ES (Eternal Sabbath)
Thank you, readers, for recommending this title by Fuyumi Soryo — I enjoyed it! It’s intriguing in its premise and characters.
The almost-stand-alone first chapter works as a lengthy introduction to ES, later renamed Ryousuke. He’s a psychic, capable of adjusting people’s memories and reading their impressions. We first meet him playing a kind of parlor trick. Someone asks him to pay for something he’s taken or used, he stares at them briefly, they blankly look back… and then they thank him and the world goes on.
It’s a sequence that works well illustrated. There’s something very wrong happening, and its strangeness is emphasized by the wordless panels of people confronted with something unseen yet obviously affecting. The short sequences allow for the reader’s imagination to play with what might be happening… and once they know, to consider what it might feel like to have someone else mucking about in your brain.
Ryousuke’s abilities allow him to play at being other people without connection or concern. He sits down with two young men and instantly convinces them that he’s an old school friend. It’s a chance meeting, but it leads him into something surprisingly violent… the men are discussing the murder of a homeless man near a local school. The younger brother of the boy Ryousuke is pretending to be goes to the school, so Ryousuke goes home to his family under the pretense of desiring a home-cooked meal. Really, his curiosity is aroused, as is the reader’s.
Soryo’s visions of mindscapes, especially as Ryousuke investigates the murder, are disturbingly evocative in their symbolism: bulbous growths, skittering insect-like creatures, a woman whose embrace is flame. Almost as an experiment, Ryousuke avenges the death and rescues a potential victim.
His punishment of the villain leads into the main story. Dr. Kujyou, a neurological specialist who’s strangely immune to Ryousuke’s powers, finds herself intrigued by him after seeing him at the scene of another murder. She’s also been asked to investigate the case of a boy injured by what appears to be psychological hallucination.
Volume two introduces the villain of the series. Ryousuke’s got a younger clone, Isaac, who doesn’t have Ryousuke’s maturity or sympathy for humans. To Isaac, people are toys, experimental subjects, objects to manipulate and see what happens. He and Ryousuke were created in an attempt to improve human life, but because of scientific neglect, the result is instead fearsome.
It’s a new take on the classic idea of scientists pushing boundaries without consideration for the meaning of their work and winding up with something that has the potential to destroy humanity. In this case, the destructive force ironically wants to conduct its experiments on us. Isaac’s youth makes him particularly disturbing to watch, in a way reminiscent of The Bad Seed. As Kujyou comes to know more of his actions, she realizes just how dangerous the situation is.
Volume three dives further into the strategy to confuse and stop Isaac as Kujyou goes to stay with an old school friend, Kimiko. Although the two were promising students together, their lives have taken different paths, with Kimiko dropping out to get married. The result is unspoken resentment between two women who are jealous of each other for very different reasons.
Kujyou has also begun working with Ryousuke in her lab. Their interaction provides for some lighter moments, as she teases him about standards of behavior while trying to teach him to think more about what he does and the potential effects of his manipulation. Their discussions also bring the philosophical underpinnings of the story forward. For all that she’s trying to educate him on human behavior, she can be a novice in the area herself, as her encounters with Kimiko demonstrate.
As volume four begins, Kujyou, Ryousuke, and another ally are preparing to launch a new strategy to stop Isaac. They’re attempting to learn a lot more about what being an ES means and their history. It’s gripping, very fast-moving even though it’s the story of a group of researchers and their testing. Questions about the validity of memory and perception loom large.
I was surprised to see them attempting to use MRI brain scans as a kind of lie detector. The claim is made, within the story, that different parts of the brain are activated by different kinds of mental activity. A lie is based in imagination, while the truth requires the brain to access memories. This kind of work is being researched now in real life (although it doesn’t really work), which gives the story the feeling of plausibility and cutting edge technology.
In the second half of the book, their chase is complicated by the involvement of a police officer. Isaac’s removing “bad guys” from the picture, and the question arises whether that’s such a bad thing. It’s hard to become motivated to track down the murderer of a drug-addicted teenage cop-killer, for instance.
The ES clones were raised without emotion, which disconnects them from humanity and make them capable of acts not considered normal. Working with Ryousuke to try and catch Isaac is like hunting a lion with a tiger — the tiger has different drives and motivations than a human does, and he may have common with what you’re both hunting. Isaac is all the more frightening because his disdain is understandable, given his origin.
Due to their origin as experimental subjects, the ES characters are driven by negative emotions: jealousy, loneliness, anger, distrust. They were never shown anything else. The plight they’re now in is an argument for the need for love … and the resilience of the human spirit (even when contained in someone not quite human). The author is exploring the question of how much responsibility we have for our own actions, given how we’re all shaped by our upbringing and our environment. I also was led to wonder how someone who always gets what they want can learn the sacrifices necessary for love.
That theme is directly addressed in the fifth book with the story of the little girl Yuri. She’s another point of contrast and sympathy. She’s experienced her own difficult, abusive parenting, and that leads her to both protect and agree with Isaac. Her harsh treatment has given her an “eye for an eye” kind of Old Testament approach to punishment, and she blames herself for others’ bad choices. Like Kujyou, she can have an over-developed sense of responsibility.
The art frequently focuses on the individuals and their expressions, especially when reflecting on what to do next. The pauses provide space for the reader’s sympathy or to think about the meaning of a particular revelation. I was especially struck by the desolation of the images of Kujyou sinking into a crouch when hit by the realization of her responsibility.
Her involvement becomes more personal in volume five. Ryousuke takes a step forward in his relationship with her, perhaps affected by the trauma of his faceoff with Isaac. They have what looks like a chance to stop Isaac when he becomes incapacitated, but instead, Isaac demonstrates a frightening new ability.
The characters fascinate me, especially Kujyou, who finds herself in a situation with no apparent way out. Even if she’s trapped, she’s still enough of a scientist to want to know more about the ES experiment, to investigate the results and what they can do. She interferes in Yuri’s life, even when she knows she’s not wanted, in order to attempt to break the cycle of “a child who was abused becomes an abusive parent as an adult,” the most clear statement of the book’s theme so far.
Ryousuke’s inability to read Kujyou’s mind makes their involvement confusing for him. His declaration is thus that of a typical man, unable to know whether his feelings are shared, reciprocated, or ridiculed. She’s the only person he can be “normal” with, since she knows his secrets and maintains her own. He’s also struggling with the issue of responsibility — especially when it comes to inaction. One is obviously responsible for one’s actions, but one can be as guilty for what one didn’t do.
Volume six tosses a new element into the mix: a handgun. Isaac has it, captured from a cop, and he’s calling it the “ultimate equalizer”, planning to use it to make up for his child-size. It’s a reminder of the difference between American and Japanese societies, too, since the rarity of the weapon there reinforces its power. Isaac also finds out about Yuri’s home life, a situation he doesn’t understand, since the women who take care of him will do whatever he tells them, and he has no particular affection for them.
In contrast, Ryousuke’s adoptive grandfather is dying of cancer, and it’s hurting him, even though the two aren’t really related. The artist gives the old man a lovely last vision, a natural landscape containing loved ones, and the reader is reminded of the comfort of ritual in traumatic circumstances. Sometimes acting a role is a precursor to becoming a role, a lesson Yuri’s mother is also trying to learn.
The more domestic elements foregrounded in books five and six can’t last for long, though, as Isaac’s actions once again bring violence and conflict to immediate attention for both the characters and the reader. Volume seven begins with Yuri, his child friend, rejecting him over his actions. Her choice puts her in danger, since Isaac won’t let go of her. Putting a little girl in danger is an obvious dramatic choice, but it’s still a gripping one that builds suspense for the reader, as Ryousuke and Kujyou race to find her.
The war begins in this book, with events cascading until finally the two sides face off against each other directly. Unfortunately, there’s a bit too-convenient revelation of a genetic flaw that helps the heroes gain advantage without having to commit to following through on difficult moral choices. Someone who’s willing to kill a child but doesn’t have to seems more virtuous and unsullied than a character we see commit that murder. It’s understandable that a writer might not want to take her creations that far. (And later, we find that a seeming advantage may actually be even more dangerous.)
Kujyou’s lesson learned, that no matter how hard she works, some things are out of her control, is a distressingly hard one to understand. It’s a more mature take on the usual manga message of “willpower will win out”. That’s not true. Simply wanting and believing and trying enough won’t always save the day. When she accepts that, she faces her own mortality.
So does Isaac, in another set of circumstances. In contrast, Kujyou’s sense of responsibility increases after her revelation, while Isaac loses all connection with society and world, making him even more dangerous. One of the reasons I enjoy this series so much is its willingness to make the tough choice and not settle for the predictable, easy twists. People die, making the ramifications of the heroes’ choices more powerful.
The series concludes with volume eight by asking whether the end justifies the means; in this case, whether damaging an ally is necessary to stop a larger evil. Soryo’s blank faces and lovely-yet-stiff characters work in this context, reading as people paralyzed by dismay and fear and guilt. Love and honor motivate great acts, even if they seem fruitless in the face of forces greater than individual humans.
It’s all set within the context of a tremendous disaster movie, with an outbreak of chaos. There are cliffhangers, miraculous escapes using outrageous powers and plot-advancing machines, last-ditch Hail Mary attempts at overcoming the bad guy… it’s a lot of action movie clichés, not the subtle, thought-provoking character work we had before. Still, I suppose that when you have a superman trying to stop the world’s worst superpowered brat, that calls for some pyrotechnics. Even if it’s predictable.
I can see this appealing to those who enjoy Death Note or Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, due to its exploration of tricky ethical questions and cat-and-mouse chess game structure. Soryo previously created Mars, a more traditional high school romance.