When Tokyo high-schooler and history fanatic Chikahito Takamoto’s long-awaited visit to the ancient city of Kyoto takes a turn for the bizarre, he’s understandably thrown for a loop. In a single step, the venerable shrine grounds vanish, replaced with a starlit void occupied by three surprised individuals in the process of confronting a handful of violent, serpentine spirits. Unable to process it all, Chikahito passes out, only to wake up in the trio’s mundane Kyoto home. Grown-ups Sakura and Tachibana (friendly and irritable, respectively) don’t know how to explain his appearance in their isolated battle zone any more than he does, but Hana, a cute, preternaturally wise, noodle-obsessed kid of unrevealed age or gender, doesn’t seem bothered in the least. In fact, Hana proves to be quite the Chikahito fan. So much so that when, three months later, Chikahito finds himself relocated to Kyoto through unusual circumstances, it seems more than just fate has returned him to Hana’s side. How does a geeky teen from Tokyo fit into this world of spirits and intrigue? Poor Chikahito’s not the only one who’d like to know….
This first volume of CLAMP’s newest genre-blending, gender-bending venture sets up a pleasantly complicated mix of history and magic, drama and humor, told with elegant, confident visuals that skillfully balance simplicity with detail, black space with white, and make good use of varied, well-placed screentone patterns. Although fantastical images and magical action play a major role, the figures and detailed backgrounds are less stylized and more realistic than in Tsubasa or XxxHolic, making the carefully recreated Kyoto setting all the more concrete and central to the story.
That focus on reality-based fantasy comes into even greater evidence in the plot, which plays with the events and personalities of Japan’s Warring States period. While reader knowledge of and familiarity with the often-mined period’s history are certainly useful, CLAMP do a nice job of working in exposition under the guise of educating Chikahito about his new situation and surroundings. Detailed end notes fill in the rest, and though it’s a little awkward to have to flip to the back to understand puns and context, it’s better than cluttering the story pages with paragraphs of distractingly intrusive text. There does appear to be one typographical error in the notes, which give “Tokunaga” instead of “Tokugawa” (conflated with “Nobunaga,” perhaps?) when referring to the founder of Japan’s first great shogun dynasty, but they are otherwise reader-friendly and informative.
Readers familiar with CLAMP may find glasses-wearing Chikahito’s usefulness in the kitchen and his mysterious x-factor role in the big picture vaguely reminiscent of XxxHolic‘s Watanuki (and there’s even a subtle reference to the latter’s Tokyo school), but Gate 7‘s protagonist is far more cheerful, more grounded, and more accepting of other people’s quirks and things he can’t explain. Indeed, the reader wonders if he isn’t perhaps a little too accepting of the weirdness around him, but since he immediately expresses the same concern even as he can’t help but be sucked in, the reader happily chooses to follow suit and see what happens next.
While Dark Horse’s website offers a suggested target audience of at least 14, the story’s reliance on complex historical elements and Chikahito’s confused feelings toward the youthful (tween? teen?), androgynous Hana may skew it toward older teens and adults. CLAMP’s legions of fans will eat this up, but it will likely appeal to fans of urban fantasy and historical fiction, as well.
Gate 7, vol. 1
Dark Horse, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: 14+