Domu - Manga by Katsuhiro Otomo

Everyone knows Akira, but Katsuhiro Otomo's chilling earlier work explores the same themes of immaturity, poverty and power with just as much dynamism and style, and is by far the more accessible work for new readers.

Domu by Katsuhiro Otomo book cover. The animation classic AKIRA has been widely available for years on video, and in that time has gained a sizeable following, which has propelled Dark Horse's recent reprints of the original manga series to success. But what may have been lost in the excitement over a chance to re-experience AKIRA in its original form was Dark Horse's reprint of Katsuhiro Otomo's other manga work, DOMU: A CHILD'S DREAM.

Which is a shame, because on the surface there's a lot in DOMU for the AKIRA fan to enjoy. The two share a fascination with child psychics, telekinetic warfare, and modern Japan. Where AKIRA was a long, sprawling epic full of both individual and societal conflict, DOMU is tighter, smaller, and more personal.

It contains its share of cultural observations, of course: Otomo admits in an included interview that part of the inspiration for the story came from a newspaper article on depression in Tokyo's sprawling housing developments. But aside from providing some unnerving imagery, especially a double-page spread midway through the book that turns the housing project into an utterly alien landscape, the faceless apartment complex is ultimately mere context for what's really going on.

There's been a string of mysterious deaths in the Tsutsumi Public Housing Complex, which seem at first to be impossible suicides. Inspector Yamagata leads an investigation into the matter, and immediately runs up against a number of suspicious characters living in the complex. But DOMU isn't a mystery: we find out who the culprit is at the end of the first act, when Yamagata has a fatal encounter with senile old Cho, who we learn has the supernatural powers that include the ability to teleport and hover off the ground.

When another family moves into the complex, the story begins in earnest. One of the new residents is Etsuko, a young girl who seems ordinary enough but quickly demonstrates her own strange psychic abilities in a skirmish with Cho over the life of a baby. The battle between the two gifted residents only escalates from there, and it doesn't take long before the stakes are raised to include the entire housing project.

Domu by Katsuhiro Otomo page from comic. The key to DOMU is in the title. The story is principally concerned with children; most of the characters introduced, apart from the detectives who investigate the case, are in various childlike states. If they're not actual youths like Etsuko or her friend Hiroshi, they're the mental equivalents thereof. Tsutomu is an adolescent struggling and failing to grow up and enter university; Hiroshi's father is a sullen drunk incapable of being an adult to his son; the developmentally retarded "Little" Yo has the brain of a child within his massive frame.

And what makes Cho such a frightening villain is that his murderous impulses derive from his own regression to an immature state. The tremendous power he has is essentially in the hands of an infant, someone unable to distinguish right from wrong, or his own self from the universe around him. He loathes Etsuko for figuratively taking away his toys, and his increasingly destructive lashings-out are a sort of temper tantrum designed to get her to notice him and even, in a twisted sense, play with him - note especially the sequence involving the Tsutsumi gas mains. As with real infants, Cho has an obsession with favourite objects, from a baseball cap with wings to a plain rubber ball, and the acquisition of such seems to be his main criteria when selecting victims.

Etsuko, on the other hand, is a different kind of child. More psychologically developed than Cho, she knows that his tantrums have to be quieted. But though she's the protagonist of DOMU, it remains a child's dream, which is a prospect that the adult reader may still find somewhat disturbing.

For Etsuko can be as irrationally prone to fits of emotion and cruelty as any other child her age, and in some cases her maturity only sharpens that edge. A brief, eerie moment involving a whole gang of kids staring at Cho and unnerving him implies that Etsuko is bullying the old man as much as she's heroically keeping him at bay. Furthermore, when she's confused and upset, her method for taking out her frustration is as nasty as anything Cho can come up with.

What really sells this book is Otomo's draughtsmanship. Long passages go by with little to no dialogue, relying only on the intricate visuals to tell the story. It's hard to imagine some of it working in a format outside comics: an isolated panel of Etsuko's anguished, tear-streaked face, free of word balloons or sound effects, seems timeless and suggests a vast depth of emotion that might last forever. Anywhere else, such outbursts would be only a transitory part of the overall story, but in comics Otomo can plausibly suggest that they are the story, and allow the reader to dwell on that moment for as long as he or she cares to. The mostly realistic and detail-obsessed style that Otomo uses for every panel, which is relatively unique for manga that usually makes heavy use of "masking" effects, makes such moments all the more powerful.

There's only room for one seminal masterpiece in most creators' careers, but just because DOMU isn't as famous or as sprawling as AKIRA doesn't mean it should be relegated to the status of Otomo's 'other' work. At the least, it's an interesting early look at some of the themes and imagery he would later explore in greater detail, and at the most, it's a fascinating and creepy look at the darker side of children's psyches. Like a dream, it's over before you know it, but the impression it leaves will last for some time afterward.

Article was writen by Nich Maragos at
Nich Maragos is a San Francisco-based videogame journalist for

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