them and have been collecting them again ever since. I don’t tend to buy them right when they come out, mostly due to Borders being slow on even having them, so I’ll get 2 or 3 at once from the Right Stuf or something (and a bunch of other manga).

    I definitely love the fight scenes, they’re probably the best I’ve ever seen in manga since they’re so dynamic yet easy to follow, a lot of other manga could learn a thing or two here!

    And I also most certainly appreciate how slowly the whole thing is unfolding, it’s like each new volume the expanses of the series grows larger, it started off as just a single school but now there’s this entire organization all over the globe doing stuff and I can’t honestly say when I suddenly realized how big the scope of it all was. At the same time, it’s neither too slow nor too fast, it’s got excellent pacing. A lot of my favorite shonen are written by women, actually (Hikaru no Go for example)

    But I was just fondly remembering one of my favorite exchanges in Kekkaishi while reading this, *SPOILERS* the one where the brain parasite takes over a hot guy then tries to take over Tokine. When she asks him “why did you target me?”, the demon says “because you were the weakest Kekkaishi at the site”. Rather than deny it, Tokine says “that may be true, but I’m also the least compassionate” and proceeds to swiftly beat it out of the kid then kill it. I just fell in love with Tokine during that scene! *END SPOILERS*

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I’ve had a similar experience with Kekkaishi: every time I think, “I’m losing interest!”, Yellow Tanabe does something to reel me back in. It might be a quiet scene of character development, or a chapter in which Tokine gets to strut her stuff, or a surprising plot twist, but it always gets me excited about the series again. That doesn’t happen too often in long-running shonen series; the number of titles I’ve dropped for good is almost as long as my arm!

  4. Rij says:

    One of my favourites!

    I wish there was more characters like Tokine in shounen manga. Even though she’s less powerful than Yoshimori, she’s allowed to be just as competent in her own way. And she doesn’t need rescuing.

    I have the five first volumes in Finnish but since the local publisher seems to have gone bust I need to start getting the Viz volumes to complete the series. It’ll annoy me to no end to have a mismatched set but my wallet will thank me for not starting again from the beginning.

    Tanabe’s art always reminded me of Hiromu Arakawa, there’s something similar in the way they design characters. (This is high praise for Tanabe BTW.) They have realistic proportions for the most part and all are easy to tell apart.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Agreed about the character designs — I think they’re a real strength of the series. Shaenon Garrity did a great post a few years ago in which she highlighted some of the series’ best monsters and villains, but you could do the same for the principle characters as well. They’re very easy to read, if that makes sense.

      And yes, Tokine is an awesome character. I wish Tanabe did more with Tokine, but I like the fact she’s cool-headed, smart, and capable. Shonen manga needs more female characters like her.

      1. themooninautumn says:

        She’s particularly amazing in this last little arc she got to have (that’s been released here). Wow. No helpless princess awaiting rescue here . . . 🙂

  5. Jade Harris says:

    Yay! Here’s one Kate actually turned me on to.

    My reasons for not picking it up as much as I’d like are completely stupid though. I have an irrational fear that it will turn into a boring shonen comic, so I avoid it. I’m also a little over-critical of it because it’s that good, so if if I’m feeling impulsive, I recall all my little nitpicks about the series. Maybe I’m just trying to sabotage my relationship with Kekkaishi because I’m still holding out for that on again off again thing with Evangelion. It’s so much younger too, I feel a little self-conscious when we’re out in public. :3

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I’m so glad you found this recommendation helpful!

      I know what you mean about being tougher on good series; I can forgive something sloppy if it’s interesting, but if it’s well-executed, I’m much more likely to catalog its flaws. I’ve practically beaten Naoki Urasawa to a pulp over small hiccups in 20th Century Boys!

      1. Jade Harris says:

        Right exactly, a lot of people think I can’t stand some of my favorite works because I pick them apart so much. In one way I want to learn as much as I can from a great title, but I also want to understand favorites for what they are not just what I want them to be. I do the same thing with a lot of bad series too, so I end up defending a lot of terrible, haha.

        I actually started reading Kekkaishi from an off-hand recommendation around a year ago. I picked up a burst of volumes, but then I ran out of steam when it looked like it was taking a turn for convention. Actually I can remember losing a lot of respect for the series when Tokine just comes right out and says she’ll never be as powerful as what’s-his-name. Why not? I get really impatient with that sort of thing, are little boys or even men really so fragile they can’t handle strong female characters? It’s pathetic.

  6. Aaron says:

    Good choice I’m always happy when a Shonen Sunday title get’s a little shine becuese I feel their titles are just a little bit “smarter” than Shonen Jump so kudos.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Well, I didn’t want to insult Shonen Jump fans by saying that, but I tend to agree: I like Shonen Sunday titles better.

  7. Sarasusa says:

    Thank you, thank you for promoting Kekkaishi. I’ve just re-read all the English releases to date—not something I do a lot with the shonen titles in my collection; I tend to save that for shojo and BL.

    My love for Kekkaishi is similar to my love for Hikaru no Go in that I see both series as revealing the maturation of their main characters partly through *spoiler* loss/grief—I find that aspect intensely moving.

    Another huge draw for me—Yoshimori’s older brother Masamori: much more self-aware than Yoshimori, and also hugely talented, yet always living in the shadow of the true heir. I love watching his story and relationships unfold as well.

    The second read-through gave me a chance to revisit and enjoy many side characters, both human and ayakashi, who pass briefly through the storyline; each of them is vividly drawn.

    Finally, I love Kekkaishi’s humor; much of it is tinged with wry affection for the characters.

    1. themooninautumn says:

      I agree about Masamori. Actually, that relationship, more than any other, is what drew me into the world of Kekkaishi. It’s not huge and bombastic and loud (and shallow and unsatisfying). It’s quiet and awkward and complicated and sad and not explained away. I love when a fantasy is so grounded in reality that I can love it for its fantasy as well as the reality it reveals about humanity.

      And grief, wow, yes. Sad and hard and painful and frustrating and motivating without over-exaggerating.

      One criticism I always remember reading about the series said the reviewer hated it because it was unrealistic for something that happened in childhood to be such a powerful motivator years later, as though this sort of thing was exaggerated in Kekkaishi (being vague to avoid potential but unlikely spoiler). That criticism made me laugh. It’s been, what, 10 years since that accident?

      Childhood “trauma” like that doesn’t necessarily just leave, especially if it’s a defining moment in one’s life. Someone my dad knew as a kid died after he fell off a chair he was using to change a light bulb or something. I cannot describe the panicked look on my dad’s face over 30 years later when he saw me using a chair to reach something over my head or his anger at me or his relief and explanation about why I should never, ever use a chair to stand on. My best friend’s father never wore seatbelts no matter how many tickets he got because when he was a kid, a friend of his got burned to death in a car accident because he couldn’t get his seatbelt off, and he hated it that his law-abiding kids would wear them. I’m afraid to be near elderly people because when I was a kid, someone knocked me into one, and the poor lady fell and broke her hip. It stays with you, no matter how logical it is to forget, no matter if it wasn’t really your fault. 🙂

      I like the way Kekkaishi respects that truth and—even when it strays a bit and makes me wonder if it’s going to fail—brings itself back to greatness by grounding itself more firmly in the growing and developing characters, their reality, and their world.

      And I’ll stop there, but I could go on . . .

      Thank you for the hearty shout out on behalf of this great series. I hope many are converted to the cause henceforth!

      1. Katherine Dacey says:

        That’s such a lovely observation — I couldn’t agree more.

        Kekkaishi is one of the few shonen series I could name in which the parents weren’t just (a) comic relief (b) totally incompetent or (c) secret adversaries of their children. That Yellow Tanabe actually takes the time to create a realistic family dynamic for both Tokine and Yoshimori is just one more reason to love Kekkaishi.

  8. Khursten says:

    *applauses as loud as an auditorium*

    This is probably one of the most balanced stories out there and it’s a shame no one’s reading it (more so that it’s now come to an end)

    Great job here, Kate! Now if we can convince those SJ boys to write a story like this. I used to think that it’s balanced because it was written by a girl however when I look at SJ’s own female authors… it just doesn’t fit. >_>) It really boils to how the individual crafts the story. Kekkaishi’s one of those amazing stories to date.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Thanks, Khursten! I’m not sure why it’s taken VIZ so long to promote Kekkaishi, but they’ve been pushing the series pretty aggressively in the last ten months. I know that the Adult Swim line-up doesn’t have the pull it once did, but it certainly can’t hurt to have the show airing every Saturday.

      By the way, I didn’t realize there were any women currently contributing to Shonen Jump…

  9. lovelyduckie says:

    Say no more, I’m the easiest person on the internet to sell manga to. You had me at the title and the realization that it’s a hit shonen series I haven’t experienced yet. I ordered the first 3-in-1 volume and pre-ordered the other two. I hope Viz continues to release this series in omnibus, because if they don’t I’ll have to track down all the single volumes that are already in low stock on Amazon.

  10. Anand says:

    I love this series. Everyone who reads Bleach should read this, instead. Actually, everyone who reads Shounen Jump should read Shounen Sunday, instead. The increased focus on characterization and decreased formulaity pay off in the long run. Itsuwaribito is another impressive new title under the imprint.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I’m more of a Shonen Sunday reader myself; I don’t know if you saw Shaenon Garrity’s wonderful essay on Kekkaishi from a few years ago, but she really nails it when she characterizes a typical Sunday title as “more episodic adventures in the sitcom mold, rather than massive quest arcs. There’s a lot of focus on character development and daily life. There’s a lot of comedy… and the comedy is less slapsticky, more character-based. The dominant art style is Takahashian: very polished, very clean, very appealing, very easy to adapt into anime.”

      Here’s the link to her essay:

  11. Pedro - RiderKaneda says:

    Well I will give my two cents. i have only read volume two of Yellow Tanabe work but I could see it was old fashioned old style and was well depicted and made with cution or as we say in my mother tongue: esmero.

    I really was fond of picking up more volumes of this mangá but in Brazil as we do not have a comic book (for brazilians mangá is not Mangá nor HQ is just a comic book with mor pages. Shamefully) I should knpow that if it was old fashioned, not fleshy or it was nopt something really comercial as Guin Saga it woulkd be cancelled. Guyin Saga ans kekkaishi were cancelled here. I have seem kekkaishi in other stores but it went so far only to volume 8. So I’ll have )again) to read from other spources or to pick upo from the USA.

    Unfortunately, I have seem that is was a magnificent story and very enjoyable but as they say I am oine in a million and naruto grows here as it was an uncontrollble plague. Do not missread me: Naruto is good but it could be very much much better and Kekkaishi has one thing that many good mangá nowadays do not have: the eastern aspect being depicted.

    What a shame that I cannot complete this mangá so soon. It goes to thge must have list.

  12. katie says:

    This is honestly one of my top five manga. I just hope that yellow tanabe decides to wri5e more because the ending wasnt very satisfying to me.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I’m just hoping that so-so sales of Kekkaishi don’t deter VIZ (or other companies) from licensing future series by Tanabe. Her art is so clean and expressive I could read just about anything by her!

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