by Inio Asano; translated by Matt Thorn
published by Fantagraphics; $29.99 US
Continuing Fantagraphics’ program of bringing notable manga to English in deluxe presentations — titles so far include important historical shojo The Heart of Thomas and Moto Hagio’s Drunken Dream as well as the cross-gender series Wandering Son — their newest release is Nijigahara Holograph.
Author Inio Asano isn’t new to U.S. readers; his previous works Solanin and What a Wonderful World! were released by Viz four years ago. Nijigahara Holograph has the same strong focus on character, but with much more emphasis on the creepy and violently destructive.
The 300-page, single-volume hardcover is larger than most manga and allows the reader to sink into the world in one setting. I admit, I’m having trouble describing what it’s about, because I’m not sure I comprehend everything the author is showing us, but I found it compelling and involving nonetheless. The reader must be willing to engage with the work, interpreting the gorgeously drawn, detailed images, and must be comfortable with uncertainty and implication. The recurring butterfly motif, for example, suggests that the flying creatures may be symbols of life or souls or indicators of transitions or significant moments of change.
Early on, a boy sits by his unconscious father’s hospital bedside, before discussing dreams with another patient:
It makes me wonder if what I’m seeing now isn’t really just a dream. Each day, the dreams become more and more real. And yet… in the end… you wake up, and you are yourself. Isn’t that the way it always is?
I found that passage important and useful to keep in mind for the rest of the book. There are two time periods covered. The first is a flashback to the characters in the same class as children, 11 years ago. One girl is bullied into a coma after she’s pushed down a well by the others. They’re afraid of the story she was telling about a monster in a bridge tunnel. The children are cruel, taunting a larger boy to jump out a window and threatening and even attacking each other.
A new student has just arrived after time in the hospital, after he’d previously tried to jump off the roof. The teacher has even been injured, with a bandage over one eye. She’s given up on trying to stop the bullying, although she despises herself for feeling that way.
These chapters alternate with scenes of the characters more “grown up”. They’re still as uncertain, though, and even more violent. The teacher is getting divorced. One of the students is studying art, although her paintings are undistinguished. Another seems to have become a psychopath — or maybe he always was — lying without effort to others. There’s child abuse and murder and rape, all told in a dreamy, remote fashion, all stemming from selfish bullying.
These events and images are suggestive as much as denotative. The complex, multi-layered storytelling rewards attention. I found the book worth reading, but I’d find it even more so if there was a book group I could discuss it with, to be sure what I interpreted and help me hook up more of the connections. I was left thinking about isolation and the need to belong and how much childhood traumas could shape the adults they became.
The publisher has posted preview pages. Sarah Horrocks has written two insightful analyses of the book, one on the nature of memory and the other on the use of violence. (The publisher provided a review copy.)