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Inio Asano

It’s been a minute since I’ve written much of anything about comics.  So I thought I would do this piece on Asano’s A Girl by the Sea that I’ve had batting around in my brain ever since I read it.  I think one of the real strengths of the book is the relationship between Koume Sato and Kosuke Isobe.  These are the two central teenagers of the book who take up on a relationship of sex without emotional attachment.

What’s interesting is less the way that their sexual relationship complicates things emotionally for both of them, and more the way that a lot of the problems are more caused by how it may be seen from the outside.  But what I like about it a great deal is Koume Sato, and the way that she is defining sex for herself outside of the pressures of the community as a whole.  She is in complete control of her sexuality to the point that it’s not even an emotional thing that just happens.  Often in art, the way women experience sex, particularly the first time, involves this idea that she falls so deeply in love and that sex just sort of happens as an outgrowth of that.  This is contrasted against how boys are projected as seeing love as an impediment to be wrangled so that they can get the physical act which is the only important thing for them.  The notion that that process could be the same for a young girl is not a story we’ve ever really been comfortable with telling.  So the way that Sato chooses to have sex with Isobe simply because of her desire for the physical act is really refreshing.

The result of this though are these masterful scenes from Asano that show us sex at it’s most emotionally disconnected.  Sex as purely act.  Sex as a sadness.  In A Girl By the Sea—the sex between Sato and Isobe represents both of their emotional disconnects to the world around them.  And neither is necessarily looking to the other, at least initially, to repair that connection—only to fill the physical need for contact.  These are two alone people who also aren’t looking to each other to really cure that loneliness—at least not emotionally.  This fractured sadness that underlines their sexual interactions mirrors some of the relationship horrors of Punpun and Maki in Asano’s masterwork Oyasumi Punpun and just shows how brilliant Asano is in showing this damaged hurt way of surviving through life.

I thought I would focus mainly on this three page section because it shows both how Asano is showing the physical passion of sex, while then stripping out the emotional side of it.  The two pages just showing Isobe and Sato having sex are notable because they are mostly just a procession of dissociated body parts from two people coming in contact with one another.  This isn’t hot sweaty fluids everywhere sex—it is a kind of by the numbers performance of physical duty—and what’s interesting is through the entire thing Asano never once shows us a character’s eyes or face in any kind of way to show us how they are processing these sensations.  So even though we are reading sex, we aren’t engaging with the characters emotionally through the sex—in fact, the sex feels distanced, and maybe like reading a textbook.

The third page underscores this distance and gets at what Asano was building to which is this beautiful top panel of Isobe laying on Sato’s hip himself almost expressionless.  Sato herself isn’t even looking at Isobe, and is obscuring her face from him nonchalantly with her arms. In actuality both characters are looking at the other’s hands.  This underscores that they see each other more in terms of their utility, than as any kind of soulful connection.  And the conversation they have afterward is just inane filler.  Both just filling the silence with things that neither they nor the person they are talking to particularly care about.  The last panel on the page is really beautiful because Sato has right after telling Isobe that he’s just going to become a shut-in nerd, then begins to tell Isobe about her real crush Kashima—and for this both of them have turned further from one another.  Sato’s need to humiliate Isobe and his hunger for that humiliation is also an aspect of their relationship.  Both characters are talking to one another, but neither is really wanting to hear the other.  Or their relationship is predicated on this shared deadness.

I also really love this panel a few pages later where they have fallen asleep together, and Isobe is clutching onto Sato who even in her sleep has no kind of reciprocation.  It’s such a beautiful and desperate image.  It’s so human.

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Nijigahara Holograph is a comic book by Inio Asano published for the first time in English by Fantagraphics. It is currently available for pre-order and will be available soon at whereever fine comic books are sold. This is third of a three part series on the book.  The preceding sections covered the role of memory, and the role of violence, respectively.

 

Moreso than the other pieces, this particular article will contain spoilers, because it is dealing with one of the central ideas threaded through the entire book.  And while I don’t think it is possible to have an experience reading Nijigahara Holograph spoiled, because every read it reveals itself more to you and makes whatever surprises you may have felt the first read through seem small by comparison to the overarching considerations that Asano has put into the book.  But some people are more sensitive to others on these things.  So there you go.  Anyways.  Is it ever appropriate to start a critical essay with “let’s begin”?

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I start with these two pages because they have in them one of the core thematic oppositions at work through all of Nijigahara Holograph. Which is to say, the opposition of beauty and the monstrous.  The depiction of the dual nature of the sublime which is at once beautiful and horrible.  These natures find their homes within the book in many different forms, but principally they are depicted through the characters of Arakawa Maki(the woman in the scene above) and Kimura Arie.  These two characters are the vessels through which all of the world of Nijigahara Holograph pivots.

 

There is a central myth in the Nijigahara Holograph of the beautiful prophet who represents the word of god, who comes to the village and tells them of a monster in the tunnel who will bring about disaster.  The villagers though are so afraid of her divine beauty that they chop of her head and offer her to the monster.  And then another beautiful girl, the reincarnation of the first girl, appears.  And the story is repeated over and over, as the monster becomes larger and larger feeding upon the misogyny and hatred of the community at large which is creating it’s own eternal hell around itself.

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This is a flashback from Makato after he failed to rape and murder the young girl Arie Kimura, who after this would be pushed down a well by her classmates, and live the bulk of the book in a coma, and becoming illuminated.  It speaks to this notion of true sublime beauty as being terrifying.  Sublime beauty that reminds us of our imperfections and our degrees removed from its impossibility.  Almost without fail every time Arie Kimura shows up in the book, a male character tries to kill her or rape her.  We see this behavior fragmented out through the rest of the story, with a culture that is shattered in degrees across this violence towards women, because of man’s perception of them as a reminder of this divine nature under which they are unable to cope.  In fact it is this cycle of violence against women which powers much of the childhood trauma that the kids of Nijigahara Holograph are themselves destroyed by.  In some ways you could say that misogyny is the original sin of the world of Nijigahara Holograph, and the inescapable violent hell of the world around them, comes from this continual perpetuation of violence towards women.

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On the other side of things is Arakawa Maki.  The monster in the well.  The collector of souls.  The destroyer of beauty.  Maki both feeds and perpetuates this violence.  She manipulates the school children to push Arie down the well, which destroys Khota because he saw himself as some great knight, some great protector of Arie.  But Maki manipulates that core value to lead Khota along a path where not only does he become trapped in the hell pictured above, but he is the one that finds the necklace, which Maki gives to Amahiko, which causes him to try to rape and murder Arie, his sister(and mother), once she reveals herself to him as God.  Maki is the monster in the tunnel who grows fat upon the weakness and fear of man, and it’s inability to withstand the sublime.  You can actually read Nijigahara Holograph, just tracking Arakawa Maki, and have the hell that Asano has crafted become fully revealed.

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This is the same kind of hell from Dante, where demon’s are attending to the damned which ostensibly want to be there, and want to be punished, because they are incapable of accepting a notion  of an eternal everlasting love.  They choose pain over love.  It’s more immediate and more understandable.  This is the decision of the community of Nijigahara Holograph.  And no matter how many times the beautiful prophet re-incarnates, she will always be killed–and the cycles of abuse, violence, and trauma will continue on and on without end.  And this is in the end the disaster that Arie and her earlier incarnations tried to warn of and stave off.   This central drama between Arie and Maki will play out for all time.  The monster who feeds off of our weakness and hatred vs. the angel who reminds us of those imperfections.

 

I’m not really sure what to think about both of these forces being represented by women, because there is a way you could take this where it is absolving those caught in between these two women of blame.  And that notion, that all of the horrors that men do towards women and the world at large, is as a result of their powerlessness against these two different kinds of women, is a fairly destructive idea.  I think that’s why it’s important to understand that though Maki has a pro-active role in the destruction of Arie–the choices and actions are always left up to someone else.  She only presents scenarios in which the community is offered a choice, and it is their choice to continually act against women which damns them.  The monster didn’t make Makato into a house burning murdering rapist.  The community did, because of how it reacted to beauty.  Maki only organizes and tends to these impulses to direct them toward the end of perpetuating the hell that they have chosen.  So if anything, I think Nijigahara Holograph acts as a criticism of our conception of beauty as something to react fearfully to.  Violently to.  And because we’ve feminized beauty, women take on these aspects for men, which for them, justify on some level the horrors they visit upon women.  Our notion of beauty as something to control in some way, because the sublime horror of that which holds us in awe, but which we have no ability to desire to cage for ourselves is currently an impossibility.  I think part of our survival mechanism springs from this notion of needing to capture and have beauty.  Life is nothing if not the impossible struggle to wrestle the divine notion of death into a controllable vessel.  If we were able to simply see the sublime without desire, in totality, it would be annihilatory towards our consciousness.  Which is what Asano seems to say with Nijigahara Holograph, that once the community embrace the sublime “the butterflies which have been pulled apart by fate shall become one”.  Instrumentality.  Perceiving god, makes all god, and there becomes no self, or perception, only the eternal, without end.  And then of course the notion that once all returns to god, new worlds can be created by the return of thought.  Something like that.  Neon Genesis Evangelion is a wonderful companion piece to Nijigahara Holograph, basically.

Nijigahara Holograph is a comic book by Inio Asano published for the first time in English by Fantagraphics.  It is currently available for pre-order and will be available soon at whereever fine comic books are sold. This is second of a three part series on the book.  The preceding section covered the role of memory.  The last section will focus on beauty and the characters of Arie Kimura, and Maki Arakawa.

One of the things that I have always found interesting with Inio Asano’s work is how Asano depicts emotion through physicality. His works are so tied up in their emotions that it ends up permeating into how characters stand, how they move, and how they physically interact with one another.  From the muted depression of the sex in Girl By the Sea, to the pulled back violence of Nijigahara Holograph, Asano’s work is constant in communicating its emotional themes.  And I mean, this kind of thing has been part and parcel of successful comics going back to Eisner and beyond.  Body language, and how you depict movement in unmoving frames is a huge device both in terms of characterization, and in thematic mood.

I wanted to focus on these things specifically in the violence of Nijigahara Holograph, and maybe sometime later in the year I’d like to write about the sex of Girl by the Sea or the molestation in Oyasumi Punpun.  But for now, it’s enough to focus on the violence of Nijigahara.

Violence is an important theme in Nijigahara, because one of the core aspects of the book is the constant repression by the community of prophecy, and the violent feeding of the monster who lives beneath that said community, in the tunnel at the Nijigahara embankment.  Nijigahara Holograph is a world where emotion is something that is expressed without the expectation of being heard.  Which is to say, it is emotion that can never find release.  Nijigahara is a kind of purgatory time loop of horrors visited continually from one generation to the next.  Many of the principal actors of these horrors appear over and over through time.  The concrete block.  The unbuckled belt.  The cast aside umbrella.  The pocket knife.  In some ways, it’s a very morbid joke by Asano to create this hellish game of clue where every room is a crime scene, but there is no investigation.

Violence in Nijigahara Holograph has no difference from screaming, or saying something brutal to emotionally harm someone.  The physical and the psychic have no barrier both in terms of what goes in and what comes out–and what is more, neither is given more importance over the other, which gives both their effectiveness.  To see how this works, I thought I would break down a few pages so you can see how this works, particularly in terms of physical violence because I think there are some lessons in that which have application beyond this particular kind of book.  Even though Asano’s comics aren’t action comics per se, when his characters throw punches it is always with bad intentions.  The brutality of the violence in Asano’s comics is extremely affecting.

112458866.jpgI wanted to start with this segment because it’s one of the more extended sort of fight scenes in the book, and shows really well how Asano creates the brutality of this world.  With Asano the action is typically shown in either long or medium shot.  He chooses similar distance when characters are saying hateful things to one another.  It is effective in both instances because of how often Asano uses close-ups for everything else.  The shot is far enough away here that Asano hasn’t even drawn in the faces of the perpetrators of this violence.  This speaks to the dull impersonality of the violence in Nijigahara Holograph.  The violence in Nijigahara Holograph is rarely personal, because it all stems from an inability to express the horror of the world they’ve been cast into and feel unable to escape from.  Which on the other hand is where a lot of violence happens anyways.  It comes from a lack of options in terms of expressing one’s own internal horror.  Notice in this scene Khota’s friend says “He just wants to hit someone”.  There’s a loading up here when the knife is introduced.  As I mentioned, the knife actually pops up all over Nijigahara Holograph.  Not only does it pop up in scenes like this where it’s utility to try and cut another person, it also shows up with Amahiko Suzuki’s step mother, who is always shown with her back to Amahiko saying something about how she hates him, while cutting carrots.  Which again speaks to how Asano has mirrored violent action to psychic action.

Anyways, once the knife is introduced on this page, there’s a tension in the next two panels of a new level of danger–no longer is this simply kids playing at violence, this is about inflicting long term pain and agony.  The stakes have been revealed, and those two panels create a buffer to this:
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Those two panels allowed this medium shot top panel to hit harder–and what’s more the barriers between friend and enemy have been completely broken down now, because no longer is Khota beating up on Takahama who he has always bullied, but he has turned on his partner in crime Hayato.  This is narratively important too because Hayato actually was part of the group of kids who pushed Arie down the well which put her in a coma, so in a way Khota is now directly acting against those responsible for his misery–even though he is himself unaware of this.  And what’s more is that the scar he gives Hayato will follow Hayato into adulthood as a reminder of his own burden.  We see the loading up device again here as Hayato grabs the concrete block(which re-occurs several times, like the knife–it may even be the same exact concrete block–it might as well.)  This is the musicality of action, it’s something I’ve talked about in terms of Hiroaki Samura and the silent loudness of his action scenes in Blade of the Immortal.  But this type of technique is firmly entrenched in Japanese comics and fighting video games.  The notion that one action precedes another more violent action–this escalation is integral to making the punches have weight.

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The sound effect is almost unneeded.  And again we’re back at a long shot.  Which gives the hit a kind of lonely isolation.  There’s also some really nice things in the composition with Hayato and Khota forming the top part of a triangle, but also how the left to right counter clockwise spin of the action, bends you back to the kid trying to push himself through that wall and disappear from the trauma.  With Asano trauma radiates out like a grenade embedding it’s shrapnel in all who happen to be near it.

This sequence shows these similar compositional elements:
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Again here we have the long shot, and we also have the triangular composition.  We also start with a low angle which makes the hit seem more elevated.  The best thing about that panel though is the spiraling top of the broom and how Takahama is watching the broom head from behind his mother, and Amahiko’s teacher, Ms. Sakaki is also following the arc of the broom handle.  Their aversion from the actual violence adds to its impact, because it makes the reader want to look away as well.  We again have the child witness to the trauma in the right of the panel, the girl Arakawa Maki.  It actually wasn’t until I started writing about this that I even noticed that that was Maki.  If you read Nijigahara Holograph and JUST pay attention to Arakawa Maki in the book, it is quite an experience.  She absolutely haunts Nijigahara Holograph. Also interesting because Maki in Oyasumi Punpun, who is drawn in a similar way, also haunts that book, even though neither book is directly focused on either character. Arakawa Maki is arguably the most important character in Nijigahara Holograph though.  Her and Arie Kimura are the books two most singular influences.

Anyways, we get that lovely second panel of the broom handle hovering in mid air, which underscores its attention in the first panel.  Asano is underlining the impact, by the time you see blood coming down Narumi’s face in the bottom row you can see how this entire page has been constructed to underscore both the brutality of this page–but also it’s trauma.  The page operates as a reflection.  This is one of the events that happens in these people’s life which will choose the direction their life heads in.  Which is of course one of the central themes of Nijigahara Holograph.  That the horrors we are exposed to or create as children are perhaps unfairly navigatory in the horrible lives we end up living.  The fragility of children in a horrible world, and how it predisposes them to perpetuate an eternal hell from which there is no salvation.  Wire Seaon 4, ya.

Nijigahara Holograph is a comic book by Inio Asano published for the first time in English by Fantagraphics.  It is currently available for pre-order and will be available soon at whereever fine comic books are sold. This is part of a three part series on the book.  The other two parts will deal with Beauty and Violence respectively. 

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The above is an image from Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph.  This image explains the core motif on which Asano’s human hellscape nails itself.  The story as it is explained above is that a beautiful girl is sent to a village by god, to prophesize on the doom that a monster living there will bring, but the people rather than addressing the monster, are so scared of the beautiful girl that they cut off her head and feed her to the monster, who as the cycle repeats grow larger and larger.  Feeding upon the repressed fear and unaddressed traumas of the village people.  In Nijigahara Holograph the girl represents the horrific divine beauty that the community can not process.  She instantly drives anyone who sees her face to madness.  Not because she is beautiful.  But because she represents beauty in its perfection.  It’s terrible perfection, which represents an outside world and a God who would put a monster under a village in the first place, and damn the villagers to a life away from beauty and within monsters.

Life in Nijigahara Holograph is depicted through the management of trauma and memory.  Adults become adults by what precious things they are stripped of as children, and how well they function as adults is down to just how well they can deny those memories.

Everyone in Nijigahara assumes that everyone else just forgets, and so they should as well.  But in actuality, no one in Nijigahara forgets, but because they never are able to exorcise the monster that is their separate memories they are forced through an unending cycle of hell and abuse.  A good example of this is when Kyoko Sakaki, the ex-teacher takes her husband that she is divorcing to an embankment where she foiled a rape of one of her students at the cost of her own eye.  She stands with her husband right there in the place of the most terrible event of her life.

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She is talking about how she can never forget this horrible moment that has happened to her, and Asano has put literal distance between her and her family, to show how her inability to reconcile this horror has cost her her ability to function within her family.  She explains to her husband that his ability to go on through life ignoring these memories(this monster), is why she resents him.

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In Nijigahara, emotions are expressed with no expectation of them either being heard or mattering.  Even though she has expressed the truly dark depths to which these memories have caused her pain, and caused her to hate her family, neither her nor her husband move.  In fact, Asano repeats the same panel frozen four times.  The only thing moving is Maki on a Vespa zooming past in the background uncaring or noticing, and Sakaki and her husband’s child who is being ignored by both parents.  This is a devastating page particularly when coupled with it’s follow-up page:

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Do you see that?  The bruises on the child’s arm?  The abuse and neglect visited upon the child because of the trauma of memories that have warped their parents and broken them.  In this page is the cycles of memory, trauma, and abuse, which inform the lives of every character in Nijigahara Holograph.  This is the monster in the tunnel–which if you had any doubts about that, the panel right before the child’s bruised arm is the dark brooding tunnel that we’ve been told holds a monster that will one day destroy the world.

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The origin of Nijigahara as given with the book is that it is the plane of the rainbow.  A rainbow, which is this happy prism of light that in some faiths is meant to be a promise of God’s grace.  But there is a darker origin behind that, which is that Nijigahara also means: Plain of the Two Children.  It got that name because sometimes a Kudan(cow with a human face) would appear to prophesied doom, and the people would kill the Kudan and send it down the river.  And the Nijigahara Embankment is where, after doing that two Kudan children would always appear.  The symbolism at play here isn’t hard to deconstruct.  That the shiny happy holograph of the rainbow is the disguise for a world where girls disappear, and the brutality and horror of one generation is magnified upon the preceding generation.

Characters like Amahiko and Sakaki live in hell because they are aware of this copy world, this horrible timeline, but are unable to bring about it’s end.  They are constantly as in a nightmare that they can’t wake up from.

The magic of Nijigahara Holograph is how understated and subtle the depths of all of this is conveyed.  Asano both through his panel construction and how he structures narrative focus, masterfully crafts a spiraling never ending hell where one layer merely lays atop another more horrible one.  There are characters like Makato and Khota who are so warped by the burden of the hell that they live in, that they seem to become insane monsters with no conscience.  But you would be wrong to think they are the monsters living in the tunnel.  The sinister oppositional force in Nijigahara is well hidden, and not really the emphasis of the book as a whole.  But the monster’s identity and reveal is another example of the understated qualities of this unfettered howl of a book.

You don’t need to play count the Evangelion quotes and references to understand the apocalyptic beauty that scars the pages of this book and testifies to Asano’s brilliance as an artist..

This is the best comic book that will come out this year in comics, and even if you have read it before in scanlation, it is a book that gets richer with every time it’s experienced.  I usually don’t say that kind of thing, because it feels like I’m selling something, and I’m not interested in what you do as a consumer.  So I’m not saying this in a “go buy this” kind of way.  I’m saying it in a, I can’t help myself from saying it as a qualitative statement about the experience of reading this book.