By Jonathan Edwards
I didn’t review Hungry Ghosts #3, but I did still read it. And, it was weird. Structurally, it was identical to issue #2 with virtually no framing narrative. As a pair, the stories were the strongest presented so far, even if the ending of “Deep,” the first story, both came out of nowhere and was… strange. By themselves, neither of them was better than “The Pirates” from issue #1, but they were much closer in quality. Granted, none of the stories throughout Hungry Ghosts have been outright great or, more importantly, all that scary. And, even though it’s safe to say Hungry Ghosts #4 is the book’s best issue, those previous problems are still very much present.
We start with “The Snow Woman,” featuring the Yuki-onna (literally “snow woman”), a relatively well-known figure from Japanese folklore. However, this story, in particular, is also the epitome of everything wrong with Bourdain and Rose’s framing narrative. The story opens with a single, small panel showing the storyteller (who is unnamed and not at all recognizable from the previous issues), the mirror, and not much else. From there, it jumps straight into the story proper, so, really, what’s the point? At the end of the day, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is supposed to be a game. If the framing narrative isn’t going to use that premise to consistently build atmosphere or have characters playing it develop and/or interact with one another, then there’s no need for the game, framing narrative, or any identity for the stories’ narrator(s). As for “The Snow Woman” itself, it’s a fine and more or less functional story, even if the didactic aspect is pretty weak. Also, it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with food, something the woman chef narrator of “The Pirates” (who, again, was unnamed) was criticized for. Yet, her story did feature someone eating something as a main plot point, while this one doesn’t.
The second and last story is titled “The Cow Head,” and it’s essentially just a better version of “Salty Horse” from issue #2. This time around, it’s a village rather than an individual that becomes gluttonous, and a reason is actually given for why: there was an unending famine, so the citizens progressively ate anything and everything they could to survive. Sure, it’s simple, but it gets the job done way better than a nobleman arbitrarily developing an insatiable taste for horse flesh. Although, that all falls apart when a man with, quite literally, a cow head arrives and things suddenly get forced for the ending. This, in turn, leads into the equally forced ending of the series. Additionally, before “The Cow Head” starts, we do finally get to see a bit more happen in the framing narrative. The random, nameless chef who serves as the final narrator declares that everyone who has heard the story he’s going to tell to completion has died. Of course, there’s an immediately obvious problem with that claim: it can’t possibly be true. Because, if it were, the chef would’ve died after hearing it. Now, maybe that’s intentional. Maybe it’s meant to foreshadow the ending, especially since the chef does try to extend the moral of “The Cow Head” to apply to Mr. Fedachenko and company. But, it falls short since, as I’ve repeatedly said, the framing narrative is underutilized and underdeveloped. As such, the last couple pages just sort of happen with no real sense of who’s who or reason to care.
All that being said, the one thing that Hungry Ghosts #4 undoubtedly does right is the art. Irene Koh handles “The Snow Woman” while Francesco Francavilla takes care of “The Cow Head,” and, yeah, both do a great job. Koh shows off a knack for evocative environments, framing, and expressions. Francavilla’s approach is different but just as effective. Many of his panels are vignettes, depicting simple, heavily-inked scenes, and, though there is quite a bit of detail, none of it feels excessive. He also frequently repeats series of only one or two panel shapes for each page. Together, all of this creates a distinctly clipped and economic visual language. But, the art for both of these stories is exponentially enhanced by Jose Villarrubia’s coloring. The beautiful blues, greens, and whites of “The Snow Woman” really sell just how cold everything, especially the Yuki-onna, must be. And, the ubiquitous oranges and tans of “The Cow Head” give it this oppressive and overbearing heat that adds a subtextual layer of tension to the whole story.
In conclusion, Hungry Ghosts is ultimately little more than one big missed opportunity of a book. The idea of a horror anthology book about a group of people playing Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is still great, but this is not the way to do it. For one, the game is supposed to consist of 100 stories. I’m not saying every single one of them needs to be present in the book, but only having eight is a bit of a cop-out, especially when nothing is done to show the passage of time or imply that more stories have been told off-panel. Furthermore, the framing narrative and its characters need to be clearly defined and actually develop with each story told. But, above anything else, the stories need to be good, and that just hasn’t been the case throughout this miniseries.
Hungry Ghosts #4
Dark Horse Comics