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Inuyashiki by Hiroya Oku
(10 volumes, Kodansha Manga)
We may have peaked with superheroes here in the USA, but it’s interesting to see how comics from different cultures interpret the the notion of the Übermensch. Hiroya Oku’s Inuyashiki is a manga series that puts a Japanese spin on your traditional metahumans-with-powers tale. Oku gained his fanbase — and his detractors — with the science fiction series Gantz, a no-holds-barred action manga that ran thirty-seven volumes. Inuyashiki wraps up in ten, and manages to pack a surprising amount of depth and some fresh ideas into an oversaturated genre.
At the core of the story is the contrast and conflict between the two lead characters. One is a cancer-ridden middle-aged man, the eponymous Ichiro Inuyashiki, who goes through life unappreciated by his family, disgusted at his life and his impotent stature in society. The other is Hiro Shishigami, a quiet, manga-loving schoolboy who dotes on his family and friends. Each has their internal organs replaced with advanced alien weaponry, stripped of their humanity, connected to their species by the flimsiest of threads. But what matters, in the course of the story, is the way they use their inhuman attributes — which include flight, healing, telekinesis, super strength, the ability to interface with machinery and electronics — to find themselves alive again. Inuyashiki finds purpose in healing the sick and standing up to petty criminals, and works his way up the social justice chain. Hiro, on the other hand…doesn’t. Let’s just say, without spoiling anything, that this young man, while having greater control and awareness of his powers, lacks in the empathy department. He breaks bad, and the results aren’t pretty.
This conflict between the two characters mirrors the generational conflict in Japanese society today, dissecting the motivations of an age group that grew up in the shadow of Hiroshima versus one which faces the anxieties of a cynical, pop-culture-infused, post-information world. This is not a superhero story that follows familiar tropes. There are no secret identities or costumes; the characters’ powers have shades of body horror, more “curse” than “gift”; most importantly, there is no insinuation that good will win over evil. The violence and collateral damage in some pages make me wince, and there are moments that leave you rattled at the series’ bleak worldview.
Oku has a tendency to both throw out-there ideas at his audience and also subvert the cultural clichés we are used to as consumers of fiction. I was amused to see how the first volume has an extended dialogue between two otaku about the demerits of Gantz (“that shitty manga full of murder and crap”) — it grounds his series in the “real” world, and at the same time feels like an attempt to critique his own excesses — out-trolling the trolls. His art style is a mix of characters drawn over photographic backgrounds, not the exaggerated style one is used to in Japanese comics. It works really well for the series, especially in the action scenes, where Oku’s pacing lends a gravitas to the chaos.
But the double dose of self-referencing story and photo-referenced artwork also introduces a metafictional distance between the mangaka and his audience, something that keeps you from surrendering to the story’s earnestness. The core strength of the series lies in portraying the consequences rippling out of the characters’ actions, and how it affects their neighborhood, city, country, and finally the world. The events of Inuyashiki leading up to the final volume tick with clockwork precision, cause and effect, ebb and flow. It is well worth your time.
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Satyajit Chetri works as an architect for a machine translation company in Los Angeles. He likes, in no particular order: cast iron cooking, Alan Moore, road trips, manga, public libraries, electronic music, collecting comic art, and lists that begin with the words “in no particular order”. He is not on social media, but is quick to respond via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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