This is another one of my old articles, written for Caiminds and my own site, On the Dark Side of Things. It's a review of a manga known as Homunculus, from the mind of the man who made Ichi the Killer. Just to give you an idea of what you're in for, those of you who know what Ichi the Killer is.
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Strap in, guys, because we're in for a weird one today. When I say weird, I mean really, really, really weird.
|"I saw a sand woman give birth to herself from her sand snatch. I've seen some shit."|
Homunculus comes from Hideo Yamamoto, also known as that guy who made Ichi the Killer, which is known as that one really fucked up, gory manga. That should have been the red flag for me, but the premise of Homunculus sucked me in and I stayed for the whole ride...and boy, what a ride. To the series credit, I have never seen anything like Homunculus to this day, which is simply a matter of fact and not a comment on the quality. It is a weird little thing that crawls into your mind for various reasons, and it's questionable if any of those reasons can be classified as good or bad at first.
Our main character is Nakoshi, some bum living in his car who hangs out with other homeless people in a park and buys them booze. Across the street is a fancy hotel, one he used to have history with. He exists at some sort of crossroads, but a college student named Itoh pulls him onto a new path in life by drilling a hole in Nakoshi's head for money in order to experiment on the supernatural. At first, it doesn't seem to do anything...until Nakoshi goes walking around by himself in a crowded street with an eye covered and starts seeing different people as bizarre things, such as a woman with spinning parts, a small boy in a robot suit and the graceful ostrich man. So yeah, that's pretty fucking weird. Nakoshi has entered the world of homunculi, and the forms he sees in these Homunculi represent the people who own said homunculi. Or the answer may be much more complicated, as Nakoshi starts to slowly realize that he has some major baggage and issues he's blocked out for a long while.
|This image is my anti-drug.|
Homunculus is meant to be a psychological mystery and horror story, but has a few flaws sticking out. The big one is that it relies entirely on Freudian psychology, a long defunct view of psychology that will drive psych majors up a wall. However, if you don't mind that, what you will find is a strong tale about a man who is completely out of his mind from his point of view. It isn't obvious at first, but there's a point where you realize that Nakoshi was batshit even before he got a hole in his skull, doing something that instantly tells you that this is not a story about traditional morality or heroes and villains. It's all about the meaning of the homunculi and the impact they have on old crazy Nakoshi, along with getting into his mind as he tries to understand what he's blocked out.
The series really likes to play with expectations. For example, Itoh seems to be some sort of stand in for the devil in a Faustian style tale, but this slowly starts to change as we see more of him. Nothing is ever quite as it seems, and the series does a fantastic job of keeping you in the dark of what direction it's heading. Is Nakoshi getting better or worse was the question flickering in the back of my mind for the whole go, and it always wavered before finally showing the cards in the last chapter. This is what really makes the series so engrossing, leaving enough questions to hook you back in, but this only really happens when the series really starts kicking into a grove. The early volumes stay with a formula, relying on the sheer mindfuckery on parade to keep your interest. The sand girl in particular nearly made my brain cave in.
|"Show me you birthing yourself from your sand snatch! Water man demands it!"|
The greatest strength of the series is Hideo Yamamoto's art style. He tries to make people who look like people, and everyone looks distinct. He makes pretty people pretty and ugly people ugly, having just enough exaggeration to make them a bit off at times, fitting with the mood. At first, this didn't really click well with me...and then the homunculus happened. Oh boy, did they happen. The minute those things show up, everything just clicks and Yamamoto really shows off how good he is at drawing images meant to mind fuck. The interesting thing is that there's usually a greater meaning behind the shapes the homunculi take, so all the insanity is really symbolism, with Itoh and Nakoshi going over just a small fraction of the examples shown.
But you don't always need a homunculus around to terrify! The expressions on display during the later half of the series are a thing of terrible beauty, and they start showing up in abundance after a major confrontation with a certain homunculi. Nakoshi being a crazy motherfucker just becomes clearer and clearer the more we see his face, and the subtle work done with the eyes is what really brings the horror show all together. It creates a disturbing limbo of realistic and exaggerated, and the effect is strong. Amazing what you can do with just some creepy smiles. Similar techniques are also used with certain characters, where they may look attractive but do something that seems off for their design, like burping, and creating a very awkward moment.
|That's the smile that tells you to keep your children away.|
This doesn't really get to the heart of what Homunculus is, though. Ultimately, it's a series about a man trying to find his place in life, but the message the series gives is hard to figure out. It brings up themes of humanity needing communication, regret, the phoniness of modern society and the nature of truth and lies, but it doesn't make clear what it wants to bring across in the end. I won't spoil it, but it's a big headscratcher that makes you wonder if any of what happened in the story had any positive or negative effect on anyone. I don't quite get what Yamamoto was trying to get across, but I think it may be possible that reader interpretation is ultimately the most important function of the story, the whole thing acting as a sort of ink blot test. It's an odd puzzle, but you can see all the thought and purpose behind every panel, so there is a solution. Finding that solution is the hard part.
Homunculus is an odd beast. Honestly, I do think it's great. There was a lot of thought put into the structure and it's simply fascinating to try and make sense of. The story itself is strong and explained enough for me to recommend to anyone who doesn't put a great amount of thought into their reading, but those who like reading into things are going to find a lot here. Just be warned; This is a series from the man who made Ichi the Killer. This is not a series for younger audiences, especially due to the sexual stuff that happens. Some weird, freaky, strange sex stuff is in this thing, man. But it makes sense, which is terrifying, which is okay because that was the intent. That might not be okay. Anyways, you'll have to rely on scans, but it's something you're not going to be forgetting anytime soon, no matter how hard you try.