My first thought upon turning the last pages of Domu was that the manga has magnificent action. The second was that it doesn’t have much else. I point especially to the first act, which, comprising the murder mystery staples of police detectives heroically barking up the wrong tree, frustrated witnesses, and a handful of too-obvious suspects, feels unrepentantly derivative. Chief among the problems is that the synopsis has already given away the crux of the tale – an old man and a little girl get into a psychic battle – so watching detectives fumbling their way through a set of ‘inexplicable’ deaths feels like stalling.
I sense that even the mangaka, Katsuhiro Otomo, is far less interested in the setup than the culmination. There is something sardonically self-aware, maybe even apologetic, in the script when an officer complains that ‘It’s like some damn-fool murder mystery.’ More tellingly, Otomo invests little effort in developing his characters beyond the functional. The detectives are archetypes of world-weary veterans, and we can say little about the heroine except that she is a polite, psychically gifted child with stunningly robust naivety in the face of the atrocities her enemy, old man Yoshikawa, inflicts on her neighbours. In fact, none make the instrumental nature of the premise more obvious than Yoshikawa. More a metaphysical disease lacking teleology than a traditional ‘bad guy’ with a cheap motive, he uses his powers to randomly drive tenants of his apartment block to suicide. He is, in short, bad so that Otomo has a reason to tell a story.
Luckily, with the setup dispensed with, Otomo wastes no time in getting to the point. Cue a string of imaginatively gruesome set pieces told with undeniably sadistic relish. Much of it will recall imagery from his later masterpiece, Akira, with Etsuko and Yoshikawa starting what Tetsuo and the wizened children of the military experiment finish. Screaming matches result in bubble-shaped dents in the walls, and narrow hallways become canvases for many a bloody splatter. Even if the story is wafer-thin, the action is a pounding force of urgency and pain, wide spaces and crushing detail. It all culminates in glorious two-page spreads of rampaging psychological powers turning an apartment block to mush.
What I particularly appreciate here is how Otomo can be at once teasingly suggestive and shockingly vulgar. One image shows only the looming apartment block, an open door with light spilling out, and a speech bubble with the word ‘THWUD’ to insinuate someone’s fatal leap, while another image will be a full-frontal spectacle of someone cutting his own throat. (Otomo’s artistic approach extends naturally to the narrative, where he follows the hyperbolic madness of the third act with a concluding mini episode full of understated poeticism.)
To grasp Domu’s real purpose, I turn to Otomo’s own words about another of his creations, Stink Bomb, the second episode of his anime anthology, Memories. The ‘plot’ is no more than an exaggerated car chase as a man who inadvertently becomes a biological weapon tries to evade the military’s attempt to kill him. Otomo describes Stink Bomb as something to ‘zip through’, a flighty piece designed to evoke no more than transient gratification. Domu is simply the manga manifestation of that same spirit. It is an indulgent little piece intended to distract the bored lizard brain with bloody good action mounted upon an uncomplicated plot. Indeed, zip through Domu I did, for there is no other way to read such a whimsical creation. And I enjoyed it tremendously.