Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 12th 2006
He was locked up for ten years by an unknown syndicate, and now he's out for revenge—if only he could remember anything about himself. Going by the arbitrary name of "Yamashita," he works at a construction site by day and tries to track down his captors by night. The trail eventually leads him all the way back to his former prison—only to run into mindless lackeys who barely know how the organization is run. Working his way up to a cell-phone confrontation with the boss doesn't help either, as he's suddenly knocked back to square one, with no way of tracking down his targets. With few other options, he seeks out old friends, hoping to pick up the remaining pieces of his life.
It might be odd to think of a "slice-of-life action thriller"—but Oldboy is exactly like that, blending smoky vignettes of city life with a classic revenge story. Readers might be surprised at the overwhelming lack of action, with most of the story being developed through dialogue, observation, and reasoning. Watching a guy solve clues about his enemies and follow people around may not sound like the most exciting thing ever, but this story makes it work, moving fast enough to keep you hooked chapter after chapter. There are many stories of crime and conspiracy on Tokyo's streets, but how many of them are about a guy who can use his brain just as well as he uses a gun?
This volume starts with ramen. "Yamashita" is checking out a very specific number of ramen restaurants around the city, trying to track down the one that made the gyoza he lived on for ten years. Oddities like that are a testament to the story's creative turns, where big answers to big questions lie in the inconsequential details of city life. It doesn't take long for him to figure out the trail of clues; in fact, short chapters and quick scene-to-scene pacing keep this story intense despite its low-key attitude. Two-thirds of the way through the volume, it may look like he's already reached his apparent goal—surely the author hasn't written himself into a corner?—but more twists await. A reunion with an old friend opens up a whole new layer of back-story as our hero tries to recall fragments of his former life. Somehow, the simple act of following people and asking investigative questions is as gripping as any all-out slugfest. That's because we end up asking the same questions as the protagonist: Who is this guy? What did he do to earn a decade of crushing solitude? And how will he get back at those who imprisoned him?
Even as he gets glimpses of the answers, more questions emerge. (Here's one for all the nitpickers: How come he can remember former co-workers and friends but not someone who hated him enough to lock him up for ten years?) As long as the story keeps building—showing more and more unsolved puzzle pieces—it'll continue to be interesting. However, this plot-driven approach pushes character development to the wayside; our hero is mysterious but also detached and dull, his allies have extremely minimal roles aside from revealing essential information, and the villains he faces are mostly shallow caricatures. Only the head boss, the "employer" of the other goons, is a worthy opponent, and he's keeping his distance. Any deeper background about the syndicate will have to wait until Volume 3.
The shady, understated artwork fits the tone of the series well, telling the story directly with very few special effects or exaggerations. Even the action scene in the middle of the volume avoids bombast, letting the quiet brutality speak for itself: a kick in the face, an ear-grazing gunshot, a broken nose. Scowling adults are the default character type here, but each of them has a distinct look, even the low-level villains who get hacked away instantly. Hatched inking and heavy screentones add to the dark city atmosphere, along with background details like buildings, subways and bars. Dramatic moments are conveyed by strong camera angles and enlarged panels; in fact, the ebb and flow of the layout is one of the book's strengths despite relying almost exclusively on rectangular paneling. As it turns out, a style that might look constrained doesn't have to be constraining to the artist at all—changes in panel size, positioning, and well-placed silences keep the story moving along at a steady pace.
The bluntness of the story is quite evident in Dark Horse's translation, which uses contemporary dialogue without being too dry or too colorful. After all, this is how tough city guys talk; they don't waste words with fancy monologues but only say as much as they need to get what they want. Japanese sound effects are left in place and "subtitled" in a very literal way: small notes like "FX: Beep Beep" appear in the margins or in small, rectangular sub-panels. Not the most dynamic way to do it, but somehow it fits with the no-nonsense mood of the manga. Printing is sharp, but the paper quality is strictly average, and this volume is noticeably devoid of cultural or translation notes—surely if Carl Horn were editing this we'd have a mini-encyclopedia on the ins and outs of metropolitan Tokyo.
Taken as a whole, Oldboy is very much a reflection of its main character: quiet, tense, and brutal when necessary. This volume sees the story escalate even further, reaching an apparent stopping point partway through, but then switching directions abruptly and showing that there's still plenty to be explored. Although it avoids the extremes of graphic violence or mind-bending conspiracy plots, it still holds its own as a suspense thriller, driven by a brisk pace and a pressing set of questions wanting to be answered. It's definitely a story of tough guys doing tough things, but not in the way one might expect: physical toughness helps our hero get around, but only mental toughness will help him get his revenge.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B
+ Strong pacing both visually and story-wise, plus new plot revelations to keep the reader hooked.
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