Taiyo Matsumoto, writer/artist
Viz, December 2009
464 pages, hardcover/slipcase
It may only be the fact that Brian Chippendale just wrote about Taiyo Matsumoto yesterday, but I’d say GoGo Monster is every bit the exercise in creating a believable, cohesive, living environment that is Ninja or Multiforce or The Squirrel Machine. In fact I’d say that despite appearances to the contrary, this is truer of GoGo Monster than of Matsumoto’s Tekkon Kinkreet. TK‘s Treasure Town gives Matsumoto a far more obvious world-building workout, but ultimately its semi-dystopian near-future science-fiction metropolis can coast on our foreknowledge of such fictional environments and the narrative function they fulfill. GoGo Monster‘s run-of-the-mill elementary school can tap into our actual real-world memories of such places, certainly, but its place in a fictional narrative is comparatively undefined. Nor can it rely on the riot-of-detail school of art to accrue physical presence through a prolificacy of constituent visual parts as can those books–it’s not some fantastical land, it’s a grade school, and moreover that’s not the style Matsumoto is employing here. So to convey the kind of place Asahi Elementary School is–or at least the kind of place it is for our main characters–Matsumoto works overtime.
And he starts right away: Before we even get past the endpapers, deep-focus drawings reveal cavernous institutional hallways and vertiginous stairways, while POV close-ups of other characters reveal preoccupied teachers (that recurring pull-back-the-hair gesture!) and hostile, slightly distorted children, their speech not tied to them in the traditional word-balloon fashion, so as to suggest their fundamental disconnect from our hero. They’re not actors so much as elements, and their primary influence throughout the rest of the book is as a generator of sound effects just like wind or rain, as their near-constant disembodied chatter unfeelingly surrounds and buffets the protagonists.
Our real introduction to the school setting comes in the form of a hand-drawn map created by our main character, Yuki. It’s diagrammed out like a superhero’s headquarters, with all the funneling of wild imagination into cold orderly lines that that suggests. At the edges, menace creeps in, in the form of monstrous doodles that blackly snap at the border and proliferate in the school’s abandoned fourth floor. That level of the building takes on a central metaphorical role, demonstrating that this school exists independent from and indifferent to the hopes and fears of the child now inhabiting it.
Similar signifiers abound. Planes fly low overhead, their departure and destination unknown. A rabbit run is the only world its furry inhabitants ever know, and one of them disappears without any of its fellows or minders able to say how or to where. I have no idea if “perspective” has the dual meaning in Japanese that it does in English, but Matsumoto frequently skews and warps it so that the school leans in on its inhabitants. One pivotal character literally sees the world from inside a cardboard box. Most importantly, except for one key sequence I won’t spoil here, our heroes never leave the school grounds, and on the one occasion that parents visit, they are viewed only from a distance.
In short (haha, yeah), Asahi Elementary is the world for Yuki, who is either psychically sensitive or psychologically impaired, and Makoto, the new kid at school who befriends Yuki out of what seems more like a fascinated respect for his indifference to his peers than any kind of Heavenly Creatures-style shared psychosis, and for IQ, the eccentric-genius older kid who says he’s no more capable of taking a test without wearing his customary cardboard box than a normal person would be if forced to wear one. Their problems are solely their own and completely inescapable. If they don’t solve them, they won’t be solved.
Which makes GoGo Monster a harrowing read, in spite of the great beauty of the art. Indeed, the beauty makes the book feel like a tragedy in the making at every step. Whether they’re the product of a genuine gift or profound mental illness, Yuki’s increasingly troubling visions of a world beyond this one and the sinister Others who inhabit it can only bode poorly for him; either way, they will consume him, because in this insular world, there is no authority to which he has recourse to protect him. Yet at the same time he clings to these visions precisely because of the insularity of this world, and what it has shown him about the gray soullessness of grown-ups and their inability to connect with kids like him in any meaningful way. Only Ganz the groundskeeper and gardener understand Yuki’s plight from the adult world, but that understanding comes hand in hand with the conviction that it is in fact Yuki’s plight; Ganz tends him like a flower, but (hey, the metaphor is Matsumoto’s not mine) Yuki must blossom or wilt on his own.
In turn, Makoto and IQ are stand-ins for our own reaction to Yuki. Makoto is agnostic as to the veracity of Yuki’s visions; all he knows is that he’d prefer Yuki not have them, or at least not talk about them, because they’re frightening and they obscure the confident, funny, fascinating Yuki he otherwise knows. IQ is an atheist about them–he knows they’re all in Yuki’s head, the manifestation of various psychological complexes. But he offers this diagnosis while wearing a cardboard box on his head with an eyehole cut out, and eventually we learn this is the least of his own problems. Knowing what’s real is no help when what’s real appears to come crashing down.
In the book’s climax, that’s precisely what happens. We’re really no closer to understanding what’s really happening, though the nods in the direction of magic realism are as pronounced as, say, the end of Being There or Barton Fink. And we can only partially puzzle out the fate of a third of our trio, though sitting here after the fact I have my strong suspicion. No, Matsumoto is content to plunge characters and reader alike into a prolonged sequence of abstracted imagery, page after page that eventually becomes almost entirely obscured by darkness (which is itself depicted in just about the most fascinating way I’ve ever seen a comic do). What, if anything, emerges from the other side? Again, I’m not spoiling it here. But the journey through is a fine, emotionally accurate, uncompromising vision of the terrors of childhood. See, whether we are experiencing mental illness or actual spiritual evil here is a matter of debate–it works either way–but it definitely works as the realization that whatever meaning, safety, sanity, and comfort you can carve out of the unfeeling world, you have to carve it out yourself.