Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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It's The End Of The World As We Know It:
Post-Apocalyptic Manga

by McCamy Taylor

The three titles I review this month -- Dragon Head by Minetaro Mochizuki, King of Thorn by Yuji Iwahara and Monster by Naoki Urasawa -- share something in common. All three are tales about the end of one world…and the start of a new one.

In Joseph Campbell’s formula for heroic fiction, The Hero With 1000 Faces the protagonist begins his epic journey by going “Into the Belly of the Whale”, i.e. by losing the world. As Campbell describes it, “the passage of the threshold is a form of self annihilation.” A hero can not transform, unless he casts off his old world---and old ideas. This triggers a search for a new identity.

Dragon Head starts with a mystery. What kind of disaster has left a group of schoolchildren on holiday trapped in a train in a tunnel? Did Mount Fuji erupt, spewing black ash over Japan and plunging the world into a volcanic winter? Did a meteor strike the earth? Did an apocalyptic cult set off nuclear bombs? It is natural for the readers to ask these and other questions as the story progresses. However, the author’s primary goal is not to tell us what happened. By concentrating on the experiences of a teenaged boy and girl who are trying to get back home to their families in Tokyo, Minetaro Mochizuki turns a classic science fiction story into a very gritty, realistic horror tale, in which characters struggle to survive in a world gone mad. This is a story about fear and its effects on people. There are a few heroes, who discover previously unsuspected strength. There are some villains. There are many more who are simply victims searching desperately for some way to adapt to the new, post-apocalyptic Japan. The strength of this story is the mangaka’s ability to create a fully realized nightmare world and populate it with flesh and blood characters. By the end of this ten volume series, you may have some questions about what happened, but you will be absolutely certain that you know how it felt being there. Available in English from Tokyopop. There is also a live action film based upon this title.

For those who absolutely must know what happened as well as the results, King of Thorn is a more traditional science fiction story. However, it is similar in many ways toDragon Head. A school girl suffering from a deadly, incurable viral infection is put into cryogenic sleep along with others, who have been selected by a lottery. The goal is to reawaken them when a cure has been found. The girl’s twin sister, who also suffers from the disease, is not among the chosen. However, since this is an “end of the world” tale about new identities, the reader knows that she will figure into the later story.

Time passes and the sleepers wake to find that the research facility has been destroyed and taken over by monsters. A handful of survivors attempt to reach safety and find a cure for their affliction. As with most tales of this type, the demons they battle are internal as well as external---and as the story unfolds, we learn that the line between the two is very thin indeed. The six volume manga is also available in English from Tokyopop. An anime adaptation is planned for next year.

Sometimes change that is not so obviously catastrophic can turn the world upside down. That is what happens in the next story, which is set around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Monster, by the mangaka of 20th Century Boys and Pluto, starts with a simple premise. A Japanese neurosurgeon working in Germany saves the life of a boy who turns out to be a “monster” bent upon destroying the world. Once Doctor Kenzo Tenma realizes what he has done, he sets out on a journey to correct the mistake he has made. His task is made more difficult by the fact that the “monster”, Johan, has framed him for murder. Think The Fugitive. Tenma has been stripped of everything he valued---his career, his reputation, his fiancé. Now, it is up to him to recreate himself.

Dr. Temna’s sense of responsibility for the crimes of Johan may seem a little bit exaggerated if you consider them as just two random characters in a story. What doctor would fail to perform surgery on a critically wounded boy, even if he knew that he might grow up to be the next Hitler? However, context counts. The tale is a metaphor for Japan’s guilt over WWII and especially its alliance with Nazi Germany. The story’s main tension is between the human tendency to call other people “monsters” and the equally strong impulse to treat others with compassion.

This series is long for a reason. In addition to the main story involving Tenma and Johan, there are subplots about many of the people the doctor meets on his journey. And the story of Johan’s origins is a complicated one, which involves the Cold War, eugenics and psychological experiments on children. As usual, Naoki Urasawa’s characterizations are first rate. Though his drawing style is simple, he pays attention to facial expressions. This, combined with his writing creates characters every bit as vivid and memorable as those of Charles Dickens. In its breadth and scope, the story is a lot like Dickens, too. You will come away convinced that the people, places and events of the story are absolutely real---which is the most important task for a writer of speculative fiction .The 18 volumes in this series are available in English from Viz, and there is also a 74 episode anime based upon this story.

© 2009 McCamy Taylor

McCamy Taylor is Aphelion's current Serials and Novellas Editor (if you have a story longer than 7,500 words, or long enough that it would be suitable for publication in two or more installments, she's your girl... er, woman), author of many short stories and longer fiction, here and in other publications, and is now Aphelion torchbearer for the cause of Japanese graphic novels and animation.

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