This is one of the many manga I first tried out when I was using friends' guest passes on Crunchyroll and frankly my luck for finding good series on there was pretty terrible. Honestly it still is but I'm lad I stumbled across this one, I actually had no idea it was by the same manga-ka as The Biscuit Hammer and after I enjoyed this series so much I was convinced to try The Biscuit Hammer again and I think that one is growing on me too!
Spirit Circle by Satoshi Mizukami
For this review I'm going to refer to both our leads as "Fuuto" and "Kouko" regardless of which life it is (except for Fuuta's first life since his name comes up quite a bit, "Fortuna").
Fuuta Okeya lives a normal life and has gotten to his second year of middle school without incident, although he can see some spirits including the one following his new classmate, Kouko Ishigami. Revealing this to her was a mistake since Kouko connects the dots and realizes that Fuuta is the current incarnation of her old enemy whom she's sworn to kill and break his cycle of reincarnation. Fuuta doesn't believe her at first, but she forces him to live out his past lives and he ends up being curious about just what he did that caused millennia of repercussions
On one level the plot for this story is very simple: Kouko intends to kill Fuuta but she wants Fuuta to be completely aware of why she's doing it, hence having him see all of his past lives (she remembered her first life first but Fuuta did not for some reason). But death only leads to reincarnation and reincarnation is natural so does Kouko actually have another, even more sinister, plan in mind? The story has suggested that Kouko and Fuuta have been reincarnated more times than usual (Fuuta has been referred to as "an old soul" and none of their many friends and family have reincarnated as many times), and there is also a "heaven" that souls return to and I don't think that's where Kouko wants to send Fuuta. I suspect the answer lies with East, Kouko's father in her first life and now the spirit that accompanies her, clearly he has never reincarnated or passed which might be the root of the trouble that Fortuna caused.
While Kouko's crusade is motivated by something personal, the story seems to be building to something larger than just the clash between them. Crunchryoll's blurb describes it as "metempsychosis spectacle story in grand scale!" It certainly feels epic in scale as there have been times when Fuuta and Kouko's actions have determined the course of the communities around them, arguably entire civilizations. It's rather appropriate that at first these moments were accidental but the older their souls get the more resolute they become, including in this current life. Kouko grows more and more determined to kill Fuuta with each new life she sees but Fuuta struggles more and more to maintain his current sense of self and move past these things. It's true that Fuuta's life has often ended on a happier note than Kouko's (although never truly happy, he seems to die many regrets even when he's not murdered) and that he still hasn't seen that crucial first life yet and that could change everything. But it's still a huge point of contrast since Kouko feels that she needs to cling to this conflict and be untrue to her current self but Fuuta is fine being the dumbest of his incarnations (I'm almost wondering if that's a misdirection considering how many times it's been brought up) and having rather adorable interactions with her.
All of this does lead me to wonder, why now? Fuuta and Kouko have reincarnated seven times and they do have some memories of their past lives each time (as do their friends and families who have been reincarnating along with them) and it seems as if their memories have been growing stronger each time. The spirit circles have helped but Fuuta has even been able to see some ghosts again which he hasn't been able to do with many cycles, once again I think that the story is building to something a bit bigger and that this time is special. Rereading this series let me realize just how much Kouko and Fuuta have mellowed out over the years; in their most recent past life they had a perfectly normal relationship so it's almost odd that Kouko is going against the flow and wants Fuuta's blood to be spilled again. Their lives group themselves into loose arcs where we see them kill and be killed, reach out in an uneasy truce, and eventually find soemthing more important worth bonding over. I wonder if that's at the heart of their reincarnations, that they don't happen randomly but that they happen when people have unfinished connections to each other like a debt to pay or a promise. It would fit in the story and the characters have suggested similarly, it would certainly be a sweet spot in a story that can get a bit dark at times.
To touch on the art, it suffers a little bit from "six faces syndrome" and the characters look more like a collection of various distinguishers (oh this character has a long, round nose, oh this one has smallish eyes) more than distinct character designs. It helps when you try to remember which character corresponds to who but the series looks rather blocky and simple overall. It can have really well composed pages with a nice level of detail when called for but overall the art seems to simply be there. This isn't a story where the art has to be great to pull off the story but I can still see the simpler art putting some people off. I should also warn people that this series has a surprising number of bare boob scenes. It's never sexualized (more like, oh both a male and a female character are having an out of body experience so I guess both of them need to be naked!), it's not a NSFW series but I just wanted to give people a heads up.
Currently Spirit Circle is available digitally through Crunchyroll, but I really want a print copy of this manga so I can read it over and over wherever and whenever I want. This is a story that rewards a careful reader or someone who likes to reread. It's a perfectly great story if you simply read through it and don't think about it much in-between chapters but if you do there are plenty of details that fit together in more ways than the story simply shows on page. It's smoothly moving toward the climax and some of the most recent chapters have dropped some interesting details and foreshadowing hints about how it will go so I'm super pumped for each new chapter.