Are you the kind of person who likes comics for the art, or are you the kind of person who likes comics for the stories? That is a question you are going to have to ask yourself before diving into Gate 7, the newest manga series from CLAMP. Because while the art is beautiful — fine and delicate line work with luscious blacks and whites — the story is just not there.
High schooler Chikahito Takamoto has always wanted to go to Kyoto. Since he was a boy he loved anything ancient and historical, and so has felt an irresistible urge to visit Kyoto and its famous temples, shrines and castles. He makes his way to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine where — no more than six pages into the comic — he finds himself in a magical realm with Tachibana, the element of light, Sakura, the element of shadow, and the mysterious boy/girl Hana who instantly falls in love with Chikahito. There are barely time for introductions before the four are attacked by kuchinawa serpents. Swords come out. Powers are brought to play. And Chikahito’s trip to Kyoto is just a little bit more historical and authentic than he had originally hoped.
Aside from Cardcaptor Sakura, I’m not a huge CLAMP fan and I haven’t read too many of their titles, so I don’t know how typical Gate 7 is compared to the rest of their series. The art in Gate 7 is fantastic. The artist is innovative with panel-size and the considered use of full-page splashpages. I love the transition scenes between the spirit realm and the real world, where everyone is standing likes drops of water into a still pond. The character designs are somewhat stereotypical but work well. Hana is particular is darling. Too darling, actually, and the whole “Is she a boy or a girl?” thing is really odd as I don’t see how anyone could mistake her for a boy.
As for the story, things just jumble together to quickly without rhyme or reason. Chikahito has some mysterious ability that makes him immune to magic, which is how he stumbled onto Tachibana, Sakura and Hana in the first place. He is whisked into this magical world and soon enough he is living with the three of them and communing with mystical beings on the spiritual plane. His life is split between equal parts learning the secret history of Kyoto and hunting out noodle joints to keep Hana’s bottomless stomach full.
It’s all too rapid-fire, and I can’t get a feel for any of the characters or the story they’re inhabiting. When writing this review I had to go back and check on the characters’ names because they made so little impact and even after reading the comic twice I would have a difficult time telling you what it is about.
I have read enough manga to know that it often takes several volumes for a story to really start unfolding. Japanese writers don’t count on that initial hook right at the beginning as much as Western writers do. I am willing to give Gate 7 a shot and keep reading it to see if it picks up, but aside from the brilliant art there isn’t much in this first volume to get me really excited about the series.
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.