Brought to us from the brilliant mind of Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of Akira, Domu: A Child’s Dream is a thriller about a modest housing complex, set in what appears to be the outskirts of Tokyo. Originally serialized from 1980 to 1982, Otomo created this series based on his own experiences living in Tokyo and on hearing about the eruption of suicides around his area. I originally wanted to review this because Akira is such a formative piece of work in terms of manga and anime and this series really seemed to me to be the source of where Akira came from.
Over the past three years, 29 deaths have mysteriously occurred in this living structure, ranging from suicides and accidents to just plain unbelievable circumstances, leaving police to ask the question, “Is there something else out there?” They begin to prowl for “suspicious characters” in the complex; however, much to one inspector’s surprise, it is always who you would least expect it to be.
Enter old man Cho, a seemingly senile and extremely childish old man with unlimited psychic abilities and potential. He can teleport some distance, telekinetically move objects, create illusions at will and possess the mind. Spending most of the time sitting in the courtyard of the complex, quietly enjoying his days, he creates a perfect persona of innocence. No one would think twice that when the lights go down, this almost cute old-timer is no more than a close-fisted child, utilizing his abilities to manipulate and terrorize his fellow denizens all the for the sake of toys. Cho is quite content with his position of unchallenged power until a new ESPer, a young girl by the name of Etsuko, moves in. She quickly displays her own abilities, negating Cho’s continual hysteria and dominance and juxtaposing herself into a role neither of them have ever experience before—a rival in psychic power.
Though the characters are very important in how the plot unfolds, they aren’t the key element that drives the story. In fact, the characters, when examined thoroughly, can be considered uninhabited, showing no real depth in terms of personality. It’s not to say that they are not personable or interesting, with Cho being extremely temperamental with moods constantly swinging and Etsuko trying her best to act like a composed, calm adult. This gives the characters a sense of commentary, touching on the differences between the unruly ideals of Japanese youth and the traditional, sometimes unmoveable views of their elders. Though the characters are dynamically composed, they aren’t very detailed in their backstories. We know little about Cho’s past (we know his family moved out and left him but never why) or where Etsuko moved from, but this anonymity is really a vital piece to what makes the story great. It makes us feel as though we are viewing this tremendous event as a resident of the complex, never truly knowing our neighbors and the secrets they hold behind closed doors.
The real driving forces of this tale are the suspenseful storytelling and unyielding sinister artwork. The writing moves at a slow but effective pace, rapidly shifting between the happenings and conversations of the building tenants and the bewildering confusion the police are dealing with. Domu: A Child’s Dream is a very conversation-heavy book, with a lot of details in the dialogue to take in. Even a simple sentence, from a character you’ll never see again, is vitally important for the reader to begin to start piecing the puzzle together. I found myself flipping back and forth between pages, making sure I got the whole story and really enjoyed this about the book; it creates an excellent excuse to reread it.
Otomo’s artwork generates the correct tone of eeriness for the situations by utilizing tremendous shading and painstaking detail in character and environment. Just take a look at the cover, for instance, which features Cho at his creepiest. Notice the intensive wrinkles around his mouth, eyes, cheeks and hands; Cho is visibly elderly and Otomo goes to great lengths to portray this. His expression, pose and props suggest differently though. Up in the air, enveloping himself in his treasures, he seems so full of life rather than the docile stereotype we give the elderly. He almost projects a childlike innocence but the shading around his eyes and the beckoning motions of his hands suggest that he has anything but innocence on the mind. The rest of the comic can be similarly dissected layer by layer, with each character wearing their hearts and minds on their sleeves, each meticulously rendered and planned out to teach us something new. While I do really enjoy Otomo’s artwork, I found some of the action to be really jerky and disorienting at times. Maybe psychic battles are as such (I’ve never been in one before) but the artwork wasn’t as fluid as it could’ve been.
Thought it is a strong statement to make, I would say that this book is one of the greater manga stories ever told. In the back of volumes two and three, Greg Vest, senior editor, answers questions from readers about his understanding and their interpretations of the book. (Originally, Dark Horse released Domu: A Child’s Dream in three 80-page issues, but the most accessible way to find it these days is in a 240-page all-in-one edition. -ed.) Many were shocked that it is even considered manga, breaking the “big eyes, shallow writing” stories that were available in America at that time. Many consider this story to be one of great social examinations, pitting men against women or the old against the young. I was very pleased to find these little treasures in the back; they really helped to shape my opinions about the book and really caused me to look back and reexamine what was going on.
Altogether Domu: A Child’s Dream made me think about how well manga, and comics in general, can really capture a time, a place, a feeling or an idea and share it with the rest of the world. Domu: A Child’s Dream does just that.
Thanks so much to Kate Dacey of The Manga Critic for providing me with a copy! It was a blast to read!
Domu: A Child’s Dream is available now.