I wasn't too impressed by the first volume of Gate 7. It was all style and no substance, with things happing too rapidly and with no characters I could care about or story I could get into. The best thing about it was the beautiful art, but that isn't enough to carry a comic book. Volume 2 is a huge leap forward — the story starts to come together, the characters start to flesh out and the art remains as beautiful as ever.
The story starts off right where Volume 1 ended, with Hana under a flaming attack by Mitsuhide Akechi and his oni. They are seeking the corpse of Nobunaga so that they can capture his oni Dairokuten-Maoh, reputed to be the most powerful oni in existence. Standing against them is Masamune Date, the one-eyed dragon. Standing with them is Tokugawa Iemitsu.
If all of those names mean something to you, then you have a decent grasp of Japanese history, specifically the Siege of Sekigahara and the Warring States period. Gate 7 plays fast and loose with Japanese history, merging real historical figures with fictional characters like Yukimura Sanada and the Sanada Ten Brave People. I have a pretty solid understanding of the era but there are still characters and personages I didn't know. Fortunately for us readers, the one human character, Takamoto Chikahito, is a Kyoto history buff who gives a running commentary on new characters as they show up.
Gate 7 uses a unique mythology vaguely based on Shinto and Japanese folklore — and I mean very, very, very vaguely based. Basically, the mythology of Gate 7 revolves around those who were enshrined as kami after death being born again as magical-based creatures in symbiotic relationships with oni. The oni in Gate 7 are nothing like traditional oni. Instead of multi-colored giants with horns and leopard-skin loincloths the oni of Gate 7 look almost like children clinging to their masters. Most of the magic seems to be elemental based, with lots of fire being flung around.
Story development is the best part of this second volume. Chikahito actually comes in handy instead of being the pointless buffoon required of the human-in-fairlyland character. Hana remains as mysterious as ever, although she seems to care for Chikahito. Tokugawa Iemitsu is an interesting addition to the cast — I was surprised that they would use Iemitsu instead of his more famous father Tokugawa Ieyasu, but it makes sense in that Iemitsu is more of a blank slate and doesn't carry the baggage of using someone like Ieyasu.
There are still parts of Gate 7 that are off-putting. I had some issues with the translation; I have no doubt that the translator is being faithful, but some of the turns of phrases and dialogue are so awkward I am surprised they made it past an editor. There are some puns and humor that are entirely lost. The running joke about Hana loving to eat noodles has gotten old after only two volumes, and I hope they drop it soon. And there are some internal logic issues — how is Masumune Data resurrected as a powerful magic-being, yet still a child forced to attend Elementary school? And although Chikahito is a little more useful, he needs to magic up a bit and stop being such a liability to the team. So far, aside from his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Japan his only ability is to be immune to magic — not a bad trait, I suppose!
The story is still more flash than substance; this is a series clearly going art first, story second. But at least now with Volume 2 I feel like Gate 7 is going somewhere — that all that prettiness is being connected with some interesting plot and that CLAMP has a good story to tell.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.