Looking at the cover to the first volume of Hiroshi Kubota’s Summoner Girl (Tokyopop), you don’t immediately get a sense of its fantasy elements. There’s fourth grader Hibiki Saionji in her schoolgirl garb, two red yin/yang symbols behind her as she smilingly poses for the reader with some kind of decorative staff. It isn’t until you look more closely that you see the quintet of what look like hand puppets perched on her head and shoulders. These are Shikigami, elemental spirits who aid our young heroine in her duties as an exorcist.
Using her staff to call upon one of the elemental spirits (wind, water, metal, earth, fire), Hibiki battles creatures born of darkness known as Ayakashi. Trained and overseen by her snappish grandmother, she’s also been tasked to retrieve the Rikutou Jewels, six legendary gems that have been scattered around the globe. Once brought together, these jewels will cause a devastating catastrophe, but for some not fully explained reason, the Exorcist Underground has lifted its ban on seeking to unite the Rikutou. Whoever accomplishes this — and averts the subsequent apocalypse — will be become leader of the underground. A pretty extreme hiring process, methinks.
Hampered in her quest by a comic relief tagalong named Kenta Oda and a dark-haired self-proclaimed rival, Hibiki exorcises three possessions: a fox demon who has taken over one of her school’s teachers, a possessed temple, plus a giant spider controlling a schoolboy in a rundown mansion. None of these adversaries prove particularly nefarious — the demon arachnid is basically just lonely, we learn — though their actions have dire consequences on the humans in the area. In this, the teen-rated manga proves a notch less Manichean than a lot of fantasy series.
Through it all, our summoner girl remains good-natured and empathetic, true to the smiling image she presents on the cover. Between each longish chapter, Kubota wedges in more openly comic strips focusing on the Shikigami and Kenta. I personally found them a distraction from the main story, which has enough small comic moments in it on its own, though I suppose they’re not much different from the little space-filler strips that American comics used to place between stories underneath the ads.