Story & Art by Makoto Morishima
Translation by Amanda Haley
Lettering by Rochelle Gancio
After a standout first volume, IM has comfortably settled into the traditional tropes expected of supernatural battle-shonen stories. The hero has a tragic past with a moral ambiguity fakeout? Check. A long thought dead loved one turned foe isn’t actually dead? Check. Our hero joins a long-established organization dedicated to wiping out the ghosties, being treated like a black sheep while gaining the trust of new friends and mentors? Check and check. The shift in focus from Hinome to Im in these volumes mirrors the story’s shifting priorities from exploring a more grounded story of personal growth to somewhat less tangible themes of trust and betrayal. That isn’t to say the series is any less fun; on the contrary, the expanded supporting cast introduced in these volumes are plenty interesting and complements the story’s focal themes well. At its core, IM is still about outcasts finding community and family in one another, a message well-reflected in various relationships depicted in the story.
Trust is the key theme pervading these volumes, as the series explores what the bedrock of a healthy friendship is. The series’ central conflict was set in motion by Im’s perceived betrayal of his best friend, Prince Djoser, whose bitterness and resentment has turned him into a living embodiment of malice seeking to destroy the cruel world that cursed his fate. Of course, Im didn’t actually betray Djoser; he was trying to save his life. Unfortunately, because he never let him know what was going on, he ended up confusing and hurting Djoser instead. The relationship between Im and Djoser is a cautionary tale about shouldering all your burdens alone and not communicating with the people you’re trying to help or want to help you. Im and Djoser wanted to work together to protect and guide the Egyptian people, but by keeping secrets from him and not trusting him to understand them, Im created a messy misunderstanding that cost many lives, and still lingers thousands of years later.
Im’s ill-fated friendship with Djoser is contrasted with his subsequent relationships. Hinome and Anubis don’t resent Im when they learn the truth, and stand up for him, knowing he’s a good person. He apologizes to Harugo, a priest whose family was murdered by the magai Im unleashed, and convinces him that he’s trustworthy while offering to atone after he’s cleaned up the mess he’s made. While still on shaky grounds, Im’s sincerity convinces Harugo to trust Im as a battle partner in their fight with Djoser, despite normally being so guarded against others. Im’s blunt honesty is informed by his previous failures to be truthful in the past, realizing that there’s nothing to gain from hiding the truth and being insincere. In turn, he’s successfully able to forge friendships with people who believe in him, because they truly know what he believes in.
The importance of trust is reflected in other relationships in the book. This is most notably demonstrated through the teamwork of Harugo’s mentors, Lato and Sed. Not only can they trust each other to cover for the other in a fight, they can also understand the other’s intentions through simple gestures. Even when Lato surprisingly encounters Sed in an undercover double-agent mission, she quickly grasps the situation and plays along. Even when they’re getting hurt, they never doubt they have each other’s backs, knowing each other’s limits and having faith they’d come to their aid if things get too intense. Lato and Sed’s unwavering trust and communication is presented as the ideal partnership for the other characters to strive towards.
While Im is emotionally mature enough to understand the importance of communication in a partnership, Harugo struggles with opening himself up to others, preferring to operate alone instead of sharing his burdens. Im’s later able to guide Harugo into being truthful about what he wants. Since he was born into a shady magai-worshipping cult, Harugo believes himself a burden on his adoptive family, wanting to prove his trustworthiness on his own. This self-isolation isn’t what anybody really wants, however. The rift between him and his family derives from their inability to confess how they really feel and work through the doubts and misunderstandings. Im gives Harugo the chance to clear the air about his fear of being a burden and desire to be a good brother to his adoptive siblings, helping them strengthen their bonds.
Similarly, this philosophy of truthfulness informs Im’s conviction to not simply erase the mistakes of the past, which he could do by using a particular spell. Im had previously attempted to simply wish away the problem of overflowing miasma from hell, which backfired by opening the gate to hell and creating the magai. By trying to sweep the problem away and rushing to get rid of it instead of considering all his options, Im not only failed to save his friend but made the situation much worse. Im has realized that trying to obfuscate a problem rather than confront it directly only leads to more complications down the line. In addition, forgetting one’s mistakes does nothing to make amends for the damage they’ve already caused. Instead of running away from his problems, Im realizes the only way he can truly make amends is to address them head-on and apologize to those he’s hurt.
While Im’s prepared to face the consequences bestowed upon him, the moral integrity and culpability of the Amen Priesthood is called into question throughout the story. In the past, its members were petty enough to let a child die just because the king slandered them. They took glee in deceiving Im and Djoser, and cruelly taunting the latter before sacrificing him. Even in the present, they’re a somewhat dysfunctional organization whose disunited priorities have left themselves open to infiltration numerous times, including in high-up positions. To say nothing of them pushing children into becoming child soldiers and perpetuating systemic abusive environments. Im’s direct superior and advocate, Khonsu, loathes the organization’s exploitative aspects and seems to be working in his own interests to overthrow the system and the gods themselves. While the organization the protagonist is working for being corrupt isn’t a novel bent, it adds another interesting dynamic to the story’s proceedings by complicating their understanding of what is right. It’s always good to see a story challenging the assumption that traditional power structures are unquestionably correct, and hopefully, the story moves in the direction of achieving progressive change and reformation in the Priesthood.
Morishita’s a solid action artist, drawing easy to follow and exciting battle scenes. I would say their greatest strength, however, is their design sense. Their magai and god designs look wonderfully otherworldly and unsettling, and they are great at drawing creepy deranged faces on their antagonists. The one-shot included in the second volume, drawn two years prior to the series’ serialization, helps illustrate what makes Morishita’s current style click so well. His character designs are simple and bubbly, prioritizing rounder shapes and edges over more rigid forms. The marriage of ancient Egyptian aesthetics with more traditional battle manga outfits also looks distinct and adds to the manga’s unique charm. It’s clear a lot of effort went into designing backgrounds or objects referencing ancient Egypt, particularly anything strewn with hieroglyphics, which look meticulously rendered. Granted, I don’t know if the hieroglyphics spell is accurate or just gibberish, but I appreciate the attention to detail nonetheless. Speaking of detail, I’m a big fan of Rochelle Gancio’s lettering on this series, particularly the font for the erratic “AAA’s” used when the character scream in despair, which have such sharp and bold strokes and fill up the entire balloon to the point where it feels like they’re bursting out. It’s those small touches that really bring the series to life and sell the more emotionally-charged moments. Overall, while a lot of the ancient Egyptian iconography Im borrows from still feels kinda surface-level, the designs are still interesting and imaginative enough to help set it apart from other series in its vein.
Im’s in many ways a straightforward shonen yarn, but its consistent emphasis on extolling trust and communication in friendships, as well as its novel designs help it stand out. The strained relationship between Im and Djoser is a compelling one, as is Harugo’s character arc growing out of his shell to display trust and love for his adoptive family. The series is doing interesting things with reimaging iconic ancient Egyptian figures like Cleopatra as antagonists and playing with the mythos of its gods and magic. It’s a more thoughtful story than it seems at first glance and a great read if you’re interested in a battle manga with unique aesthetics and themes. Color me Im-pressed!