story by Yukito Ayatsuji; art by Hiro Kiyohara
published by Yen Press; $29.99 US
This super-sized manga — 720 pages! the whole story in a single volume! — is based on a horror novel that also spawned an anime and a live-action movie. Clearly, there’s something about this story that seized the imagination of various audiences.
It’s gripping, a creepy puzzle all the more involving for its everyday dimensions. It begins with a simple ghost story. 26 years before, the most popular kid in the class died suddenly in an accident. The other students, unable to cope with the trauma, kept pretending that Misaki was still there. When it came time to take the class photo at graduation, Misaki appeared in the picture. (Shades of The Shining!)
In 1998, the time this manga takes place, Koichi will be starting at a new school. His father is abroad, and his mother is dead, so he’s living with his grandparents and his young aunt, and he’s come back to class late due to medical issues. At the hospital, he encounters a fellow student, a mysterious girl with an eyepatch named Mei Misaki.
Early on, he’s warned that, at a country school, the group is more important than the individual so he must follow what the class decides. Then, on his first day, he’s quizzed about whether he believes in ghosts and other unusual phenomena. The entire book is driven by an air of unease, wondering what’s really going on. Is Mei a ghost? A living doll? A psychic? Does she exist at all? Should Koichi follow the group’s lead in how to interact with her or his own impulses?
The typical elements of manga suit this kind of suspenseful storytelling well. The emphasis is on faces and reactions, easy to understand in black and white contrast. Pages are easy to read quickly, which helps with a story where you’re trying to figure out what is really happening and what’s next. So much is driven by mood and tone that the book’s size, while unwieldy, encourages you to stick with it as one odd incident piles upon another.
As the story progresses, events become more deadly. This particular class is cursed. If certain superstitions aren’t followed, students and their family members start dying through bizarre accidents. (Shades of Final Destination!) It’s because some didn’t go along with sacrificing themselves to the good of the larger group, a particularly Japanese warning. There’s also the theme of how much responsibility someone should feel towards something that happened because of their actions, regardless of how unpredictable it was. Even if Koichi couldn’t know that his choices would result in disaster, he still feels guilty.
When the class finally tries to take action, the fear of death, of being the next one to lose someone, causes the group members to turn on each other. (Shades of Lord of the Flies!) Overall, the message is that death, even accidental death, is part of life, and it has to be accepted and acknowledged. Ignoring it will make you worse off in the long run, since death is apparently proud and demands to be recognized.
I haven’t seen the story in any other format, but I prefer such spooky tales to be read, not viewed, so I enjoyed this manga. (That way, I can go at my own pace.) Imagination is so much more powerful spurred by a book, too. (The publisher provided a review copy.)