Nightmare Inspector wants to be The Twilight Zone so badly that it hurts. It also wants to be Pet Shop of Horrors. It’s a noble effort and it’s an entertaining little series, but it’s simply not as good as what it aspires to be.
The setting is the Silver Star Teahouse in pre-WWII Japan, in the 1920’s (the setting might be confusing to some, but one story mentions the Great Kanto Earthquake as happening a few years previous, so there you are). The proprietors of the teahouse are a young woman named Mizuki, and the baku (a spirit that devours dreams) named Hiruko. Baku are traditionally depicted as looking like tapirs, but this one looks like a regular guy- well, as regular as any manga character looks. After all, if he was a tapir he couldn’t be dressed in a ridiculous ensemble dripping with buckles, right? The Teahouse for some reason serves mainly coffee, but no one comes there for hot beverages anyway, so whatever. They come to see Hiruko, to ask him if he can help them get rid of their nightmares. He usually does, and the only payment he asks is to eat the nightmare afterwards, so it’s a pretty sweet deal.
Each chapter is a story revolving around a new customer, and with few exceptions the stories are only a chapter long. In volume 1, the clients include a servant who dreams of his mistress’ death, a man so obsessed with a popular actress that he can’t bear seeing her character die in her latest movie, a girl who’s sick of her daily routine, and a man who has fallen in love with a mysterious woman who calls him on the phone, and desperately wants to see her face, if only in his dream. This last story ends volume 1, and is a cliffhanger leading into the next volume. In volume 2 the new customers are a woman who wants to live in the last painting her dead lover made, and a blind girl whose keen hearing is picking up a repetitive sound that is driving her crazy.
The stories are mostly self-contained, but not entirely; there are threads that run through the manga that tie things together. Volume 2 sees the addition of Hifumi, a weird rich kid who visits to see where a baku lives, but ends up taking a room above the teahouse when he falls in love with Mizuki. Hiruko’s job also takes him pretty frequently to The Delirium, some kind of club where people’s deepest desires can be brought to life. As the series progresses you learn who/what Hiruko really is: a baku who took over the body of Mizuki’s emo brother when the brother decided he didn’t feel like living anymore.
There are some neat things about Nightmare Inspector; more than once the human clients turn out to be animals or even objects in disguise (the blind girl, for instance, is a cat). The historical details are scant but interesting, and the twists inherent in every story sometimes work and sometimes don’t, but they’re rarely predictable. After a while though things start to feel terribly repetitive; customer comes in, Hiruko sends them to sleep, solves their problem, all is well, and THEN the twist pops in.
The characters, unfortunately, are right out of the Catalog of Manga Archetypes. Mizuki is sweet and polite and secretly sad about her brother. Hiruko is reticent and rude and secretly angsting about something not mentioned in these volumes. Hifumi is annoying as hell, dopey and silly. The guy who runs The Delirium is all secretive and flirty, very reminiscent of Pet Shop of Horrors’ Count D.
The art is pretty standard; the clothes are the most interesting thing about the designs. Most everyone wears historically accurate garb, except the aforementioned Hiruko, who looks like he fell into an s&m shop and then accessorized at Claire’s. Backgrounds are decent; not crowded but not too spare either.
So how does Nightmare Inspector stack up against its influences? The Twilight Zone was an innovative series that made viewers think; many of the episodes have so permeated the culture that even people who have never seen them can recognize references. Pet Shop of Horrors was a series of striking Japanese morality tales, often haunting and compelling.
Nightmare Inspector is entertaining, but ten minutes after finishing a story, I couldn’t remember what had happened in the chapter (which makes writing a review a pain in the ass, let me tell you). Do I feel like continuing the adventures of Hiruko and crew, and ferreting out their various secrets.
The Verdict: Not really.