Nijigahara Holograph is Disturbing, Beautiful, BrilliantA comic review article by: David Fairbanks
I was introduced to the works of Inio Asano through the recommendation of David Brothers, delving into solanin and What a Wonderful World! with an enthusiasm I had not felt in a long time, for comics or much of anything else. Both of these works present a sincere representation of the transitional period that many seem to go through in their twenties, what some refer to as the “quarter life crisis,” as newly-minted adults discover the harsh and unforgiving nature of reality. If that is all Asano did, however, I have little doubt that solanin and What a Wonderful World! would be forgettable, lost among a sea of similar tales and likely never even receiving an English translation that would allow me to read them.
The power of these comics is linked with their optimism. Yes, you have awoken in your twenties confident that the post-college world you were promised was the Disney take on a Grimm fairytale, but there is still something intrinsically beautiful about the life you are living and the people you are loving, imperfect as it all may be. This is the healthy worldview of someone who has waded through that sea of ennui and made it through to the other side.
Asano's artistic style allows for an incredible portrayal of emotions, as they easily dominate the cartoonishly realistic, wide-mouthed facial expressions of his characters. It's the kind of style that could ruin comics that carry such weighty emotional ideas, except that it's juxtaposed with his detailed backgrounds to give the reader a grounding in reality. He makes the reader believe that his characters belong in the real world, pushing them to also accept their emotional reactions, even if exaggerated. The use of white text on black panels to represent internal monologues is a neat technique, very clearly drawing the reader's attention to what's going on inside a character's head.
If solanin is a view from the other side of ennui, Nijigahara Holograph is a snapshot from the bottom of the deepest wells of depression, surrounded by an ocean of misery, unable to determine where the shore lies. The darkness of humanity and cynical worldview that solanin and What a Wonderful World! thematically rail against are both on full display here. While Asano's cartooning skills made it possible to see hope in a story like solanin, in Nijigahara Holograph they mostly serve as windows into the depravity and despair humanity is capable of.
Coming of age stories are what gave Asano much of his English readership, and this approach would certainly make for a stereotypical coming of age story, equating the idea of “growing up” with a slow death married to an ever-growing cynicism, but Nijigahara Holograph is not a coming of age story. At least not in any traditional sense.
Asano has crafted one of the most intense, layered, and disturbing horror stories I have ever experienced. By approaching a child's prophesied end of the world obliquely, through scattered snapshots of everyone she interacted with, Asano uses a technique like what made What a Wonderful World! so rewarding, here building tension higher and higher while slowly doling out pieces to the puzzle and building toward a payoff. He makes you crave the pieces, makes you need to keep reading and figure out just what's going on among his cast of misfits as the mystery unravels, but nearly every piece is a sickening view of just how horrible human beings can be to one another.
But what else should you expect from a comic where the only character that seems truly innocent is offered up as a sacrifice by her classmates in an attempt to pacify the mysterious creature living in the tunnel behind the school?
While Asano has shown that he is able to use his cartooning skills to make moving and emotionally resonant scenes of heightened emotion, the very skills that make those scenes so powerful are used here to amplify violence, destruction, and depravity by showing the reader how unbelievably emotionless people can be.
Although sparse details are the norm for most characters in his comics, Asano still does an incredible job of making the entire cast easily distinguishable from one another. More importantly, the details that are there help serve as markers to remind the reader just who a character is as the story jumps back and forth through time. I actually found myself thinking about them in terms of these details as much or more than their names, and they tended to be features that accentuated (or went at odds with) some aspect of the character's personality, using images to tell the story of Nijigahara Holograph just as well as the text.
The text, of course, is important as well, especially the panels of white text on black background, which now serve to remind us that even people who seem to be normal can be hiding a significant darkness inside them. I do wish that they weren't all just centered in the page, however. In solanin, the panels of inner thoughts read in chunks, as if they were still panels in a comic, progressing as images would, and here it feels a bit like we're taken out of the story to be given an aside. As far as complaints go, though, that's all I've got.
As is common with some of the best magical realism stories, Nijigahara Holograph cloaks itself in myths that leave the reader forever uncertain of just how much stock they should take in the end of the world prophecy. It's a technique that is especially useful in comics, as Asano can put something on the page for us, clear as day, but the atmosphere he has cultivated should make the reader unsure of just how much we can actually trust what we're seeing. How much weight the slowly amassing butterflies should be given? How much we should read into a young boy being given a gleaming metal box that can supposedly grant one wish, and whether we should believe the implied circular timelines are literal or if they should be taken symbolically? Crucially, Asano leaves the reader with the decision of whether there is hope for this world, whether or not its people are worth saving.
It's a question I still don't have an answer for.
Asano's works are dense and rewarding, revealing new details with subsequent readings. There may be a time when I have Nijigahara Holograph completely figured out, but I don't expect I will ever tire of reading it.
All images are from Nijigahara Holograph, which you can pre-order online through Fantagraphics or wherever great comics are sold.
David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.