Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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by McCamy Taylor

Inside many of us, there is a child hiding within a giant robo. You know, those big suits of robotic armor that the Japanese are so fond of. Think Robotech and Gundam . We keep that scared, lonely little child protected behind a big wall of super tough, fire resistant metal alloy that allows us to strike out at the world---but keeps the world from hitting back.  We don't go there very often. Most of the time, we are quite comfortable within our own skins. But occasionally, we need someplace safe from which to confront the dangers of the world---angry bosses,  belittling parents.

A few of us are always afraid. These people construct an identity which is based upon the invincible, impregnable armor of  their childhood heroes. If you pay attention, you can spot those who act big because inside they feel very, very small. However, most of us can not actually see the dysmorphic way which others view themselves. If we could, we might be alarmed to find ourselves suddenly  in a world of monsters, straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

In Homunculus, a ten volume work in progress by Ichi the Killer mangaka, Hideo Yamamoto,  the main character is a perfectly ordinary man who agrees to undergo the cranial procedure known as trepanation, drilling a tiny hole in the skull. Well, maybe he is not totally ordinary. He lives in his car beside a luxury hotel whose staff know him by name. Though he is obviously healthy, intelligent and used to the finer things in life, he now spends his days hanging out with the homeless in parks. The only thing he needs is his car, and when the vehicle is towed away, he agrees to undergo trepanation at the hands of a medical student in order to get the money needed to get that car back.

That is where his problems begin. The medical student hopes to disprove the theory that trepanation awakens psychic powers. However, after the surgery, Susumu Nakoshi discovers that if he covers one eye, the other shows him a world inhabited by freaks. The first he encounters is a yakuza boss who appears to him as a small, crying child inside a suit of robotic armor. And that is one of the more ordinary "homunculi"----alternate body images---- that appears in the psychically enhanced vision of the hero.

At first, the manga seems to be a traditional "hero gets super powers and helps out a lot of people" story. However, as the tale progresses, we learn that  while Nakoshi may have acquired the ability to learn a lot about the secret fears of strangers, he is still woefully ignorant when it comes to himself. Once, he was  a well paid actuary at a life insurance company, who assigned monetary value to other people's lives. Once, he kept the photos of the hundreds of women he had bedded at his desk, like trophies.

Now, as he comes to understand the complexities and fears of others, he begins to recognize his own weaknesses. He can not help doing so, since every time he aids another stranger, his own body assumes a piece of that person's dysmorphism.

I have reviewed many fine adult (not hentai) manga titles in this column, but Homunculus may well be the best for people who like serious, thoughtful science fiction with strong spiritual (but not overtly religious) themes. The basic premise----man can see a different world if he looks only through one eye-works perfectly in graphic fiction form, since the reader also gets to "see" the woman with the elongated neck or the girl made of sand. The reader is never quite sure if the hero has actually acquired a psychic ability or if he has simply become much more sensitive to visual cues that were there all  the time, with his own mind creating the homunculus or dysmorphic body as a way to explain the idiosyncrasies that he notes but can not understand. The mystery behind these monstrous body images and an urge to help  people who seem to be hurting becomes the motivator which leads Nakoshi on a journey of self discovery. Like the author/artist's other famous work Ichi the Killer, this manga is loaded with Buddhist themes. Unlike Ichi, there is no over the top violence, though there is a rape scene which may disturb some readers.

And now, as promised, a few words about giant robo anime. Anyone who has watched any anime knows what I am talking about. I am not going to attempt to discuss the whole genre (that would take at least a couple of books). There are giant robos for adults ( Neon Genesis Evangelion ). There are giant robo "chick flicks" such as Escaflowne and Magic Knights Rayearth. If you watch Gasaraki you can hear one of the most exquisite  musical soundtracks of any animated series.  My own favorite giant robotic armor anime is Martian Successor Nadesico which is at once a serious work of science fiction and a commentary ( bordering on spoof) of other famous science fiction works about giant robos, star ships, wars between alien races and the Japanese tendency to make all female characters young and cute no matter how great their responsibilities.

Speaking of  youth, one thing that all giant robo series have in common is they are about young people who are waging an internal battle while attempting to define themselves as adults. Conflict with father, jealousy over a lover, anger that has no focus---all of these can become the motive for pilots to take to the sky in a ridiculous suit of armor, where they battle other, equally conflicted people. If all goes well, by the end of the series, the pilots have found their new place in the world, much like caterpillars who metamorphose into butterflies. I think that this is one of the reasons why the pilots in these animated series are (usually) so damned young.  

© 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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