It’s likely that, upon reading the synopsis and looking at the cover, one of the first questions a potential reader of Onmyoji and Tengu Eyes may have is, “Is this BL?” The answer to that question is a resounding “…maybe?” While Misato and Ryouji definitely grow closer and become important friends to each other over the course of the novel, there’s little to indicate if there’s anything romantic about their feelings. It doesn’t feel like queerbaiting, which is great, but this also isn’t the book to pick up if you’re specifically looking for a BL title. (So far, at least; this is book one in a series.)
So what is it, then? Genre-wise, this is a light supernatural mystery/fantasy set in the rural mountains of Hiroshima prefecture. Based on author Yoshiko Utamine‘s hometown, the setting of Tomoe is just as much a character as any of the people in the story. Tomoe was originally a small hub for a series of even smaller farming villages, but with municipal reorganizations and declining populations, those tiny villages are now considered part of Tomoe proper, at least in a governmental sense. Many of them are ghost towns, and that’s both a literal and a figurative designation. Ryouji’s home, for example, is the only constantly occupied house in what was once a full village; all of his neighbors are now largely absent, coming out only on weekends or in the summer and hiring locals to tend their fields. That’s better than most of the other places Ryouji and Misato end up going, though – almost every house they visit is isolated, surrounded by the ruins of a rural life that’s either no longer sustainable or appealing. Interestingly, Utamine puts much more emphasis on the latter; the text often mentions that fields are still fertile and rich, it’s just that no one is interested in living near them and tending them anymore. This, it is implied, is at least partially behind the proliferation of spirits and other supernatural nuisances that plague the area, alongside strongly-rooted folk beliefs.
It’s also what lands Misato on Ryouji’s doorstep in the first place. The two young men first meet when Misato arrives in Tomoe to find that his studio apartment has been rented out twice – and since he got there second, he’s out of a home. No one wants to live in the old farming communities (or their ruins), which means that he can’t find anywhere to stay. That’s when Ryouji approaches him in the park and offers Misato the very cheap rental of the annex of his own house. Misato distrusts him at first, but having no other real choice, he agrees, and thus begins their cohabitation. Part of the deal is that Misato helps Ryouji keep the house free of large, destructive yokai, and somewhat to his amusement he finds that Misato simply leaves the smaller ones be; he jokes that his housemate has a yokai zoo in the garden.
The characters’ interactions and the unfolding of more major plot points, such as who Ryouji is and why he was so willing to house Misato in the first place, come at a meandering pace. The book is very slow in terms of story progression, and while we do get bits and pieces of information with each chapter, its poky pacing isn’t going to work for all readers. There’s also some question of how time is passing in the book; it isn’t always clear how long anyone’s been doing what they’re doing, to the point where sometimes the mention of months having gone by feels genuinely shocking. Ryouji’s also a bit harder to get a handle on as a character while Misato at times comes off as a bit of a sad sack. That’s not terrific, because he absolutely has very good family-based reasons for being the person he is, but the information is doled out at such a pace that we don’t really have a good enough sense of it until over halfway through the book.
That said, the wonderful sense of place almost makes up for all of these issues, and each description of a moldering old village (or, in one case, a ghostly farmhouse recreating itself from its ruins) is beautiful and more than a little haunting. These scenes add to the feeling that both Misato and Ryouji are people adrift in the world, looking for a place where they can settle, and the shifting, ghostly nature of Tomoe begins to seem more and more welcoming to them the more we see of it. It’s a shame we don’t get many descriptions of the specific yokai that wander through the text (with exceptions for a few who serve as major plot points), but they aren’t really the focus: they’re the window dressing for the town and the two young men who end up there.
Onmyoji and Tengu Eyes is a slow, mostly quiet story. It has moments of action and of cruelty, but it takes its time in getting to its point. It’s not perfect, but it is interesting, and if you enjoy supernatural-tinted slices of life, it’s worth checking out.