I don’t read many mangas these days but I make exceptions for those masterpieces that set themselves apart. There are certain signature works in every medium and genre, Homunculus isn’t very much “signature” because it doesn’t seem to represent any canon, but it sets itself apart as one of those rare, significant works. It is a true masterpiece, of the kind you can count on your hands. I’m writing about it also because it’s finally complete. It’s 15 volumes, the last one came out in Japan in April 2011 and translated in English two days ago. Yes, it’s not officially licensed, but it also means that there’s the possibility to read it online, all 15 volumes for free, thanks to the work of fans who did the translation. It’s not the same experience of actually having the volumes in your hands (I read most of the volumes as they were published in Italy), but believe me that this is something you can’t miss.
Considering the gruesome picture I decided to use one would expect some kind of brutal manga about violence or serial killers. While Yamamoto, the writer and artist, is the guy behind the more famous “Ichi the Killer”, that you may know for the movie adaptation by Takashi Miike, Homunculus is an entirely different thing. There’s not much violence, or action. It’s instead a deep psychological and metaphysical journey into consciousness. In that scene you see Nakoshi, the protagonist, trying to drill a hole into the girl’s skull. It’s gruesome, but he does not intend to kill her. It’s part of the metaphysical conceit the manga is based on, by drilling that hole you stimulate the brain to a different kind of activity, augmenting perception. In the specific case the hole allows the protagonist, by covering his right eye, to see the “truth”. To see demons, or “homunculus”, which are essentially symbolic constructs of the people he sees around himself.
They aren’t the demons “outside”, from the outer world, those typical in horror movies. They aren’t supernatural or magical. They are the demons inside, those who live truly within each of us, every day, and that we can’t exorcize since those demons are “us”. As real as everything you can touch and feel. Deep psychology and symbols, the stuff we live off. And it’s here that this manga reaches its apex. From the first to the last page, beside the single case of the premise of the trepanation, there’s nothing fantastic or that falls outside science. You’ll see all kinds of weird, freaky stuff, it flirts with the occult, but it will all be slowly explained in logical terms. Everything will be explained.
It is a masterpiece because of how it keeps the tension for 15 volumes straight, unrelenting. It’s an unbelievable crescendo that reaches the top right at the end. Truly ambitious works usually have problems finding a worthwhile ending that matches expectations and wraps up all mysteries and plots. This is an example of “flawless victory”. It does everything perfectly, with an ending I feel powerful. Recently I was discussing the difference between “ambiguous” and “ambivalent”. It’s a meaningful difference because I consider one satisfying and the other frustrating and infuriating. Ambiguous endings are infuriating, because you don’t get the answers you seek, the ending is open-ended, you’re left wondering what the authors wanted to say, you can’t come to grips with it. It’s not over and you can’t let it go, but you can’t do much with it either, because you feel like you can’t solve it, or that it was all a fraud, with no solution (hello LOST). Instead ambivalent endings are fine. They are still open-ended because you don’t get to know “exactly” a specific solution or truth, but at the same time you are given more than one specific solution. Each explaining plausibly what happened. You get your answers, mysteries are solved and explained, but there’s more than one single solution. You’re given more than one combination, but they all potentially open the lock. You don’t get to see the one that does it, but you know one of them will. The path is clear, the message delivered.
During the course of this manga, page after page, the protagonist will face the homunculus of other people that he needs to “solve”. Each is its own mystery, bound to the whole life of a real person. You’ll see stories surfacing and every single mystery about them slowly being explained. At the same time every chunk of these stories will go to build up the bigger picture, it will build up to the mystery of the homunculus. What these homunculi are, where they come from. The mystery will be revealed and the whole manga is built so that everything leads up to it. It’s a masterpiece because how every story exists on its own and yet builds up to that ultimate mystery. And it’s a masterpiece because how every single image, frame after frame, goes to acquire a symbolic meaning. Yamamoto is a genius, you’ll see the deep, meticulous research after every symbol, taking often hundreds of pages for the “descent into truth”.
“Truth” is what lurks deep down, in that pit that is the symbolic unconscious. You’ll get to see some of those truths, see their freaky shapes. All the while, remember, without any “magic”. This is the real thing.
It can be quite disturbing. But the truth rarely isn’t.