Mizukami Satoshi (水上悟志) is a rather beloved mangaka, although he isn’t exactly highly known. I guess you could say he’s enjoyed a cult following? But I don’t have any hard numbers here, so just know that this person has gotten quite a bit of respect from quite a few people (some famous mangaka included). He is best known for Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer (惑星のさみだれ, Hoshi no Samidare, Star of Samidare), Sengoku Youko (戦国妖狐), and this manga, Spirit Circle (スピリットサークル), all of which are complete. I (and many others, arguably most) learned about him from Biscuit Hammer, which was great. Spirit Circle, however, is in my opinion even better, though in some rather different ways.
Spirit Circle is a seinen manga — a manga targeted at older men — while Biscuit Hammer was…also seinen, but it felt like it would work pretty well for a shounen (young boys/young adults) audience. Spirit Circle kind of seems like, at a glance, it might be a battle manga, but it really, really isn’t (while Biscuit Hammer very much was). It is slow, deliberately paced, and it very obviously wants to tell a story. To do that, it tells several stories, working toward understanding some meaning/philosophy the author wants to impart on the readers. Biscuit Hammer also had a message but…hey! That’s enough comparisons. Just know that Spirit Circle loves to take its time. It’s, uh…rather mature, I suppose. It’s good. Moving, intense, and uplifting, while also being pretty funny (Mizukami-sensei has a somewhat unique, good sense of humor).
The series begins with mostly normal, generally unremarkable, 14-year-old school boy, Okeya Fuuta. He’s got bad grades, from academic to physical education, but he has a group of friends and is generally very pleased with his peaceful life. He can see ghosts…but he tries not to think about that, and he doesn’t see them SO often that he considers it a problem. His dad thinks it’s awesome, though.
Anyway, while he’s doing his “here’s my life” introductory monologue, the “mysterious transfer student” trope is invoked, here with a girl who has a cross-shaped scar on her forehead that she seems to have no problem displaying.
Ishigami Kouko is her name.
Fuuta’s first impression of Kouko is love at first sight.
Kouko’s first impression of Fuuta is that he’s lame and kinda gross. He settles on just trying to be her friend for now.
Before the chapter proceeds in earnest, Fuuta sees a ghost next to Kouko, and then experiences a weird vision where he(?), the ghost, and Kouko(?) are all together along with another girl. Oddly, the vision makes him cry.
Other than this, the day proceeds normally. Fuuta meets Kouko later after school, Kouko having checked out a school club and now just looking around the area. Fuuta tries to explain how cool his friends (who tried to recruit her to various clubs) are, and earns a happy smile from Kouko.
Before they go their separate ways, Kouko says something strange, though.
She steps off before Fuuta can mull this over, and then several things happen in quick succession. I don’t want to post EVERY page, so…
The ghost, East, bids Fuuta farewell and Fuuta absentmindedly responds to him.
This alerts Kouko, who immediately turns around and asks if Fuuta just spoke to East.
Kouko marches over to Fuuta and wants to know what’s under that bandage he hasn’t actually mentioned yet.
Fuuta explains that it’s a weird birthmark he’s always had that he hides because it’s so weird, but Kouko suddenly cuts him off by grabbing at his shirt very aggressively.
Kouko basically starts talking crazy, whipping out a weird…thing. Some sort of ring with flames on it. She talks about reincarnation, and Fuuta is completely baffled. While Fuuta is reeling mentally, Kouko takes her ring and smacks him in the face, sending him reeling physically and down some stairs behind him.
Fone rises from his bad fall. He’d fallen asleep in a tree and had a weird dream about some girl who hit him over the head. Rei then shows up,
and they walk through the forest back to civilization, surrounded by chattering spirits.
…Alright, hold up.
Here’s where my detailed summary will end. As might be clear by now, this is a story about reincarnation. Fone here is one of Fuuta’s past lives, and the weapon that Kouko smacked him with (the eponymous spirit circle) has the power to make people experience the lives of their other incarnations as if they WERE them. The reason Kouko seems to LOATHE Fuuta is that his past lives have supposedly committed some royally terrible acts, the worst of them committed by his first incarnation, Fortuna, the person Fuuta envisioned early in the day. Kouko is a later incarnation of the little girl Fuuta saw in that same vision, and throughout spacetime the two’s incarnations have been mortal, hate-fueled, bitter enemies constantly at one another’s throats…usually. That birth mark Fuuta (and near every other incarnation) bears, for example, is a brand delivered onto the cheek of one of his past lives as he ran Kouko’s incarnation through, heart swirling with resentment, for frankly no good reason.
The manga proceeds by showing these lives from some rough starting point to the end (death). Kouko feels Fuuta needs to suffer through his past lives to understand the weight of his sins. He has seven lives to see, and when he’s viewed the seventh, Kouko has vowed that she will kill him, sever his soul from the cycle of reincarnation with the spirit circle, and effectively utterly eliminate him from all of existence and spacetime. He has apparently done something really bad.
Meanwhile, Fuuta continues to fall for Kouko, and Kouko begins to return those feelings, although she really doesn’t want to. After all, hating him would make killing him easier.
Because the appeal and draw of this series is the stories of the incarnations, I won’t go into detail on what happens in them. I’ll try being vague, instead. One thing: the incarnations are mostly quite different. They show up in all kinds of parts of the world, have different settings (from odd fantasy, to medieval, and even to science fiction in the future (future “past” lives…I don’t know, man)), and their characters are all distinct and different, even though they share similar physical features. The first life Fuuta sees, Fone’s, takes place in some kind of ancient civilization, and Fone is a cobbler. In another life, he’s a soldier, in another an architect, and in another still a kid in school. A lot is covered in those seven lives, and while they don’t exactly put together a grand mystery in need of solving (mostly just connections and references between, occasionally very significant), they do add to your understanding of why Kouko is very bitter about the path of Fuuta’s soul. Regularly after Fuuta has experienced one of his lives, Kouko reveals the other side of the story from her perspective, and that perspective has a habit of making things sound very, very fucked up, usually due to something Fuuta’s incarnation did. On the other hand, some of the things only Fuuta would know surprise Kouko in various ways, making her happy, depressed, enraged, etc.
The lives often have a profound effect on Fuuta. He is a very empathetic boy, and after literally going through the lives of different people he tends to be hit very hard. The lives follow him afterward, literally, and if he lets them he can easily lose sight of his identity and succumb to or confuse his personality with another’s. It is a constant danger. He is NOT them, though they share…I dunno, “essence”, and Fuuta needs to remind himself of that more and more with every life he sees.
It doesn’t help that, because of how souls work, the incarnations of his friends and family are ALSO people he ends up confusing. See, souls of friends and family are drawn together throughout spacetime, so his classmates, his dad, his mom, and even Kouko’s dad are people he’s met before, for example. And he meets these people nearly every time he experiences another life. Kouko doesn’t seem to have this problem…but it is something to think about, looking at how much trouble it puts Fuuta through.
All of this makes Spirit Circle feel rather unique in structure and focus. Mizukami-sensei seems to have a fascination with past/present/future connections and reincarnation — you can see it more than once in his body of work — but Spirit Circle is his full blown exploration of those ideas he likes. It’s very interesting. Not only is each and every story of these incarnations damn good, bringing them together in Fuuta and Kouko and trying to resolve the lingering feelings left after those lives ended is kind of amazing. It all comes to an end you might expect, but that doesn’t make Spirit Circle anything less than an incredibly strong, full-feeling story.
I do not tend to be terribly critical in these reviews unless something about a series really bothers me, and if I do have criticism it’s extremely rare that I have notable criticism for a series I both like a great deal and would also highly recommend. In fact, I think Spirit Circle may be setting a new precedent here, because I surely think that it wasn’t quite as good as it could have been in some respects.
Firstly, there’s Rune, who I have posted above. Rune is presented as the opposite of Kouko’s East (that ghost that follows her around). Rune is from Fortuna’s, the first incarnation’s, time and she calls Fuuta “master” for some reason. Rune is very adorable and sweet, innocent and nice…however, while she appears on the cover of volume 1, and seems like she’ll be very significant, she doesn’t actually feel that way in the series proper. This is a weird complaint, but I feel like Rune is ultimately underutilized, and it almost, almost makes it feel like her character is just frivolous. Learning her and Fortuna’s story doesn’t really remedy this, since even in that life she’s isn’t really explored as a character. Thing is, Rune is important — very much so — but because she mainly serves as a cute comedy relief girl that you really don’t see that much, I don’t feel like I ended up developing the connection with her that I was supposed to by the end. And now that I’ve mentioned that, another criticism…
In the present time, we just do not get much from Fuuta’s friends. They’re funny, yes, and pretty entertaining, but in other lives they’re more. They’re fleshed out, rounded characters. Most of this manga is spent in other lives, neglecting the present (which is kind of the point, and makes sense as a “whole”, since Fuuta actually does become pretty obsessed with viewing his past lives); this makes my connection to them, like with Rune but more so, feel weak. This is a pretty bad thing, I think, especially in relation to one thing that…I can’t talk about! But I’ll kind of touch on it in just a bit. Before that, another problem with this is that when Fuuta looks at his friends and tears up because he’s being reminded of something that happened in their past lives, although this hits and is effective, it isn’t as effective to me since…I just don’t get a strong impression of friendship from these friends. There isn’t enough time with them or exposure to them that makes it super clear. The bonds exist throughout time, but it mainly feels like they’re just stated in present. I need to be shown, not told, just how strong the bonds between these present day friends are, and honestly I don’t believe we get that. This leads to my last criticism…
I do not like the ending of this manga. Keep in mind, I don’t think that the ending is bad. In fact, considering the entire story, the themes, the message and everything, it’s a strong ending that fits perfectly. But, I don’t like it. Mizukami-sensei…he seems to have a like of things feeling like “and life goes on”. He deals more in vagueness when ending things, perhaps because that’s more “realistic”. The idea is, “you can see how the story goes from here”, but it’s deliberately mysterious and up in the air so all manner of things could happen. Whether what you think might happen will happen is unconfirmed. I don’t like that. In fact, I hate it. Personally, when I read a story, I want a sense of closure and conclusion at the conclusion. Spirit Circle doesn’t give me that, plain and simple (though maybe not for the reasons you would expect, if you’re reading this review after finishing it yourself…then again, maybe it’s EXACTLY what you’re thinking). Biscuit Hammer, to bring that up again, originally didn’t quite give me what I would have preferred at first, and the later epilogue had some things in it that I…really did not like, but it mostly brought me a sense of closure, so on that level I think Biscuit Hammer is the superior series. Also in terms characters, it’s iffy because the characters in Spirit Circle are great in the other lives and when Fuuta/Kouko are counted while the side characters of the present leave me wanting. With Biscuit Hammer, I loved the whole cast, even characters who barely appeared. When I kept that in mind while reading Spirit Circle, it was like “I know the author can make every character in this series 100% great, but he hasn’t here”. In the end, we are left to ourselves to imagine how Fuuta and Kouko’s lives will go with their friends…but I do not feel like I know their friends. Honestly, I’m just disappointed. Spirit Circle also has an epilogue, and it just disappointed me.
I want to be absolutely clear that these are not major faults of the series. My biggest issues are my issues, and you may not even feel that way at all when reading. I think my criticism regarding the characters is unbiased and fair, but my most significant negative opinion, my opinion on the ending, might be very personal. I’ve seen others complain about how Spirit Circle ended, but I’ve also seen people love it. I don’t know, readers. I think these things thankfully don’t really matter, though. My final word is that Spirit Circle is a damn good story. It’s entertaining, it’s intriguing, and it’s great. Before I read the ending, I was coming away from this series satisfied. I think it is unfortunate that when I finished it, I came away not. I’ve said elsewhere that when you don’t like an ending, it can spoil your entire impression of the whole. That isn’t the case here with Spirit Circle for me. I still think it’s worth reading, and that you should check it out. I just…damn, I wanted a clear, firm, no BS ending. That would have elevated this series to godliness, even with my other criticisms.
Whew, that is probably the most negative I’ve been on a manga here and for the longest yet. Mizukami-sensei still has my respect, and I definitely look forward to his next long work (I should probably read Sengoku Youko in the meanwhile), but I do hope the next thing I read from him gives me a sense of fulfillment when I read “おわり”.
You may purchase Spirit Circle through Bookwalker (guide), CDJapan, honto (guide), or ebookjapan. And Mizukami Satoshi’s Bookwalker author page is [here]. Spirit Circle is also available in an officially licensed capacity, but I’m not sure how you go about purchasing tankoubon for that (like if it’s only digital or what). You may look into English Spirit Circle [here]. The translation was quite good along with everything else from what I saw, but I still rather dislike that distribution service myself.
Alright, thanks for reading. See ya next time.