Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga ES (Eternal Sabbath)
by Jason Thompson, Jan 12th 2012
Episode XCI: ES (Eternal Sabbath)
He is a man nobody notices. Not because he's nondescript—he's quite handsome—but when someone tries to interfere with him, like a policeman asking him about a traffic violation or a sales clerk asking him to pay for his clothes, he just looks at them and then they forget him and walk away. Or sometimes they think he's someone else: one moment they're looking at a stranger, and the next moment, he's their best friend. He lives through other people's identities. No one sees him unless he wants them to, and he slips in and out of people's lives and walks through their houses without them knowing. "I'm a hacker—I hack into other people's brains. I can instantly infiltrate people's brains, their minds, and then rifle through their data and reprogram it to my liking."
Sometimes he gets involved in others' lives, if only because of a passing curiosity. He can enter people's psyches, experiencing them like virtual reality, full of surreal images of ancient temples, stampeding horses, dripping blood, monsters bursting out of human skin. He can drive you mad, or erase a traumatic memory like it never happened. But he's not some saint dedicated to wiping away people's pain. In one scene, he enters a troubled boy's mind to purge his feelings of hatred, but then leaves him with the job half done. "Now you have nothing but you feelings of regret and misery. Get rid of them yourself."
Cut to another scene, 80 pages later, and we meet the main character, Mine Kyujou. A brain researcher who studied in the US, she's about thirty years old, and she has that spacey, cool brilliance of someone who could turn into a mad scientist if this were a different manga. She's the only female neurologist in her lab, and her housewife friend Kimiko, who dropped out of medical school to get married, looks at her with a mixture of admiration and concern. "Since your visit to America, you've gotten a little work-obsessed," Kimiko says. Kyujou's mother tries to set her up on omiais, so she can find a nice guy and get married, but Kyujou's much better at science than at making small talk. "Have you heard about lion infanticide?" Kyujou tells her date excitedly. "Male lions sometimes kill baby lions. It's because a mechanism in female lions prevents them from going into heat if they already have children…the male kills the infant so that the mother will go into heat. While the male is programmed for procreation, the female is programmed for child-rearing. Speaking of procreation, that's a very interesting phenomenon…!" The omiai doesn't go well, just like the others didn't, and Kyujou's friends whisper about her and say she's weird.
Kyujou is assigned to look into a strange case, a boy in the hospital who is suffering from hallucinations of being on fire. The hallucinations are so strong they manifest in his body, giving him subcutaneous burn scars which never go away. Could the mind affect the body this powerfully? On her investigations, she runs into a strangely handsome man who seems to have some connection to the boy and to share her feeling of detachedness from the world. When she gets too close, the man—our friend from chapter one—tries to wipe her mind. But it doesn't work. Kyujou is one of the few people who has resistance to psychic powers. He tries to frighten her away with disturbing hallucinations, but Kyujou overcomes them. "What a thick-headed woman," he says, displeased. "Sometimes I come across types like you…" As Kyujou tries to figure out what's going on, the mysterious man goes on the offensive and alters the memories of everyone in her life, inserting himself as "Ryousuke Akiba," a fellow doctor working in her own lab. Soon she realizes what he is: "You're just a parasite who feeds on other people's minds!"
Kyujou realizes that she is powerless to stop him, but luckily, "Ryousuke" isn't hostile, as long as no one tries to hurt him. He just wants to live his life; at the moment, he's inserted himself into the memories of an old couple whose grandson, the real Ryousuke, died in a car accident. (They're so happy to have their grandson back.) He's also a little curious about Kyujou, because he can't read her (and because they both read minds, in their own way, although she has to use medical equipment and MRIs). And she's curious about him too. Then Kyujou meets Sakaki, a haggard scientist who tells her Ryousuke's secret: his real name is Shuro, codename "ES," and he is the result of an experiment to create a genetically engineered human being. The psychic powers were an unintended side effect. Shuro also had a cloned brother, Isaac, a few years younger than him, who was raised in a test tube and intended solely to be vivisected so they could study his organs. Isaac lacks even Shuro's rudimentary sympathy for humans, and he broke out of the facility, using his psychic powers to send the scientists into an orgy of violence. Sakaki was the only survivor of the scientific team, saved in part because Shuro helped him, although Shuro was hardly motivated by kindness. Now, Sakaki is on a mission: to find and kill Isaac before the psychic sociopath causes even more destruction. And he needs Kyujou and Shuro's help to do it…but whose side will Shuro choose?
ES (Eternal Sabbath), which ran in the seinen magazine Morning, is a clever twist on the usual psychic manga theme. The powers of the "ES" are limited to reading and controlling people's minds, not telekinesis or flying around over Tokyo blowing up skyscrapers or anything like that (well, mostly not), but they're still deadly powerful: how can you fight someone who controls the minds of everyone you know, who can erase your memories or turn crowds of strangers into homicidal maniacs? Having grown up with such power, it's almost impossible for Shuro to relate to normal human beings. "It's so strange for me to be thinking like this…it feels primitive and rough. I can't believe that humans learn to relate to each other under such conditions," he tells Kyujou, exhausted by the unfamiliar experience of trying to figure out what she's thinking. Eventually they find Isaac, who has the outward appearance of a ten-year-old boy and who has brainwashed a couple into "adopting" him. He, too, is just trying to survive in his own way, but he kills without remorse, and he has developed the habit of "freeing" others from their mental bonds, from the inner compunctions which hold them back from suicide and murder.
Before this manga, Fuyumi Soryo was best known in America for Mars, one of the first translated shojo series aimed at older teens. I really enjoyed that manga when it was published by Tokyopop, and I was pleased to find out that ES (Eternal Sabbath) is just as good, not to mention with a tighter storyline and less filler. In some ways, it even covers the same themes as Mars, the theme of child abuse and how people's pasts make them they way they are. A bit like Death Note, the story also explores the familiar superhero themes of power, responsibility and justice: with mind-reading powers it's easy to figure out who's "evil" and punish them, but is it the right thing to do? Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? What makes evil people turn out that way? Soryo basically takes the Freudian approach, that people are messed up because of things that happened to them in their childhood, and that you need to get to the root of the matter to fix people, or at least understand them. In the early scenes, this stuff is expressed symbolically through Shuro's psycho-diving virtual reality adventures, but later Soryo gets away from that—a good thing, IMHO, since the whole "go inside the crazy person's mind and fix them" thing has been done a zillion times before (Inception, The Cell, etc.…). Instead of Shuro just flying in and fixing everything with his magic mind wand, we're mostly left seeing things from Kyujou's limited, human point of view. Kyujou doesn't have psychic powers, but as a brain scientist, she's obsessed with figuring out what makes humans tick. (Even though she doesn't even fully understand her own behavior.) In the story, she repeatedly does something that I think most people have dreamed of doing at some point—she talks to evil, psychotic people and tries, just tries rationally, to help them and understand why they do evil things. She tries to talk to an abusive mother. She tries to talk to a juvenile sociopath. But there are some things you can't just talk away…
Soryo's mixture of science fiction psychodrama and seinen/josei realistic adult themes, the cool, cinematic artwork and likeable, attractive main characters, are what make this manga so good. At the beginning of the series (which almost seems like a different manga altogether) Shuro seems almost like a villain, and I liked his moral ambiguity, just as I liked Kyujou's nerdy eagerness; I was a little worried she'd turn out to be the stereotypical "inwardly unhappy careerwoman who just wants to find love" josei heroine, but she turns out to be stronger than that. Japanese Wikipedia says the brain-diving imagery was influenced by Tron, but to me, while we're speaking of ‘80s movies, it feels much more like David Cronenberg's good-psychic-vs-.evil-psychic movie Scanners. There's also one visual swipe from the movie Species (volume 1, page 50), and the idea of evil super-psychics who can control people's minds and possess their bodies reminds me of Dan Simmons’ awesome novel Carrion Comfort, although I really doubt Soryo read that book. Apparently ES (Eternal Sabbath) was almost made into a movie in Japan, but Soryo and the filmmakers disagreed about how much to focus on the love story elements; good for Soryo for sticking to her guns. There is a love story here, but there are also moments that are so dark and disturbing I couldn't believe I was reading it. You don't need exploding skyscrapers and mayhem (in fact, one of my few complaints is that Soryo kind of skimps on the mayhem) to show just how terrifying it is to be psychic. Or to be human, in fact.
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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