My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I promised a fuller review of this back in July, when I was only on my second reading, and here one is after my fourth or so, and after teaching it (to a class that found it rather unsatisfying!).
Asano—a younger mangaka, one sometimes said to represent the “herbivore” generation—here creates a narrative object that, like the holograph of its title, prismatically alters and deepens depending on the angle at which one perceives it; moreover, and again holographically, its smallest moment contains its whole design.
Its concerns are the following: the abuse of women by men; the abuse of children, male and female, by adults, male and female; the abuse of peers by peers—in other words, the granular ubiquity of cruelty throughout society, from a mother’s soul-killing verbal slight to her son (“I’m loved by your father, so it’s no problem for me…but you don’t have anyone, do you? So we’re going to go far away…and start over. When that time comes, you just die, okay?”) to outright rape and murder, acts that recur in a cyclical pattern throughout this relatively brief manga.
This is the story of a girl murdered by her classmates for her warning that a monster will bring the end of the world; it is also the story of a transfer student with a mysterious past and his negotiation of a school ridden with violent predators among students and teachers; it is the story of a kindly teacher who may also be a predator and abuser. Narrated non-linearly in two time frames (“eleven years ago”—when most of the main characters were schoolchildren—and the narrative present), it shows violence repeating itself in patterns no one can seem to arrest or control.
There are characters to identity with: the alienated boy Amihiko, for one, who will remind readers of their own worst school days. There are characters to revile: the sociopath Makoto and the bathetic molester Kimura. There are characters to love or pity: the doomed, kindly Narumi (Makoto’s sister), who loves Amihiko without requite. And there are characters to wonder at, who seem to be sympathetic, but only to a point, the point at which Asano hints that they themselves are monstrous: the failed art student Maki, for instance, and the injured teacher Ms. Sakaki.
But Nijigahara Holograph is also concerned with Japanese mythology—the tale of the Kudan, the unfailingly honest human/bovine hybrid supposedly sacrificed in the vicinity of Nijigahara. And with Taoist philosophy; we hear, in a classroom, the famous parable of the dream of the butterfly in a moment that unravels the text’s mysteries, insofar as they can be unraveled. Nijigahara Holograph is someone’s dream—though the story posits at least two, maybe three, dreamers.
Nijigahara means “rainbow field;” a rainbow is that which is revealed by the prism (Makoto owns the Prism cafe in the manga), and this hints at Asano’s prismatic narrative style. But the word is also close to one meaning “two-children field”—and this is a story, though we do not learn it till the end, of separated twins, and the separated halves of a butterfly pendant. We can track these pendants through the comic to locate ourselves in space and time, just as we can follow Amihiko’s mysterious box, which involves a time-travel paradox that throws the book into deep mystery, as if to say that all is possible in dream, even the simultaneous co-existence of our own past and future selves.
This book will not make sense without at least two readings, though I found three—the last with pencil in hand, making notes—necessary for minimal plot comprehension. Rather like Watchmen before it, Nijigahara Holograph takes advantage of comics’ capacity to turn temporal succession into spatial juxtaposition to create a form of aesthetic complexity that could not be achieved by literature, film, or painting.
According to this painstaking chronology, the story only makes sense if we see it as controlled by the ghost of Arie and Amihiko’s mother; according to this reading by Sarah Horrocks, an aesthetic appreciation in the register of ideology critique (or vice versa), it only makes sense, on the other hand, as a stand-off between Arie and Maki. The book can be read both ways, or neither, or according to still other schemata. Like a dream, it takes the intractable problems of our daily lives—the injuries we suffer and the injuries we inflict—and turns them into mysterious (and mysteriously recognizable) images that admit of multiple interpretations. But unlike a dream, which is (as Ng Suat Tong quotes Raymond Tallis quoting Wittgenstein to remind us) radically private, Nijigahara Holograph is an act of language, of art, which is to say that it, like its characters, reaches out to others, to console and to wound them (all serious relationships seem to involve both consolation and wounding).
Asano’s art is justly celebrated: it combines detailed character drawing with backgrounds created by drawing on digitally manipulated photos, a mixture of the analog and the digital that lends itself well to this manga’s surrealism, its dream-like subjective intensification of objective experience. (I derive my information from this interesting documentary.) His storytelling carefully moves between narrative and montage, modulating its pace in an eerie mix of the rapid with the stilled.
Nijigahara Holograph cannot be read but only re-read; nevertheless, it richly repays re-reading. It is meticulously designed while also feeling heartfelt and unpredictable. The art student Maki is told in the book that her work is technically accomplished, but without emotion; the same cannot be said for Nijigahara Holograph, the craft and passion of which move in tandem, going together like the reunited halves of the butterfly pendant, or two twins long separated.