Festival of Shadows: A Japanese Ghost Story is a graphic novel by the French creative team Atelier Sentō and translated with the help of Josh Tierney, among others. It tells the story of Naoko, who lives in an isolated mountain village in Japan. She is one of a group of people who each year at the Festival of Shadows are entrusted to help bring peace to the shadows – troubled souls – of people who have passed away traumatically. Each person has one year of living with their shadow to get to know them, learn about their lives, and discover what they need to do before they can pass on. If they cannot help their shadow before the next Festival, it becomes trapped in the living world, while their assistants are given another shadow to try and help.

Naoko is new to this journey, a dreamy girl, trapped between the land of the living and that of the dead. She becomes so entangled in the world of the shadows and the plight of lost souls that she almost loses herself. At the beginning of the story she has only been assigned one shadow before, a little girl, whom she was unable to help in time. When she is given another shadow, a man named Yukito, she does not believe she can help him. But as the year passes she slowly learns more about him, and a startling discovery about his life sees her leave her village for Tokyo, where for several months she lives a completely different life and learns what could have been.

The artwork of this book is breathtaking, with many close-ups of Naoko’s face so that the range of her emotions are fully felt. Each season of the year that passes begins with a full page illustration of something from that season: persimmons for fall, tea for winter, etc. Each season is then broken into short vignettes, smaller parts of the bigger story, that strung together show the full picture of Naoko’s journey with Yukito. The illustrations are rendered in watercolour and coloured pencils, giving them a well-defined but dreamy quality. The shadows are painted in watercolour without lines, blurring their faces into indistinct features, highlighting them among the well-defined characters of the living. In this way they are marked as different, and the abandoned souls are scary black shapes, closer to nightmare shadows.

This graphic novel is a beautiful piece of fiction and art, each aspect impeccably complementing the other to create a rich, vibrant story told as much through the illustrations as the text itself. I would recommend it for middle grade readers and up, and anyone who loves graphic art and richly-wrought folklore.

I was provided a free copy of this book by the publisher in return for an honest review.

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