Story and Art by Rumiko Takahashi
Translated by Christine Dashell
Lettered by Evan Waldinger
Edited by Megan Bates
With the recently released Volume 31, we’ve entered the final fourth of Rumiko Takahashi’s supernatural satire Rin-ne. The release of this volume also commemorates ten years of Rin-ne’s publication in North America, always a remarkable milestone for any series. With the manga having concluded in Japan last year, it looks like Viz Media will begin speeding up releases of the series in 2020, moving it to a bimonthly publication schedule. Rumiko Takahashi’s series are beloved worldwide, and we’ve seen a resurgence of her classics in recent years thanks to Viz’s re-release of Urusei Yatsura and their upcoming republishing of Maison Ikkoku. However, Rin-ne is often overlooked in spite of its recency and consistent publication. Outside of the inclusion of the series’ 300th chapter, Rin-ne’s 31st volume isn’t a particularly notable entry in the series. It is, however, another reliably funny one that helps show why Rumiko Takhashi has been able to keep her manga entertaining and sustainable over the course of so many volumes.
Rin-ne’s 31st volume is a mish-mash of different stories, with the stories and comedy built around Takahashi’s knack for fusing absurdity with mundanity. In contrast to the escalation of craziness found in her earlier works like Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½, in Rin-ne Takahashi will often deescalate a potentially bizarre situation by revealing the petty roots in every supernatural snafu. Most of the spiritual problems that Rinne and his clients face come from lamentable souls who died regretting something they never got to do. While Rinne helps them fulfill their last wishes, it usually comes with the realization that what they wanted or regretted was never that big a deal in the first place or the consequence of a ridiculous misunderstanding.
My favorite example in this volume is how Takahashi does a wacky 180 on the seemingly romantic concept of a woman who can’t pass on because she didn’t catch her best friend’s bouquet at her wedding. As it turns out, the reason she wanted to catch it because she actually made the bouquet, had it set to explode to shower the wedding guests with photos of her and the groom – who used to be her ex – and then at the last second had second thoughts about her spiteful revenge scheme and died trying to recover it. She ends up passing on after learning that the bouquet was replaced and never exploded – not relieved, but disappointed! I love stories like these because Takahashi hilariously undermines the sentimentality found in most stories about ghosts with lingering regrets. By twisting sincerity into selfishness, she parodies the absurd pettiness and spitefulness that so often motivates the spirits of ghost stories, ridiculing the very idea of the genre. In doing so, she takes stories that told straight would either be horror stories or wistful romantic comedies and exposes them as goofy farces that spring from the hubris of the deceased and others involved.
Another way in which Takahashi skillfully demystifies the divine is by exposing the rudimentary bureaucracy behind spiritual institutions. The Shinigami Association Rinne works for is in charge of guiding recently deceased souls to the Wheel of Reincarnation, but in actuality is a poorly managed institution that oftentimes creates more problems than it solves, shifting blame for these snafus from upper management to lower-rung employees like Rinne. A story involving the Lifespan Administration Bureau in this volume highlights this perfectly. The conflicts all arise from the LAB’s poor managerial oversight – from letting rogue animal spirits run loose, not backing up important databases of their employees’ registration and bank account information, and issuing new licenses to shinigami without deactivating their previous ones. Consequently, they rope in Shinigami desperate for work like Rinne to clean up their messes for them, and unsurprisingly, this adversely affects poor members of the association like Rinne as well. First, they force Shinigami to catch an animal spirit but only promise to pay the person who catches it, meaning Rinne and the rest of the Shinigami who don’t catch it are essentially working for free. Then, Kain recruits Rinne to help him hunt down the owner of a forged Shinigami license, compensating him a measly 100 yen an hour for his labor. That’s less than a dollar – far less than minimum wage! Worst of all is that when Kain loses a memo containing what he thinks is Renge’s registration number, actually Rinne’s, which he needs to wire her payment for her exorcisms. He never follows up with her, but the LAB still goes ahead and resets everyone’s registration number because they couldn’t recover their data, meaning neither Renge or Rinne ever gets paid for the labor they do!
By resting all the problems in this story with the LAB, Takahashi brilliantly satirizes incompetent bureaucracy and ways in which it harms lower-working class people like Rinne. He’s treated with contempt by Kain and is scapegoated for problems the Bureau causes themselves, is exploited for his labor and is poorly compensated. Consistently, the LAB is shown to have little regard for the well-being of its employees and suitable compensation for labor, to the point of only offering up a dingy towel as a reward for selling out the Shinigami using the counterfeit license. Another great angle to this story, and Rin-ne as a whole, is the themes of classism at play and how Takahashi highlights the favoritism bureaucracy has for the rich over the poor. The reason Renge is able to make a counterfeit Shinigami license for herself is because Ageha, a rich heiress, lost hers after bailing on work to go shopping. Renge proceeds to do legitimate Shinigami work, but quite literally, the rich profits off the poor; because she Renge uses Ageha’s card, all the payment is funneled to her account. So Ageha gets richer through the events in the story without ever actually doing any work herself.
Incidentally, the reason Renge even has to use a counterfeit Shinigami license is because she wasn’t able to retake a high school entrance exam in spite of extenuating circumstances. Despite being a prodigal Shinigami, Renge is poor and needed to pay her bills, and because she was unable to get a legitimate license she was forced to turn to crime. So even Renge’s criminality can be blamed on the Shinigami Association’s bad oversight and policies for accreditation. Ageha, meanwhile, is able to become a Shinigami despite her carelessness, and it’s revealed she has lost her Shinigami license and requested new ones dozens of times. In essence, the poor are punished for being poor while the rich can coast through the problems they create through their wealth. Through the veneer of the Shinigami society and supernatural trappings, Takhashi uses stories like this to comment on cultural and social issues, highlighting and critiquing injustices that arise out of people’s hubris or selfishness, or systemic issues that perpetuate and create problems.
I’ve touched on only a few of the stories in this volume, but Rin-ne is generally a good time with a great central conceit and social satire motivating its stories. Of course, Takahashi’s art is no slouch to her storytelling and equally important in her comedic success. Over the years, the bold, wilder lines of Takahashi’s early work has been refined into the softer aesthetic of Rin-ne. As a veteran artist, Takahashi communicates a lot of emotion and character through the thinner, more precise linework she demonstrates in Rin-ne. Her gesture work and draftsmanship are always on point, and while Rin-ne’s characters don’t make as many exaggerated reaction faces as characters in her earlier works, her subtler expressions are still incredibly funny. Moreover, this volume once again highlights Takahashi’s knack for goofy, weird character designs. One of the stories in the volume involves Rokumon’s torso being replaced with a pizza on a tray. It’s ridiculous and adorable at the same time, and the fact that the pizza already has a slice missing as if someone has eaten it is a humorous touch, especially coupled with the jokes of characters trying to eat Rokumon’s pizza body. That’s to say nothing of when Rokumon gets fused with more things and starts having bottles of wine, wine glasses, two tablets, a tambourine, and a microphone floating around him, with a wheel of wine circling him as if it were sort of demonic aura. It’s the kind of imaginative, bizarre idea that only Takahashi could think of and pull off as cooly and cutely as she does here. Speaking of cute, Takahashi’s animal characters continue to be adorable, with a pudgy giant fox spirit that stars in one chapter being a particular highlight. The manga has its share of talking head panels to be sure, but Takahashi is clearly amusing herself by drawing ridiculous designs and adorable animals, among other great art bits, and that chipper quality to the art helps characterize it a fun, fluffy read.
Remarkably, Rin-ne continues to be as enjoyable as ever over thirty volumes into its run. Oftentimes one worries what there is to say about a long-running comedy manga like this, but I enjoyed myself a lot with this volume, and was able to isolate and expound upon ideas and themes Takahashi explores in interesting and funny ways. Takahashi’s manga have the reputation for outstaying their welcome, and indeed even as a die-hard Takahashi fan myself I too find the middle stretches of her stories can become repetitive or derivative. However, I enjoyed every chapter in this volume and managed to write this considerably lengthy review without even having to discuss all of them, which I think is a great sign of the series’ creative vitality this late into its run. While none of the stories in this volume progress the plot or shake up the status quo, the next volume is one that I’ve been excited to read for a while, and hopefully, I’ll get the chance to review that one too. In the meantime, if you’re a Takahashi fan and Rin-ne is your one blindspot or you dropped it early on, I highly recommend giving it a try. This series is almost a victory lap for Takahashi after thoroughly exploring all her dramatic ideas with InuYasha, a return to form with the classic sitcom comedy and characterizations she’s famous for. Volumes like this prove that she’s still a master of her craft and as creative and clever as ever, going on four decades strong and showing no signs of her passion for manga making running dry anytime soon. Now if only Rin-ne’s perpetually poor protagonist could become as rich as her imagination – he’d be set for life!