Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dorohedoro, the Manga Grant Morrison Never Wrote

What we Already Know:

1.  Manga has a tendency to keep going regardless of its shelf life.
2.  Naruto's on the verge of having its long-winded war reaching it's ultimate climax.
3.  Bleach's entered it's longest final arc.

But there's another Manga that's on the verge of wrapping up.  The only difference is that unlike the other two, readers still have no idea of how everything's going to end.  That would be... Dorohedoro.

Running sequentially in Ikki Magazine since 2002, Dorohedoro has always been one of those out there Mangas that was always there.  Only recently has the long-running Manga been inching towards a conclusion.  At first, it was thought it would end at an extended 19th volume, but the author decided there was more things she wanted to draw, and with the approval of her editors, decided to extend things to a 20th volume.  While this would be thought of dragging out an already long series, having more chapters would help prevent having a rushed ending.  Indeed, with all the plot points and factions coming together into a mish-mash mess, it's difficult to imagine how everything could come together.

It has the cool premise of an amnesiac cursed man with a lizard head wearing a gas mask looking for the magician who changed him.  This is accomplished by forcing magicians' heads into his mouth and asking if the man inside his uvula confirmed if it was them or not.  (One wonders just HOW they found out about that little factoid in the first place.  Did the doctor lean in too deep with his tongue depressor or something?)

In this world, Magicians come to the city of Hole to experiment practicing their magic on their victims, and the citizens there are pretty fed up with having their bodies mangled into warped shapes purely for their amusement.  Magic is represented in the form of black "smoke" that spreads from the user's fingers.  Alternate means is by taking concentrated powder from the magic user (sometimes unwillingly), with unexpected results.  For Kaiman, this curse has the added benefit of making him immune to magic, which makes him a double threat - he's targeting Magicians, and he's not affected by their spells.  The magic users in turn, are also looking for whoever turned Kaiman into a lizard, since they don't want any more of their fellow magicians to be in indiscriminately killed off, and find out why he was changed in the first place.

The creator, Q. Hayashida was an assistant to Tsutomu Nihei, the creator of BLAME!, and the influence shows.  While the latter Manga artist might've gotten his reputation by creating vast non-euclidean worlds filled with mindscrew elements, Q. Hayashida goes more for the visceral effect, and the result is a warped world that has heart, rather than vast architecture in search of a plot.  The comparison with Grant Morison is apt, since the British writer is a great admirer of Silver-Age comics, as well as known for creating stories with weird elements for American readers.  (Or maybe what's considered weird is the norm in British comics)
Not exactly The Man with the Head of Saturn.
Every Magic user wears unusual masks when they go out.  We're not talking about garden variety masks that merely cover your eyebrows or hair, but full-face halloween masks of varying designs, including a roast turkey, a heart-shaped mask worn backwards, and chattering teeth clearly inspired by Hellraiser.  These masks range from home-made variety to Masks created by Devils.  The latter increase the Magic user's power, as well as improve their status.  But you would be forgiven for not knowing that, since none of this is explicitly spelled out.

Rather than being spoonfed information, we're left to our own devices to figure out what's going on.  Things are more implied than outright stated.  On the one hand, we're spared the expense of having long speeches slowing down the narrative that's typical of long-running Manga.  On the other hand, we're left with deliberately vague hints that isn't made obvious without multiple re-readings.  In that sense, its closer to an European comic in terms of art and story, and an American comic in terms of shock value and trade packaging.
Gives a whole new meaning to "baring your chest".
In a world that's divided between magic users (En's gang) and magic hunters (Nikaido & Kaiman), and non-magic users who use illegal magic (Crosseyes gang), there's very little animosity between the different parties.  And that's not counting the Devils from Hell, who despite their reputation, are a rather jovial bunch... as long as their rules are respected.  Break them, and you're due for some punishment in the form of expulsion.

While it sounds like an alternate dystopian future, what helps save it from sinking into complete misery is the humour that's more absurdist than black.  Even with the amount of disturbing imagery, it never quite feels totally exploitative, no matter how shocking it appears.  Everybody may be murderous people, but what makes them stand out is how much they CARE about each other.  "Kaiman cares about his partner Nikaido; the two hitmen cleaners trust each other explicitly."
"The two low-level Magic users both say they can't stand each other,
but really want to be friends.
In fact, if there's a constant theme (apart from the surprising amount of gore) in this Manga, it would be things going wrong.  Hardly anything ever goes according to plan for either side, and everyone usually winds up improvising the situation they're handed with.  Indeed, any sense of foreshadowing is completely overwhelmed by its unpredictability.  It's impossible to tell just where the story is going to turn next, because there's no rationale that's not clearly lined out, since whatever happens is determined by the author's whims. For instance, here, Ebisu, the Magic girl (whose magic smoke turns her into a monstrous dinosaur) attempts to transform (even striking a pose as she does so), only for the results to be less intimidating than expected.

Because of its meandering narrative and lack of focus between chapters, Dorohedoro can be forgiven for being considered episodic.  While that's true up to a point, there's a larger story that's subtly broken up by various events taking place.  There are all kinds of weird minor details showing up in the larger frame of the narrative, even as the focus of the MacGuffin plot goes largely ignored.  Anybody expecting quick answers is going to wind up disappointed.  And the puzzles that DO get answered only wind up raising MORE questions.  But even if you have no idea what's going on, it can still be enjoyed purely for the sheer head trip.
"Everything is connected!" is a particularly popular Grant Morrison line.
What's remarkable about Dorohedoro is how Organic its world is, and I'm not just talking metaphorically.  (Though there is a fair amount of organs on display, lovingly rendered in Gantz-like cross-section form)  It feels like a natural working world with its own internal logic amidst toilets connected to Hell, gigantic cockroaches that only say "Shocking!", and a serene mad scientist who appears younger as he grows older.  (Not a warped Benjamin Button kind of thing)  The people indulge in everyday conversation in all this madness.

While being strong and having access to awesome weaponry is a requisite for surviving, that accounts for only a small fraction of time for action heroes.  What's more important is food to eat, and a home to return to.  And that's pretty much true for the citizens of Hole who're more concerned about living their lives than trying to make a stand against Magic users.  As a result, there are more scenes involving cooking and shopping than hunting down magicians.  Not trying to sound sexist or anything (but totally failing anyways), these are the only clues that the Manga's done by a woman, but it's done in a way that feels more educational than condescending.  The climax is apparently taking place in a SHOPPING MALL of all things.  What helps save the potential lameness is how little it resembles your typical shopping mall.

In the end, the question of who Kaiman is, is less important than the question of what he would do once he gets his memories back.  Surprisingly enough, the MacGuffin is resolved halfway through, but that brings up the whole other question of what happens next once Kaiman's curse is lifted.  After that, things start getting weird.  (Well, weirder than they already were)

Since Dorohedoro ran in a cult magazine, the chances of it breaking out was always low.  It's impressive that it's been running for so long, considering there isn't even an Anime of it.  Fans may complain that their favorite Seinin series like Berserk haven't gotten another season after an unsatisfying and unresolved season finale, but at least they got to see their Manga animated.  There are MANY Mangas out there that don't have the merchandising bonanza that's the backbone of the organization.  Anime is just another form of publicity, striking while the iron is hot.  Once the animated version is presented, as long as it pierces public consciousness, it's done its job.

If there is a fault with Dorohedoro, its that the volumes are too damned short, even with the bonus chapters.  There are only six chapters per book (not counting the bonus chapters), and each chapter deals with a different subplot, further moving various factions around.  In addition, a chapter in the middle can end with a cliffhanger that won't be followed up until the NEXT volume.  This is compounded with multiple subplots being told throughout, that set up a situation of conflict/drama, and then the scene will cut away to other characters.  By the time we get back to the dilemma, they've either moved on to something else, or are concerned about something related to what happened.  Because there's so much jumping around, its difficult to get a handle on what's going on, especially since there's very little recapping.  Especially when there's a rotary of about 30 characters who pop up at random intervals.

It doesn't help that Dorohedoro is maddening slow to reveal its secrets.  For instance, the identity of the thief who stole Kaiman's cut-off head in the 2nd volume probably won't be revealed until the 20TH volume. That's a long time to wait for a throwaway mystery, though there have been various clues popping up lately. Even the main characters themselves are struggling to understand just what the heck's going on.  This is not a Manga meant for casual readers,  You're not going to get plenty of exposition explaining the background of the world - you're going to be served up a scenario already in action, and how the players are dealing with it accordingly. Clues are deliberately sprinkled here and there, and are doled out sparingly, leaving the reader to ponder over these until their meaning is revealed much later.  Much of this becomes clearer upon marathoning or rereading, rather than having to recall minor details that would be forgotten in six months.
I wasn't kidding about the Mad Scientist's age.
Sadly, the Viz version has some problems, part of which is the greyscaling of coloured pages, translation inconsistency and gender confusion of some people, which isn't surprising, given the neutrality of some costumes.  One of the worst things is when you spend a lot of time working of a faithful translation that'll sound smooth and natural, and hardly anybody bothers to purchase it to see the fruits of your labours.
This was a problem Toren Smith had with Tokyopop's success.  It's a sad reality that Manga that don't have Anime tie-ins don't fare well with sales.  But that shouldn't be an excuse not to read Dorohedoro in the first place.  There are plenty of reviewers who enjoy reading the Manga for the maniac worldview it provides.  The Attack on Titans and One Pieces may get higher sales, but that still shouldn't detract from the other unsung treasures out there waiting to be rediscovered.

What we learned today:

1. British writers are just as insane as Japanese writers.
2. Kaiman's head was turned into a lizard's by a Magic user.
3. Magic users wear masks made by Devils.
4. Apocalyptic futures are fun, because they look lived-in, rather than prepackaged.
5. The chapters may be brief, but the contents are stuffed with details.
6. There are lots of great Mangas out there!
7. Merchandise is a necessary evil in making a profit.
8. Translation issues are still a concern among fans.

As for what's coming next... that is still under speculation.

That is Dorohedoro!

1 comment:

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