I normally don’t enjoy short story collections until Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter. It’s just the right mix of adventure, comedy, fantasy, mythology, history, and drama. Yamada is an impoverished nobleman making his living busting evil spirits, ghosts, and monsters in medieval Japan. Two other characters show up through multiple stories who are both typecasts but still interesting: the warrior Prince Kanemore and the not-always-priestly exorcist priest Kenji. What makes them interesting is their interactions with Yamada because these conversations and adventures bring out details of their characters and give them depth.
For the supernatural side, the first story “Fox Tails” has Yamada trying to find out what happened the the wife of local lord who disappeared along with her infant son. The opening scene shows Yamada trying to get information out of an informant, Seita, who turns out to be a ghost in the form of a giant red lantern with a mouth and one eye. After tangling with bandits and getting rescued by a demon she-fox who eventually decides to help Yamada find the missing boy Yamada figures out what happened to the wife, and he and the fox go find the child. Yamada is surprised by who is involved at the end so the fox explains to him the supernatural elements, and he returns the baby safely to his father.
The stories are all interconnected but each stands alone in terms of both plot and characters. The longest story “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge” is a pretty good example of the collection overall. Yamada is summoned by someone from his past at the Imperial Palace, and it turns out to be Princess Teiko, mother of the Crown Prince, older sister of Kanemore, and past acquaintance of Yamada. She asks Yamada and her brother to find a letter that might prove embarrassing to her. They find the letter, but Teiko ends up getting herself banished as a result. Yamada decides to follow her into exile, and on the road he and Kanemore witness Teiko jump of a cliff to her death. The rest of the story follows the two as they try to figure out why Teiko killed herself and to prove that her banishment had been unjust. This story is the least supernatural of the collection, but it covers all the other elements. Imperial Court life and politics provide the history, the suspense of what Teiko was thinking provides action and drama, while a brief encounter with shikigami (artificial magical creatures) provide the fantasy. The wit of the storytelling provides brief moments of comedy, while not distracting from the seriousness of the events.
This series of tales seamlessly combines all their elements, and has become the basis for two novels. The first of these, To Break the Demon Gate, is built around “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge”, filling in a lot of blanks and expanding what happens in between scenes in the short story. Obviously, I had to get it but I haven’t finished yet. That would make a good start to Cannonball 8.