by Minetaro Mochizuki; adapted by Aaron Sparrow
published by Tokyopop; $9.95 US
Review by Rob Vollmar
The first three volumes of Dragon Head represent the first long narrative segment of the series and are thematically unified enough to warrant simultaneous consideration.
The opening to Dragon Head is a mash-up of sorts of a classic disaster flick like The Poseidon Adventure with the heady psychological overtones of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as three high-school students survive a train wreck that kills hundreds of their classmates only to discover that they are buried in a collapsed tunnel with little hope of rescue. Creator Minetaro Mochizuki’s ultimate success in evoking a palpable sense of dread can be traced to a number of carefully executed storytelling decisions that dominate these opening chapters.
The first volume opens with a short sequence of black pages; the first, adorned with a solitary tiny white mark; the second, totally black; and the third, featuring the faintest hint of a broken horizontal white line that travels down the page’s length, accompanied by a sound effect that suggests the dripping of water.
The following page-turn is an extreme close-up on the series’ protagonist, Teru Aoki, as he opens his eyes for the first time after the wreck. To heighten the surprise and better fill the page with his chosen image, Mochizuki rotates it 90 degrees counter-clockwise, stacking the eyes as if they were on top of one another. This careful staging places the reader squarely into the narrator’s shoes as he takes in the nightmarish images that surround him and tries to piece together his tenuous memories of what has happened.
Much of the power of these opening volumes of the story can be attributed to Mochizuki’s nearly obsessive efforts to create a finite and believable environment for his characters to inhabit. This begins inside the train itself as Aoki explores first the car containing the dead bodies of his own class and then those beyond, all filled with corpses.
The technical aspect alone of believably rendering the inside of a wrecked commuter train is impressive enough to warrant critical attention. The relentless manner in which Mochizuki employs it, often creating long silences in the story as he visually dissects the intersection of a ruined wall and the rockslide, or the angle of the train in relation to the collapsed tunnel, shows a full command of visual storytelling techniques that include and, in some cases, transcend the influence of motion pictures.
As the players’ list expands to include a girl and another boy, some might find the lack of characterization invested into the cast somewhat disappointing. In the course of these first three volumes, the reader learns very little about them even through occasional flashbacks (bulletin: teenagers are sullen) beyond their immediate reaction to immediate circumstances. We are not invited to ponder the injustice of their situation due to the virtue of their character or the ambition of their dreams.
As the currency of success or failure in manga is often built on this interaction between the audience and the author, through the fictional characters, enjoying Dragon Head then depends squarely on Mochizuki’s ability to make the situations compelling beyond their emotional impact on the characters. At times, it seems like exhausting work for author and reader alike, but then so is escaping from a collapsed tunnel.
As the narrative goals of Dragon Head become dramatically more diffuse about a third of the way into book three, it is tempting to look back at the opening and admire its simplicity and effectiveness in comparison. The tension that Mochizuki is able to sustain for five hundred or so pages is without many credible peers in the contemporary English-translated manga market. While the series will never spawn plushes or panty-shot variant action-figures of its female character, it is one of the better examples of pure cartooning on the market today and manages to both entertain and edify. Highly recommended.