Dragon Head Vols. 1-5
Minetaro Mochizuki, writer/artist
232-248 pages each
Originally written on February 21, 2007 for publication in The Comics Journal
First, an admission: If it’s the post-apocalypse, I’ll eat it.
Second, an assertion: Even discounting my bias, Dragon Head is one of the most compulsively readable manga to reach an appreciable non-otaku audience (or at least this member thereof) in quite some time.
I found this somewhat surprising given DH‘s shaky start. Its first two volumes focus on an overbaked, if gut-level-gripping, high concept: Three high-school students are the sole survivors of a catastrophic train wreck in a collapsed tunnel deep underground. At this early stage the characters come out of Battle Royale central casting: Older boy Teru tries to do the right thing despite his mounting panic, younger nerd Nobuo bugs out and start doing things with knives and dead bodies, damsel in distress Ako is disarmingly wounded and pretty and ultimately more sensible than her two male companions combined, that sort of thing. Nobuo in particular is played to the cheap seats, going from zero to Lord of the Flies in the space of the first volume. Smart, detail-driven moment, like Ako awakening from a two-day coma to discover she’d gotten her period while she was unconscious and nearly going to pieces because her tampons were lost in the rubble, are few and far between.
By contrast, Mochizuki’s cartooning is vivid, memorable, even sensual, and seems to be where he’s deriving most of his pleasure here. However weak the psychological underpinnings of Nobuo’s freakout may be, Mochizuki renders its end result, the demonic face and body markings the kid gives himself using dead girls’ makeup, with graphic glee. Nearly wordless sequences throughout the second volume in which he chases Ako and later strips and paints her unconscious body utilize predatory pacing and intelligent image choices (a sharply turned head, a hand on a breast) to portray adolescent pre-sexuality gone vicious and sour. Mochizuki also evokes the impenetrable with evident relish, be it the walls of stone that hem the survivors in, the darkness that the kids are always trying to stave off with flashlights, lighters, and torched bottles of booze, or the mass of upturned seats, broken glass, torn-up backpacks and mangled limbs that fills the wreckage of the train.
Indeed, Mochizuki’s zeal for colossal depictions of the man-versus-nature conflict (a surprisingly rare sight in comics, for some reason) gives rise to a fairly major problem with Tokyopop’s translation work: In a world where so much action is the result of massive, indistinguishable walls of steam, stone, water, flame, earth, mud, and/or ash threatening to consume our protagonists, would it really be too much to ask for the publisher to translate the damn sound effects? They don’t even have to replace the Japanese characters–just run an English translation in smaller print alongside them and you’d be good to go. As it stands, without a telltale “RRRRUMBLE” or “HISSSSSSSSSSS” or “FWOOOOOSH,” the book’s many otherwise-silent sequences of natural disaster are extremely difficult to parse. Is that an ominous groan or an imminent collapse we’re hearing? Are Ako and Teru being overwhelmed by water or smoke or heat or their own overactive imaginations? All too frequently, if you don’t understand the kanji, your guess is as good as mine.
But all is forgiven once the inevitable showdown between sanity and face-painting, darkness-worshipping lunacy is over and the surviving kids finally make it to the surface world. We’re not entirely safe from wonky mental breakdowns yet; both Ako and Teru will, at varying points throughout the remaining volumes, weave in and out of catatonia or psychosis without much rhyme or reason. But as soon as they discover that whatever happened to their train tunnel happened to pretty much the entire rest of the world, the backdrop of their story expands exponentially, and their characters feel similarly enlarged. Their existential horror upon realizing that the atmosphere is full of enough soot to choke out the midday sun, their subsequent dazed, fumbling search for food, water, and news of the world, and Mochizuki’s you-can-taste-the-ash-in-your-mouth art for the sequence, are just the first signs that the book’s comparatively shallow action-thriller days are behind it. Had the book continued in that vein you might have expected the pair to become a cutesy, thrown-together-by-circumstance couple; instead their bond seems deeper and truer, driven by an instinctual need to survive and see that the other survives as well.
Sure enough, the greatest obstacle to their mutual survival turns out to be other people. Once again this could have been a minefield of cliche, but Teru and Ako’s dreamily horrifying journey among the human detritus of their dead world is where the book really takes off. A group of similar kids appears friendly, if slightly off, only for our heroes to discover that they blithely worship the “demon” they blame for the apocalypse they’ve experienced in a hard-to-shake ceremony involving gas masks and fireworks. A middle-aged woman in a motorcycle helmet takes them in, carving out a quiet, stately interlude for characters and reader alike in a refreshingly un-motherly way. Even the inevitable soldiers gone feral largely steer clear of the same old poses–granted, that’s how they start out, but soon a pair of them are joined with Ako and Teru more or less as equals, behaving and interacting as unpredictably as one suspects people in the real world would.
Through it all, the spectre of Nobuo hangs over Teru in particular, sometimes all but subliminally (one tremendous four-panel sequence shows Teru lying unconscious in the distance of identical shots of a rubble-filled scene, changing only in the fourth panel when Nobuo appears out of nowhere, mockingly squatting beside the body of his rival). He’s far more convincing and frightening an enemy when he’s treated as a source of guilt (why couldn’t Teru get his act together and save the poor kid, he wonders) than as a source of law-of-the-jungle fear. Mochizuki’s attention to detail regarding the headgear of the characters whom Teru and Ako stumble across later (they always seem to be sporting earphones or gas masks or baseball caps or motorcycle helmets or something) echoes Nobuo’s self-transformed skull and hints at whatever the title may really mean (by the end of Vol. 5, the only explicit reference is in the mutterings of an apparent lobotomy victim).
The overall effect is a nightmarish picaresque, like a cross between Children of Men and Apocalypse Now. With each volume better than the one before it, the perambulating structure pays off in spades. Get through the tunnel and you’ll want to see where the journey ends up.