Dragon Head (Book)

Written by Minetaro Mochizuki

Published by TokyoPop

Volumes 1 and 2

I remember reading that Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest fear was that of being buried alive, and I would have to concur. Eclipsed only by the fear of the dark, this is one of my greatest phobias. It is the tingly chilly stuff that if I dwell upon it too much will have me awake for the rest of the night. Irrational for sure.

But… think about it. Trapped under the ground. No light, permanent darkness, and the knowledge that sooner or later you will run out of air. You will stop being able to breathe, and then it all will slip away in a terrifying moment of panic mixed with a serene calm. All this taking place while you are trapped within a small box lined with satin that smells like a funeral parlor.

No fucking thanks!

It is with this merry image of sheer terror that I will segue way into the new Manga series titled Dragon Head, a nasty story about not only being buried alive compounded with a level of psychological tension created by the unknown forces that put our protagonists in the situation to begin with. This well balanced meal of macabre is written and drawn by Minetaro Mochizuki, and thus far two volumes have Tokyopopped out for your literary consumption.

Icy black. This is how story unfolds in the prenatal pages of Volume One. The pages are then scratched with the sounds of dripping. This visual marker serves as a beautiful break in the page. An allusion to the waking of the mind we are seeing through. Foggily, we see what are to be our eyes, and, in a mad panic, the events around us become clear.

A passenger car of a train is laying broken and dead in the overwhelming darkness. Lost in this deathly veil is a young man, Teru Aoki. Awakened suddenly by the dripping sound in raw contrast to the deep silence, Teru begins to panic. He can hear no one. He can see nothing. It is as if he is locked within a tomb…

Teru struggles to recall his last memory. Flashes of the train and his class trip, the reason he was on the train, come crashing into his mind but the cause of the crash, or whatever cataclysm caused this, is left out of reach of his minds eye’s . Teru flashes out of this, and back to his waking nightmare.

For the next 20 pages or so, we live out the unimaginable moments of silence, doubt, and terror with Teru as he begins to learn that he is trapped underground, and that he may be truly alone. Author Mochizuki uses the most of Teru’s animal in a trap panic to create a sense of unease. Teru speaks constantly to himself, not only to let us know what is going on, but more importantly to fill the dead void in the air surrounding him.

It is only when Teru’s terror reaches its peak do we get the slightest inkling that there may be another survivor. A faint voice, a plea for help, and the bloody exposed flesh of a girl beckon to Teru for assistance. Teru is elated to find life, but also realizes that his newfound companion has a grip on this world that is tenuous at best. He decides to move her, to help her, but his focus on this task is lost, if only for a moment by a new discovery.

A third person has survived, his name is Nobuo.

Mochizuki makes Teru look collected, even in moments of panic, there is a poise to his face and purpose to his eyes. Teru knows what he wants, and even when falling into the depths of despair, he never loses that spark of conscience. Nobuo, from the first image we see of him, is not the same type of person. There is a vapidity to his gaze. He sweats more, and he has a tendency to look as if he is beaten. Mochizuki puts a lot of time an effort into the look of the book’s characters. Each is distinct, and each delivers a different feel. There are not only forces at work around the characters, but between the character’s themselves. This is all attributable to Mochizuki’s hand.

The name of the injured girl is Ako. Her knees are badly damaged, and there is a lot of blood. But it is a different type of blood that she is most concerned with as she wakes. Being a girl trapped with two boys in a hole in the ground is not a place to be squeamish when it comes to female sanitary needs. Mochizuki is happy to play off this uneasy fact. It is a great way to flag down the fact that Ako is different. She is vulnerable. One girl versus two boys, she is a woman well guarded.

The dynamics of human nature allow for the best and worst of us to shine in extreme situations. Teru seems to be embodying the best with a show of concern for others, compulsion to organize, and unwillingness to give in to the pressures at hand.

Nobuo is the other side of the coin. Nyctophobia and claustrophobia both play with his mind. Nobuo begins to feel like he is being watched. Old demons from before creep up as he begins to faces his fears yet unlike Teru, Nobuo’s fears get the best of him and soon it looks like being trapped is not the only problem for Teru and Ako.

Dragon Head‘s beginning issue sets up a few good things. First this is not a simple story. It looks to be long and involved. The time that elapses is very short, but within this span we see a lot. This allows for us to get into the heads of the characters at play here. When a story focuses on a small group of individuals, we need to know as much as we can in order to have the narrative play out effectively. This is doubly important with a horror tale such as this. Dragon Head is not about drowned little girls rising from a watery grave to exact revenge or about warring factions of nocturnal demons. Dragon Head is a mystery wrapped within a horror story. The mystery is simple: What happened? How did the tunnel collapse

The horror comes from the minds and reactions of the characters. Fear. The ever present emotion in this situation is fear. Whether it be phobias or large scale fear of what may lie outside the crumbled walls of the tunnel, both turn the screw just as heavily as the other. It is the big picture that feeds the small, and the small fear that compound the larger problem at hand.

Dragon Head Volume 2 starts off with Teru and Ako setting up a camp outside of the train wreckage. There is a disturbing heat problem that is making all of the characters very uncomfortable. This is a befuddling and tantalizing clue about what may lie outside the tunnel. Why would they be getting so hot so far underground? Is the earth scorched? Are they in a volcano?

The big question is toyed with, but little is answered. Dragon Head is an epic story taking place on a small stage. Life and death hang in the balance, and for all we know Teru, Nobuo, and Ako may be the entire human race.

Nobuo refused to leave the train cars with Teru and Ako. He feels safer in the cars, and has several secrets hidden within them. Nobuo also is afraid of what he thinks is outside of the train cars. His mind gives the shapeless form, and there seem to be things moving within the darkness. But are there? Or is this all figments of Nobuo’s ever sanity decreasing imagination?

Mochizuki fills each page with just enough information to let you know what is going on, but never more. Dragon Head reads very quickly; the eye flits from image to image, hungry to ingest the next frame and further its understanding of the story. Dragon Head is also presented in true manga format, which means that it reads front to back and right to left. I have found that if the artist is not very careful, such layouts can become very distracting for western readers to get used to. There is no such qualms with Dragon Head. Reading true manga takes a bit of getting used to, but it is easy when the layout is well mapped.

Mochizuki reigns in the parallel stories of situation and personal reaction towards a unified ending. Teru begins an exploration of the area that begins to uncover new clues about their situation. While Ako comes face to face with what the downward psychological spiral has ultimately transformed Nobuo into. The dueling personalities, the dichotomy of rational and irrational, and the oxymoron of a tunnel that is not only a trap but possibly a protective womb culminate in a series of pages that I read so fast my eyes got whiplash.

Dragon Head does what a lot of non-manga style comics cannot do effectively; it sets up a world with people that allow us to accept them for their imperfections. Regular 30-40 page comics dare not travel roads filled with this mundane types of detail, for they have to keep the story cycle moving at a fair clip to make each issue worth existing. Mangas like Dragon Head allow writers to delve deeper into the psyche. Personally, there is a place for both forms, but recently I have begun to sway toward one moreso than the other.

When given the chance to revel within a medium that takes full advantage of palpable human emotion and fear, to be given the opportunity to wallow in something that uses dread, claustrophobia, and the unknown, and to see what may be the beginning of a story that could be something unique; my decision is made for me.

But then again, how is a taphophobe supposed to get any sleep after that?

4 out of 5

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