Summary: While most people fear the yokai (Japanese spirits), orphan Hamichi is obsessed with them as only a kid his age can be obsessed with a subject. He talks, thinks, and breathes yokai. Since everyone else thinks yokai are scary or boring, Hamichi is an outsider with only his crabby grandma for company.
In this volume, Hamichi saves the life of a trapped kappa (water-spirit), only to have his kindness backfire when the kappa finds out Hamichi's grandma set the trap and steals her soul! To find the kappa and ask for his grandma's soul, Hamichi must travel into the spirit world, where he meets fascinating yokai and faces terrible danger.
Plot: Like many manga, Yokaiden features a straight-forward plot that can carry the story indefinitely. While it is simple (objective: regain soul, period), the storyline is still interesting. It is hard not to care about a boy trying to save his grandmother's life.
Characters: Sure, Hamichi is nothing new, but this ever-optimistic, slightly warped kid is incredibly likable. (Think Lilo, without the pouting.) Much of the story's humor comes from his cheerful refusal to realize that he's an odd duck. Whether he's amputating legs, telling Enma that he'll pass on entering Hell just now, or telling a yokai where the naughty children play so it can skin their feet (it's a discipline demon), Hamichi always has an innocent smile and a "this is SO COOL" outlook.
Other human characters at this point are limited to grumpy Grandma (nuff said) and a yokai-hunting ronin who is still very mysterious at the end of the volume.
The yokai steal the show. Each has a distinct personality, from the edgy, threatening kappa, to the take-no-sass living lantern, to the yeti-like creature who threatens to skin Hamichi's feet but gives a horrified apology when he finds out Hamichi has behaved himself lately. There are dangers in the spirit world as well, and one soul-eating monster is introduced in this volume. Hamichi will need all the help he can get if he's going to survive his quest.
Dialogue/Writing: Full of snappy one-liners and distinct voices, the dialogue is fun and never dull.
Pacing: Hamichi is always on the go and so is the plot, but exposition is woven into the dialogue skillfully so the reader never gets lost.
Art: The drawings are wonderful. Hamichi is very cartoonish and exaggerated, but the other human characters are done in a more understated, adult style, and the ronin resembles a traditional shojo hero, but grittier. The yokai are drawn to match their traditional descriptions and their individual personalities. Much of the art is stunning and all of it is pure fun.
Ending: This volume comes to a good stopping point while still creating a build-up to volume two, which I can't wait to read.
What more did I want?: The next volume!
Bonus: Each chapter ends with a field guide style entry about different species of yokai, with humorous asides. Fans of the slash-and-dash Wii game Muramasa: The Demon Blade will recognize several of the spirits, and it's fun to get some background on them.