In Ningen’s Nightmares, writer/artist J.P. Kalonji spins a yarn with deep roots in classical Japanese story telling conventions. Expanding on the world developed in 365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice, the plot offers lots of sword fighting and an enormous scope, but even with some ratcheted up brutality, it falls short in its attempts to transcend the stagnancy of its material. The characters and world of Ningen’s have all been seen before in a thousand different forms, and the story fails to add any significant new ingredients to the familiar brew.
The hero of our story is Ningen, an amnesiac warrior in the rich tradition of Wolverine or Jason Bourne. A man of great mystical significance, he draws the ire of a horrible witch who has cast her lot in with powerful demons. Aiding Ningen along the way are countless classical archetypes of Japanese lore: wise monks, nature spirits, magical young girls, and even a blind swordsman. These familiar tropes are turned over and examined lovingly and with devotion, as though Kalonji cherishes them too much to try and unearth anything novel or controversial. Ningen’s Nightmares is steeped in tradition, to its strength and its detriment.
More than anything, what sticks out about Nightmares is its ridiculously huge, dizzying cast of characters. Kalonji constantly presents a gang or a gaggle when a single character will do. Ningen didn’t just beat one great Samurai, he beat 365. Naturally, this sort of more means more attitude leads to lots of characters getting short changed. Some come and go before having a chance to leave an impression. The intent seems to be to fashion a deep, fully-realized world, but it’s difficult to latch onto a few key personalities when constantly met with an inundation of faces.
The art style skews a little towards caricature, which serves the mysticism and ancient qualities of the story well. Ningen has a humble, everyman quality about him, but where Kalonji’s work shines is in his depictions of the fantastic. His witch is ghostly and haunting, and his various demons and monsters are vivid, jumping right off the page. Panels can get a little jumbled and confusing now and then, especially when the action gets heated, but every now and then, an image truly sticks. That’s worth a lot.