The Fall 2018 Manga Guide
What's It About?In a dystopian world, humans live largely unaware of the monsters known as gauna, which have caused the fall of mankind at least three times in the past.
To combat the white gauna, humans in a special observation bureau have engineered people who can transform into black gauna, the only beings capable of taking out their more destructive counterparts. But can the black gauna truly be trusted not to bring about the fall of humanity once again?
Is It Worth Reading?
If there's one thing you can reliable count on Tsutomu Nihei to use in his manga, or at least in all three I've read, it's the word “placenta.” It's a bit of an odd obsession, really, and one that's less on display here in Abara than in the later APOSIMZ, but still a central factor in his science fiction. Presumably it's to help create a power supply for his organic monsters, which does make some degree of sense. That's almost a boon, because oftentimes read a Nihei series can leave you with the sense that you've somehow missed an important piece of information, one key to truly understanding what's going on in the story. In this, Abara is no exception.
The story's dystopian science fiction setting is less developed than in some of Nihei's other works, and in this case that means that there's even less to go on in terms of figuring out precisely where the threats are coming from. That may be deliberate, and if so, he's doing a bang-up job of it – the lack of a centered source of danger does make things more alarming. But if you're a reader who likes concrete world building and facts, it also makes reading this an exercise in irritation. While there is a degree of satisfaction to be gained from figuring out what's going on on your own, in this case it simply becomes confusing, especially since it isn't always clear what's taking place when in the story's timeline. There are strong implications of children sold to science in the name of engineering a measure of protection from the evil white gauna, but without any certainty, that and other similarly potential-laden plot threads simply dangle, leaving readers unable (or unwilling) to tie them together.
That's why it's both a blessing and a curse that this book is so nicely presented. The hardcover is hefty with full-color manga pages, a fold-out poster, and a two-chapter short story, and the pages, while not glossy in the black-and-white, are a good quality paper. Translation notes are kind of oddly placed in the middle of the book, but if you are a Nihei fan, this really is beautiful. If this is your first Nihei outing, however, I might pick up a cheaper volume to make sure his brand of science fiction is to your taste before investing in this particular book.
I'm torn because on one level, I really did enjoy Abara. The artistry on display here is absolutely incredible. The way mangaka Tsutomu Nihei captures his world and evokes an atmosphere of extreme decrepitude through nothing but texture and shadow is astonishing. And every chapter contains at least one or two mind-melting tableaus and scenes of such grandeur and visual impossibility that they have to be seen to be believed. Some of the spreads in this book are so immaculately laid out I could stare at them for hours.
But there is no story here. Nihei is an author fascinated by the grisly and gruesome, but doesn't seem to have an interest in backing it up with clear stakes or characterization to make it meaningful. Instead, the majority of Abara is spent watching characters be subjected to violence, die, maybe come back to life or just keep on keeping on without any real understanding of who they are ad Infinitum. Its violence and brutality should be striking but is totally meaningless. There's a part where 30,000 people are massacred by the evil force, and no one reacts. No one comments or is horrified. It's endemic of Abara's larger writing problems, and it makes the experience of reading it one where the reader is constantly bombarded with visual insanity without any understanding of what it means or why it matters beyond, hey, this looks cool. My brain was mush by the time I reached the end, and not in a way where I was in awe. More in a way where I was just confused, frustrated and baffled.
There's also a one shot at the end of the volume that I believe is Nihei's prototype for Abara. It shares all the same high-points and issues, but does have some more in-world context for what is happening that makes it slightly more engaging as a narrative. It's still wallows in unearned darkness a bit too much for me to really engage with it fully, but there is a bit more to chew on.
At the very least, Abara is extremely readable and engaging. But from a story perspective, I was just bewildered. I'd recommend skimming through it because the art is genuinely that incredible. It's just severely, intensely lacking that dramatic resonance to make it something truly special and important.
Abara is - unfortunately - a body horror-filled letdown by Blame! creator, Tsutomu Nihei. The very loose plot is in a dystopian world where most of the architecture is incredibly high buildings, beings called Gaunas run rampant with their body armor made of bone. There's also an investigator attached to the main Guana, Kudou Denji, but there's not a whole lot explored in that aspect.
From an artistic standpoint, Abara is worth the read. Its highly detailed art framing imaginative creatures and gorgeous landscapes is a treasure, but when the manga is mostly shots of Gaunas mixed with minimal dialogue, readers get lost and confused, making for a confusing and ultimately shallow experience. There are glimpses of a strong and well thought out world building proved through lore surrounding the mausoleums and how humans change to Guana, but Nihei only mentions them in passing, thusly making most of this information virtually pointless.
Maybe if the last two chapters of the serialization weren't used on Digimortal (a two chapter epilogue) and was used on the main plot, light would be shed on the world and readers would be able to understand what the hell was going on. Instead of displaying a set of murder-happy twins, I'd love to see how the deep the relationship of Denji and investigator Tadohomi goes. Characters like the twins, are introduced without warning and motive, and I feel like I just read the manga equivalent to watching a movie without any sound or subtitles. I really wanted to like Abara, it's beautiful and has really wonderful character design, however, Nihei clearly got lost in his vision and his editors were too afraid to steer him in the right direction.
Abara is a visually stunning piece of dystopian sci-fi that, despite its double-sized length, feels like it's paced too quickly, never taking the time to build up the world or properly explain its rules to the audience. Pages upon pages are devoted to dialogue-less art, followed by the occasional information dump of sci-fi speak that grinds the fast pace to a halt and overwhelms with details. Rather than attempt to hook the reader via character development and plot building, the manga banks on its action and its visuals being enough to keep the audience flipping through its pages. However, by volume's end, the reader not particularly invested in the genre is unlikely to be any more aware of what's going on than they were at the start, even though the story is over by then.
The strength of this volume is Nihei's art. Not a single panel is devoid of detail, which helps establish this harsh and dystopian world. The action is first-rate and the only thing going on for much of the volume, and while the character designs are often too similar, the Gaunas and their spindly designs at least stand out on the page.
Abara is a manga that offers a lot to look at, but this bleak tale relies too heavily on its visuals to sell the shallow, confusing story and paper-thin characters. It simultaneously moves too fast and too slow, putting rapidfire action sequences on the page and then grinding the action to a halt with perplexing info dumps. Readers who are hardcore fans of the sci-fi or dystopian genres will no doubt be better equipped to understand and appreciate what's unfolding, but for the general audience, this collection leaves much to be desired.
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