The story takes place in another world where there are gods. This world lays above the sky and below the ocean. Four evil gods used to support this world by acting as pillars, but they ran away including all the other minor gods that lived in this world. Thus, people called Kashikan's appeared. Their job is to capture the gods that fled and return stability to the country. The main character Ichiyou is a Kashikan who unwillingly took up the job to regain his foster father's freedom. His foster father, a tiger, was captured to act as a replacement of the four gods who ran away. Ichiyou's main objective is to recapture the evil gods and take back the peaceful life that he used to live.
Not what you would expect from the covers and fantasy josei reading experience, Haigakura is in fact less about handsome men dancing (while it does contain handsome men who perform ritualistic dances) and more about a very complex and disturbing cosmology delivered through delayed exposition. I guess, I should add another subgenre to my mental map of josei – one that is made for women who love stories above everything else.
Haigakura’s plot is a story build on a legend, that is wrapped in a mystery. The tale nature is even underlined in its designs – Haigakura is relatively low on living flowers backgrounds and uses
ink ornaments instead. We’re introduced to a very different richly woven world of errant kamis and their controllers, of immortals and magic. And, after the completely non-representative and inconsequential first chapter, you feel like you’re just thrown in it with all its terms, titles and complexeties, swim or sink. The thing the narrative of this manga reminds me of the most is reading through a fragment of someone’s long-running roleplay game, with characters who are clearly loved and familiar to the participants but nigh impenetrable to you. This is the biggest challenge and barrier for enjoying Haigakura – but you know for yourself if you have a taste for deciphering world rules and background info.
From the description you would expect a lot of pages to be dedicated to the heroes’ dancing poses, but in fact a dance ritual is usually done in one two-page spread, more effort is put into handsome Chinese-inspired fantasy designs and the designs of demons. Surprisingly, Haigakura is rich in action, and the main source of awe is the beastly forms of the servant kamis. They are majestic and scary all right: not just male and female beauties growing longer nails, but also giant bones and ridges, scales and an odd amount of eyes, dangerous energy seething. You believe these are primordial bad news, even though they have just drank tea and smiled politely.
Tone-wise Haigakura constantly switches between light-hearted interactions between characters, frequently done in chibi art, and serious, sometimes even genuinely dark moments. It is immersion-breaking, but thankfully not terribly. Their world is shown to be easier on the attitude than ours, and the clash is used for narrative purposes: Haigakura’s most powerful moments come from learning that behind the friendly interactions is indifference or murderous intent – vengeful or the simple reflex of a carnivore. Learning about these underlying feelings, as if deconstructing the happy family-like atmosphere of other scenes, is the main narrative attraction.The main character is a rough around the edges guy, who has been unwillingly thrown in this huge web of events and interests, though, he is, of course, special for these types to let him hang around. His main servant god is also a mystery with amnesia and a split personality, ranging from an affectionate airhead to abusive. The pair of the mains has a good dynamic, too bad that the cast as a whole is too big, too alien and poorly introduced, so it’s hard to empathize or even keep up sometimes.
Fanservice-wise Haigakura has beautiful competent people, demons with horns and so many little fluffy feathers, a giant wise teacher-type elderly anthropomorphic cat in kimono and adorable kids – two of Ichiyou’s demons normally look like toddlers with animal ears. Despite having master-servant relationships to me it feels like Haigakura is free of BL undertones, that put me off another work by Shinobu Takayama - Amatsuki. Haigakura offers pairings that can be used for shipping, but two chairs standing close to each other can be used for that purpose too, what matters is that when reading the manga itself my BL-shipping'o'meter remains silent. I think that compared to Amatsuki and Mr. Morning this manga also has better art.
The art is considerably good – beautiful, immersive and very rich in detail, flowery, but not excessively so. It is also what I usually call “narrative art”, a type sometimes found in works by female authors: there’re no straight “look at me” double-page spreads with one person standing spectacularly – panels are relatively small and window-like, attention is on the faces.
Ultimately this manga is at its best as an excursion to an unfamiliar world, a good fit for those who primarily value novel worldbuilding. At some points Haigakura raises to be genuinely gripping, but it’s weighted down by its excessive cast and confusing lore, turned decorative by tonal shifts. The most fun I get from it is the brutal transformations of some of the god-creatures and their non-human attitudes. But I also enjoy designs, am interested in further revelations. Despite a few flaws and issues with the available fan translation (may not work for some people), this manga leaves the impression of being a fruit of love, and a high-quality one at that – love for storytelling and worldbuilding, high-society cast and handsome guys, mythos, disturbing mysteries, transformations, demons, beautiful Chinese-themes clothing. There’s plenty of good material to choose from, if you are able to get through the tricky language and tonal switches. Recommended for a try, even to people outside of the demographic.