There’s a certain kind of story that makes you slowly realize that you shouldn’t be taking anything for granted. Nightfall Travelers: Leave Only Footprints is one of them. Even though it’s specifically about debunking local ghost tales, the sensibility falls more in line with the busy, flourish-filled art of Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun with the quiet pacing and gentle storytelling of Natsume’s Book of Friends, and the vague sense that the supernatural might not be as easily explained as our heroines are thus far finding only enhances those similarities. What we initially take for granted, therefore, must be questioned, which the slow build of the chapters calmly demonstrates as the volume goes on.
The main plot of the book starts when Ninamori, who has been ghosting the newspaper club she belongs to at her middle school, is assigned to conduct an investigative series about the many ghost stories and hauntings that proliferate in her hillside city. While she could hardly be said to be enthusiastic about the assignment, she’s also not upset about it, and she picks the first place from the list she’s been given. But as the moment to set off approaches, Ninamori begins to feel trepidatious, and when she sees transfer student Amemura sitting alone in their classroom at sunset, she impulsively asks the other girl to join her. Amemura’s surprised, but there’s also a sense that she’s delighted to be invited, and thus the format for the book is established: the two girls go to a supposedly haunted location after school and try to solve the mystery.
It’s interesting that they are Able to solve most of them within the few pages allotted to each chapter, and it does mean that if you’re strictly in this for the ghost-hunting that seems to be implied by the premise, you’re probably going to be disappointed. The story is nearly glacially paced, which really does work for the gentle nature of it, but it could absolutely leave some readers feeling bored or like they’ve been deprived of a promised supernatural series. It really runs more like a laid-back mystery, and from that perspective, the ways that the girls figure out the truths behind the rumors are really pretty fascinating – it’s a combination of science, observation, and just turning your head at the right angle to see a different perspective. In most cases Ninamori dutifully reports her findings, but in one particularly striking chapter she decides not to, opting instead to let a harmless ghost story live on in the imaginations of local children, because everyone needs something slightly spooky and a little bit bittersweet to believe in. That really does feel like it’s understanding at the heart of the book, even as the girls unveil local truths – being scared is one thing, but wanting to believe is something else entirely.
This is enhanced very well by the artwork. Tomoh appears to be working entirely digitally in a program similar to Photoshop, and unlike some digital manga artists, they don’t take any pains to make it look as if the manga’s being drawn and toned traditionally or to disguise the digital tools in any way. Shades of gray are layered in varying opacities and using different brushes to create an almost watercolor effect, and on top of that Tomoh uses very few straight lines and sharp angles. The entire town, which looks like a labyrinth built into the side of a mountain, is a little bit like a soft Escher painting, and the fact that we never see a motor vehicle only enhances the folkloric feeling of unreality that the landscapes have. Also striking is the height difference between the two main characters – Ninamori comes up to maybe Amemura’s waist, and while we could say that’s just meant to enhance the two characters’ charm points, it feels more like a deliberate exaggeration to make us question the truth of who they are. It’s hard not to notice that Amemura doesn’t interact, physically or otherwise, with anyone besides Ninamori, nor is it easy to overlook that post-chapter four-panel comics include the voices of Ninamori’s family but not their physical selves. (The exception is one shot of her younger brother, from the back.) Given the subject matter of the book and one specific tale we’re introduced to at the end of the volume, it begins to seem like there may be something more going on here than two girls solving a few supernatural mysteries.
Nightfall Travelers: Leave Only Footprints will be too slow for some readers, and while it has a few hints of yuri content, that’s really not there as of this volume. But it is a beautiful, fascinating exploration of a dreamlike city in a time that doesn’t feel quite as real as it ought to and its use of plausible urban legends is top-notch. If you don’t need a page-turner, this is worth checking out to see what you think is hiding in the shadows of each page.