Publisher: YenPress (@yenpress)
Lettering: Takeshi Kamura
Translation: Julie Goniwich
WHAT IS IT?
A mysterious inn with a peculiar owner caters to lost souls at the cost of a well-hidden secret. Filled with twists and turns, Phantom Tales of the Night blends stunning horror with traditional Japanese folklore.
Think Hannibal meets Spirited Away.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
The Murakumo Inn is a mysterious establishment that appears as a safe haven for troubled masses, both human and spirit alike. The curious proprietor is simply known as "Owner," and he is a hospitable host. He and his employees, Butterfly and Spider, tend to the guests’ every desire with a smile and warmth. However, Owner requires a peculiar form of payment to indulge in the respite. A secret. And the darker, the better.
When frightened high schooler Sasaki finds himself chased by a monstrous entity, he’s rescued and brought to Murakumo Inn where he comes face-to-face with Owner. Sasaki swears he has no secrets to give, but the proprietor seems to think otherwise and offers him respite from the troubles that plagued him, troubles that run much deeper than Sasaki ever realized. He’s been dead for quite some time and this unknown secret allows Owner complete control over his future.
As the visitors of the Inn come and go, the mystery of the proprietor and his otherworldly employees continues to draw in weary travelers, adding to their collection of depraved human desires with every soul that steps through the doors. Sasaki needs to find a way to free himself from Owner’s grip, and a strange man calling himself a Slayer (who just so happens to be his new substitute teacher) may be his only hope. Told in an anthology-style narrative, the weaving and intersecting histories of the lengthy guest list of the Murakumo Inn beckons you to take a peek inside.
Matsuri’s heavy use of deep black, offset by lantern light, creates a dark and mystical aura, one that brings the detailed characters and buildings to the forefront of the pages. The panels are rich with textures and unsettling illumination, while the eerie aesthetic makes your skin crawl.
The focus on humanity’s darkest desires and the overall hopeless feeling that permeates the stories of the Inn’s visitors creates a gloomy narrative. Matsuri delves deep into what makes humanity tick and what compels perfectly normal people to spiral in a manner that is poetic and empathetic.
Kamura ensured the lettering was legible and well-placed, using a variety of fonts that utilize bolded and italicized formatting that stands out in both the black and white speech bubbles, allowing the intense moments to become powerful and the creepy ones to feel haunting.
The character designs hold a perfect balance of otherworldly charm and realistic features. With a sense of sultry style and simplicity, the collapse of human anatomy as their lives are pulled apart by Owner feels all the more impactful.
Owner is a compelling antagonist and guide for the series. A neutral creature of unknown origin that acts only for his own benefit, he often goes from seductive to empathetic to sadistically cruel in the span of a single page turn. Able to shift between male and female anatomies, as well as manipulate his age and features, he molds himself into whatever is necessary to get what is most desired at the time. He’s brutal, cunning, cheeky and cold, which makes him captivating and haunting all at once.
The cast of characters is perfectly sized for a story like this. It is comprised of a small and intimate group of both humans and youkai*, enhancing the theme of an interwoven and lengthy narrative as they come and go from the Inn. It allows for deep and well-paced character development that doesn’t distract from the compelling one-off visitors or the overall mystery, and allows their relationships to take center stage.
The body horror in the series is nothing short of breathtaking. "Beautiful" is not a word often associated with such a grim sub-genre, but the lean toward eco-horror and the way Matsuri painstakingly detailed the mutations of human anatomy must be applauded. Watching as characters you spend entire chapters with begin to ooze and mutate is stomach churning and memorable.
The designs of the youkai are stunning, Matsuri’s unique style bleeds over into the traditional forms of the spirits and demons, adding a contemporary spin on timeless folktales. For those unfamiliar with the specific tales, Matsuri utilizes the human cast to help explain the lore in a manner that is logical for the in-world setting without resorting to a huge exposition dump.
As with most YenPress titles, each volume contains several colored illustrations and mini-comics in the front and another set of mini-comics in the back, as well as a list of honorifics and translation notes.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK?
CW: Disturbing imagery/body horror, sexual themes and nudity, consumption of alcohol, violence and gore, mentions of suicide, language.
The chapters (called Enigmas) are not always in sequential order, as most of them focus on a different guest with a new secret to be given. The transition from guest to guest is well-executed but is a bit hard to follow in the first volume since it feels like it jumps around without explanation. Once you realize what's going on, however, it makes sense and the "a-ha!" moments when you connect the dots are more rewarding.
Some of the lettering doesn’t fill the speech bubbles fully. The font comes across small (even though it is usually standard size for the other bubbles around it) and some speech bubbles/narrative boxes have quite a bit of wasted space.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
“I will take your most revolting secrets with open arms,” is a quote from vol.3 of Phantom Tales of the Night, which perfectly encapsulates the macabre aesthetic of this series. Owner, lover of twisted and sadistic secrets, sets the stage of each volume with dark intentions hidden behind a kind smile and top-notch hospitality. Readers, much like the guests, are welcomed in with open arms as the staff go about fulfilling their dark deeds.
Stunning illustrations set against rich black tones and themes that delve into the harsher side of humanity, Phantom Tales of the Night channels body horror in a way not seen since Hannibal in a style that is both haunting and beautiful, reminiscent of CLAMP’s classic manga xxxHolic. With several intersecting stories woven throughout the narrative and spread out over several periods in time, the mystery of the Murakumo Inn is as deep and satisfying as the story it tells. This series is perfect for fans of stories like Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun and Spirited Away who are looking for a more mature and gruesome title.
Filled with incredibly designed supernatural elements and beautiful eco-centered and grotesque mutations, this unique and captivating horror-adjacent series touches on monsters of the real and fictional varieties in a manner that will stick with you for a long time. Each tale features a yearning for empathy in a cruel world, with charming characters that help guide both readers and Owner to the delectable secrets within. Sinfully stylish and wickedly depraved, Phantom Tales of the Night offers a sleek and sensual take on folklore-based terror. If you’ve been looking for a new collection of creepy tales, you should join Owner and his cohorts in the halls of the Murakumo Inn. Go on, sign the guest book, your room is waiting.
HOW DO I READ IT?
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*Youkai is the term most commonly used for folklore and spirits in Japan. While often spelled Yōkai, it is spelled Youkai in this series.