House of 1000 Manga
by Jason Thompson,
This is a manga you'll have to read more than once. Comics are a hiding medium: a single image or a single panel can hold vital information, but your eye might skip right over it, focusing on what you choose to focus on, reading at your own pace, not dragged along by the director and cinematographer like in a film. As soon as I read Nijigahara Holograph, I wanted to reread it immediately, to find the pieces of the puzzle that I had missed.
It begins (as much as it has a beginning) in elementary school, when the characters are about 11 years old. Amahiko is a quietly depressed transfer student whose parents moved him to a new school after he jumped off the roof of the old one. Kohta is a bully, the leader of a pack that picks mostly on Takahama, a fat ugly kid who can barely communicate. Nerumi, a plain-looking girl, develops a crush on Amahiko; her big brother Makoto is a few years older and seems to have his act together and to look serenely on the younger kids. Maki has a crush on Kohta, but Kohta only has eyes for Arié, a girl who lives with her father since her mother's death.
In fact, Arié fascinates everyone; everyone loves or hates her. Near the school there is a dark tunnel through which the river flows, and Arié tells the students that a monster lives there, a monster who has the power to destroy the world. Tired of Arié and her stories, the students decide to appease the monster with a sacrifice, and one day when Kohta is away they gang up on her and push her down a storm drain into the dark.
Arié is left in a coma, and after that crime, eleven years pass. The past is buried, the children grow up into secret-haunted adults. Maki works at a café run by Makoto. Kohta, who has never been the same since he, too, fell into the river a few weeks after Arié, is a burnout with a dead-end job at the grocery store. Hayato, formerly Kohta's partner-in-bullying, is a police officer. Arié still lingers in her coma, still watched over by her father, a nervous, pathetic man. Sakaki, the children's schoolteacher, has quit teaching and wonders what became of her former pupils' lives. But unlike in, say, 20th Century Boys, this isn't a mystery that can be solved; the characters never gather together to deal with old baggage, to confront the sins and crimes of their past. Instead, each one stumbles down their own path, alone: towards murder, rape, obsession, wasted lives, the cold hatred of being rejected by parents and ostracized by friends. Reality is bad enough that it's almost a relief when reality starts to crack around the edges: the 'magic box' that someone gave to Amahiko in childhood, telling him that it could grant any one wish…Kohta's ghostly visions…the sudden appearance of swarms of glowing butterflies…and beautiful Arié's prophecy of the end of the world…
The strange structure of Nijigahara Holograph means we, the reader, have to figure out what is going on; the characters themselves never do. The timeline continually jumps back and forth, giving us seemingly disconnected fragments of the story. It twists our perceptions, often cruelly, for example cutting from a couple's moments of first love, to years later when they eventually divorce. Some reviewers compared the story to the movie The Butterfly Effect, but while yes, there are butterflies, it isn't (necessarily) about literal time travel: it's more like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, in which the main character becomes—or believes he becomes—"unstuck in time" and perceives past, present and future events simultaneously, with no free choice, no way to escape the predestined fate awaiting him. I also thought of Martin Amis' Time's Arrow, whose protagonist experiences his life in reverse from death to birth, watching helplessly the whole time. (It only makes sense when, towards the end of the book, you figure out who the protagonist is and what he did.) To add to the confusion, there are scenes in the book where the course of time seems to split, and the same events unfold in different ways. But mostly, in Nijigahara Holograph, time feels like a monolith: a fixed object that you can look at from different points, but where the outcome is predetermined, no matter how much the characters wish they could go back in time.
Inio Asano is interested in age, time and the maturation; Solanin was also a story about people growing up and how they change. But it didn't have Nijigahara's time-flip structure, and neither was it so dark. Nijigahara Holograph continually shows the dirty secrets and ugly truths beneath everyday life, like the beginning of David Lynch's Blue Velvet when the camera pans down over an idyllic suburban house and green lawn, down, down beneath the grass into the dark earth where unseen animals fight and squirm. ("It's like the way humans live above filthy sewage, isn't it? No matter how hard you try to forget it or hide it, it's always there, deep inside.") If anything, Asano is even gloomier than Lynch, who always has a torch burning for 'normality' somewhere in his heart and idealizes 1950s Americana at the same time he subverts it. Sympathetic characters turn out to be monsters. Asano never gives us even a moment of true kindness and comfort, unless it's near the beginning when Sayaki takes Amahiko under her wing and shows him the sunset: "I bet you never saw a sunset like that where you lived before, huh?" But then Asano cuts to a shot of Amahiko's erection; no one's motivations are pure. There's much horror here, whether it's the everyday cruelty of bullying, or the scenes of sexual violence, more implied than shown. Perhaps it's understandable that, when he gets his magic box (is it a dream? Is it real?), Amahiko dreams of ending it all, of wishing for the end of the world. Some reviewers feel that the supernatural elements are irrelevant and the story would work just as well without them. While there's some validity to that argument, it's not like Asano tries to turn this into a giant robot manga: the surreal elements emerge smoothly out of the realistic ones, just like in (here comes everyone's favorite Nijigahara comparison again) a David Lynch movie. In Eraserhead, even David Lynch showed the end of the world.
There are so many important questions that are never answered, important characters' faces that we never see. We don't even see the face of Arié, the character everyone is obsessed with, until just before the end. What is the meaning of the butterflies? Are they human souls? Are those bloodstains on that hammer, and does that mean what I think it means? How did the body of Arie's mother end up where it did? And, most tantalizingly, is there a whole different story hidden behind this story: a story of another girl, a whole different cast of characters, that we barely interact with or see? Asano never answers some mysteries, but maybe the fault is mine: maybe I just need to reread it again. Manga is about flow, but it takes skill to play with that flow as much as Inio Asano does in Nijigahara. Warning: there are undercurrents here.
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