Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Old Boy

by Jason Thompson, Aug 11th 2011

Episode LXII: Old Boy

Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, the ultimate revenge story about a man who gets vengeance after being unjustly imprisoned for 14 years, was loosely adapted into the anime Gankutsuou. It's also probably an inspiration for Old Boy, the manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. Both are about a person whose life is stolen from them, who is imprisoned for years but becomes stronger and tougher from the experience. But although The Count of Monte Cristo—and the famous Korean movie adaptation of Old Boy—are about violence and tragedy and the morality of revenge, the original Old Boy manga is very different. It's more of a psychological piece. It starts with the narrator being suddenly released after ten years in a private jail in a hidden location in Tokyo…not knowing who put him there, why they put him there, or why he was set free.

His name is Goto. When he woke up to find himself in jail, he was 25 years old, a moderately successful businessman, engaged to be married to a woman he loves. When he gets out of jail, after ten years in a windowless prison, he's 35, a man without a life, with nothing but the clothes on his back, scruffy and confused. Then he's drugged and wakes up in a public park, with no more explanation than when he was first kidnapped. His first reaction to being set free is, naturally, joy: his first look at the night sky, his first sight of flowers, his first beer and cigarette and 1000-yen sushi plate are all moments of transcendent bliss.

But soon his thoughts turn to vengeance. Luckily for him, he didn't spend his time in prison masturbating and crying; he spent his lost decade training his body for the day when he could get revenge. While he was in solitary confinement, he exercised every day, and now he is so built that he can easily beat up a couple of punk street kids who mistake him for a drunken salaryman. Furthermore, just by watching television, he learned how to fight, and he also gained insights into the true workings of society by watching it from the outside, kind of like Spider Jerusalem watching 50 TV channels at once in Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan. (One of the brilliant things about the premise of Old Boy is that there's probably lots of people who feel like they wasted their twenties eating ramen and watching TV; but our hero gets awesome muscles and enlightenment out of it. It would probably have been too cruel if the big revelation of Old Boy was that the hero was a hikikomori who imprisoned himself on purpose.) He vows to track down the people who imprisoned him, using just one clue: the taste of the pot stickers he ate every day in prison, always delivered from the same Chinese restaurant, one restaurant out of the tens of thousands in Tokyo.

He gets a fake name and a menial job and sets his revenge plan into action. He travels along the underbelly of society: seedy bars, racetracks, pool halls, back alleys. He eventually reconnects with an old friend, Tsukamoto, who runs a bar on the Golden Gai. He makes peace with the loss of his old life and his old girlfriend. And there is one new spark of light which keeps him going: a girl named Eri, a young waitress who takes pity on him when he stumbles into her restaurant one night. Eri comforts him, listens to his story, and uses a kitchen knife to cut open the strange new scar on his back, where she discovers a microchip implanted in him by whoever locked him up.

Of course, the mystery of Old Boy is, who would do such a thing? If someone hated him enough to go to all that trouble, to track him and pay millions of dollars to keep him locked up in a private prison for ten years, why wouldn't they just kill him? "Ten years ago…was there anyone who hated me?" Goto asks Tsukamoto. We soon discover that Goto's enemy is a wealthy businessman, a man as fabulously rich as Goto is poor. Like Goto, he seems somehow apart from society, from the bourgeois middle-class life that Goto describes as "happy slavery." Did they have something in common, some mysterious connection in their past? Eventually Goto's tormentor tells him that the whole thing is a game, and the point of the game is to see if Goto figures out their connection. Goto vows to find out the secret, but he also decides that he won't become obsessed with revenge. He'll enjoy his freedom, he'll find a new life, and maybe he'll even fall in love again. But no matter how far he runs from his tormentor, no matter how well he hides, sooner or later the phone will ring and a familiar voice will say "It's me." What is his enemy's motive? Revenge, or something more? "Remember your childhood," a mysterious woman whispers. Goto's quest—not so much for revenge, as for self-discovery—soon takes him back into his own past…

If you've never read Old Boy or seen the 2003 film version by Park Chan-Wook, you may think you've guessed what the secret is. If you've seen the film but haven't read the manga, you may also think you know. In both cases you're wrong. The film and the manga are very different. While the movie is famous for its bloody, well-choreographed fight scenes, the manga is surprisingly nonviolent—at one point Goto gets his hands on a gun, but he throws it away because he decides he doesn't want to kill anybody. They also have different endings and a totally different psychological focus, and which one you like more may depend on which one you saw first.

If all this sounds vague, that's because it 's really hard to talk about Old Boy—either the movie or the manga—without spoilers. (In fact, even this review contains unavoidable spoiler-like clues. You have been warned.) The best way I can put it is, if the movie is about tragic love and hate, the manga is about loneliness. Tomohiro Machiyama, the Japanese pop culture writer, said that the Old Boy manga was about the feelings of otaku, of the way that outsiders must wall off their emotions from other people to escape the pain. When I read the ending of the manga—with a bit more of a "Huh?" than an "Aha!—I thought of Machiyama's words and finally got it. Tsuchiya likes to write about lonely outsiders; in his other translated manga Astral Project (written under the pen name 'marginal') the outsiders are astral travelers who escape from the mundane world into astral space at night, and in Old Boy the outsiders are a pair of men who haunt bars and lonely nighttime places. (Both stories seem to take place mostly at night.) In both stories, the gifted ones gain insight that normal people don't have, and yet both idealize the "simple life" and look down on what Tsuchiya perceives as modern decadence: there's a bit of a grouchy "kids these days" feeling to some of Goto's observations about the world. (Still, it's not nearly as preachy as Astral Project, in which one of the plot points is that sexuality destroys your astral abilities, and that excessive masturbation and otaku computer game addiction will cause the collapse of Japanese society.) Basically, Park Chan-Wook took only the skeleton of Old Boy, and wrote a completely different story around it. It's a rare case where the movie adaptation is more over-the-top and melodramatic than the original manga.

Old Boy—the manga, that is—is a quiet detective novel with a difficult ending. It's one of those incredibly long oldschool manga, a suspense story with slow pacing that drags out the suspense; you'll flip pages as fast as watching a film, following Goto as he gradually picks up crumbs of clues. The clever plotting caused it to win a 2007 Eisner Award, and some of the clever tricks of the main characters reminded me of Tsugumi Ohba's Death Note. On the other hand, unlike the "twelve plot twists in every chapter" density of Death Note, Old Boy has a pretty simple plot deep down, and after reading all 8 volumes I couldn't help but think it could have been half that length. In addition, a few plot points are left frustratingly unresolved when it ends, although it's not nearly as bad as the aforementioned Astral Project, a manga which reads like it was canceled abruptly before the story was finished. Nobuaki Minegishi's sedate, realistic artwork is the perfect fit for Old Boy's long slow stroll down memory lane, again in contrast to Takeya Syuji's beautiful but sometimes flashy and confusing art in Astral Project. After reading Old Boy, I want to read more by Garon Tsuchiya/marginal, an author who—despite his weaknesses—is so curious about philosophy and the psychology of his characters. But I still can't clear my mind of the horrible, wonderful, different, absolutely perfect ending of the movie.


Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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