Domu: A Child’s Dream
by Katsuhiro Otomo
Dark Horse Comics / Studio Proteus
Translated by Dana Lewis and Toren Smith
BW, 240 pgs
$17.95 US / Higher in Canada
If you’re looking for a masterpiece of comics writing and illustration of epic proportions, you have to look no further than Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Otomo dedicated ten years of his life to the creation of this opus, a story that consists of more than 2,000 pages. For all of its accolades, however, Akira is an imposing task to undertake. It’s a heavy commitment both in time and finances. Each of its six collected trade paperbacks will set you back more than $30. That’s quite a commitment to ask of anybody, especially someone who might be relatively new to manga. If any book has compelled someone to seek out manga, it’s Akira, a title that comes to the mind of almost anybody when they hear the word manga.
Domu: A Child’s Dream is the test drive you can take to see if you’re ready for Akira.
In 1980, Domu began magazine serialization, running intermittently for two years until completion. At this time Domu was collected and published in graphic novel format, quickly becoming a success among Japanese high school and college students. Domu was Otomo’s first work to gain widespread recognition in Japan and would go on to win that country’s Science Fiction Grand Prix Award in 1983.
A decrepit old man named Cho gifted with extraordinary telekinetic powers holds silent sway over an entire block of apartments. Its residents are puppets at this control. He can end their life with the smallest of thoughts. But, the old man’s realm is about to be threatened by a young girl named Etsuko who has a battery of her own psychic abilities.
Many of Otomo’s stories are known for their dark and tragic social commentary. Akira is well known for its portrayal of modern Japan, its societal conflicts and its tragic roll in world history. Domu also has its fair share of social commentary, but it’s one that is tighter, smaller and more personal.
Domu is about children. All of its principal characters, except for the detectives who are investigating seemingly impossible suicides in the apartment blocks, are children or exist in a child-like state. The latter describes the old man Cho. He’s regressed back to an immature state, a mischievous toddler who has yet to learn the difference between right and wrong. His manipulations of people are nothing but a game, and one can’t help but shiver as his face fills with innocent wonder just before he does something terrible.
Etsuko is far more emotionally developed. She quickly notices Cho and his antics and realizes his tantrums must be stopped. In a way, Etsuko is the parent Cho so desperately needs, someone to punish him for acting out in these horrible ways. What Etsuko does, in effect, is take away Cho’s ‘toys’, protecting the residents from his ghastly games. This throws Cho into a fit of escalating tantrums that will eventually result in a telekinetic war between Cho and Etsuko.
It’s not all cut and dry with Etsuko, however. She’s a child after all, and like all children, can be thrown into periods of her own irrational behaviour when confused and upset. During their psychic battle across the apartment complex, Etsuko becomes responsible for acts that are equally as terrible as any committed by Cho. It’s unsettling to see Etsuko act is this manner, doubly so when you are reminded that for all her special abilities she is just a child.
Drawing styles in manga tend to follow a formulaic pattern. Otomo’s illustrations, however, have always come across as unique to the genre. He’s not overly concerned with cute character design. His characters are far more convincing in their expressions and movements, and tend to me more realistic in their design.
In Domu, as in Akira, the environment plays a significant role in the story. Otomo will often treat the reader with two page spreads revealing the insignificance of humans in the world in which they created for themselves. In Domu, this is seen when Otomo shows us an aerial view of the massive, towering apartment complexes in which so many Japanese make their home. Indeed Otomo has said part of the inspiration for the story came from a newspaper article on rampant depression in Tokyo’s sprawling housing developments. It’s easy to see why depression, and even suicide, occurs in these endless seas of faceless, cold stone.
Akira and Domu both share a fascination with child psychics, telekinetic warfare and modern Japan. Although Otomo is a prolific and highly regarded artist, not much has been written about him or his creative processes. It’s only speculation on my part, but I like to think that much of what would become Akira came to Otomo’s mind while he worked on Domu. I like to think that after crafting Domu, Otomo decided to explore further the powers he had created. What explanation could be given for these telekinetic powers? What if they were created by science, created by using children? What possible ramifications could that have for the world?
That’s what I like to think, and I would suspect I wouldn’t be too far from the mark. For Otomo, Domu was a chance to lay the groundwork for his masterpiece, even if he didn’t know it at the time. It’s not too often that the blueprint is as good as the finished product. Domu is one of those exceptions. (Chad Boudreau)