While the major manga publishers are off looking the next big hit, the smaller, more independent publishers continue to focus on those manga which are too old or too alternative for mainstream readers. One of the leading companies on this front is Fantagraphics, and today we're looking at possibly the most anticipated manga license of theirs from this year, as well as yet another one-volume wonder.
NIJIGAHARA HOLOGRAPH (Nijigahara Horograph), by Isio Asano. First published in 2003, and first published in North America in 2014.
The children in Suzuka's new class all seem to know about a monster in a tunnel near their school. Rumors say that people have died down there, and that the monster is the reason that one of their classmates is in a coma. As time moves on, the children and teachers grow up, but that tunnel remains the focus for a web of unhappiness that still connects the members of that class. It seems that the events from those days are determined to haunt Suzuka and his classmates well into adulthood, and everything seems to bring them back to that same mysterious tunnel.
In many ways, this book reminds me of another Asano work, What a Wonderful World!. Both focus on disaffected young people who find themselves dealing with supernatural forces. Both have the same sort of odd, affected air that reminds me more strongly of independent American comics than your everyday manga. There is one notable difference though - Nijigahara Holograph scrambles its timeline so thoroughly that it becomes too obtuse for its own good.
The story is told in bits and pieces, shifting from character to character and from one place in time to another over the course of roughly a decade. Now, there's nothing wrong with shaking up your story's timeline to force the reader to reexamine the way they approach the story or to create a sense of uncertainty about the reader's perception of events. Done well, it can be incredibly effective and unique. Just like any other technique, though, it can be taken too far, where the story becomes so scrambled that it's hard to make tails or heads of anything. This was my biggest issue with the story - it's not that I think it's badly written, just confusingly told. Hell, I wasn't even aware that there were supposed to be alternate timelines in the story until I read the description on the back cover.
While I may not be crazy for the way the story is told, the story itself is well written. That being said, it is far from a lighthearted one, considering that our various cast members deal with bullying, suicide, broken families, failing marriages, attempted rape, and death at one point or another. Nobody here is a perfect hero nor a complete villain, and few bad deeds get any sort of punishment. The conflict that the characters feel, whether it's guilt for their actions or just a need for focus and inspiration, are relatable and realistic. The supernatural elements fit perfectly fine with the darker or more mundane elements because Asano never stops to explain where these mysterious glowing butterflies come, why they are spreading, and why they always seem to gather around this mysterious and troubled aquaduct. It doesn't even go so far as the point out the obvious 'butterfly effect' metaphor between the events and choices of the cast and the actual butterflies, letting the reader put that one together on their own. Still, that just ties back to the story being told in an overly obtuse manner. Nijigahara Holograph is an effective and thoughtful mood piece. I just wish it was a little more open and easy to follow.
Asano's remains much the same as his previous works, which means it retains much of the same high qualities. His character designs are almost cutely rounded and caricature-like, which does serve as an oddly cute contrast to the seriousness and disaffectedness of the story. Still, they remained rooted in reality, much like the lovingly detailed apartments, schoolrooms, and waterways that our story takes place in. He tends to draw a lot of long, squat panels, but he makes up for that with by employing a lot of cinematic angles and a few well-placed, full-page spreads. All together, it adds up to some slightly unusual and occasionally haunting visuals.
Nijigahara Holograph is many things at once. It's odd, it's unsettling, and yet it's fascinating. It covers a lot of themes and ideas that Asano has covered in previous works, but it's presented in a way that makes it kind of inscrutable. I don't see this book turn a lot of people into Asano fans, but those who already are will likely find a lot to enjoy and ponder.
This book is published by Fantagraphics. It is currently in print.
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