Six year-old Yuki Tachibana sees and hears things his classmates never do; the bizarre forms and whispering voices of the strange, supernatural creatures that secretly inhabit his elementary school. Despite the fact that this dubious gift has made him an outcast from his fellow students he seems quietly accepting of his place – that is until he finds the always-empty seat next to him occupied by transfer student Makoto Suzuki, whose attempts to befriend him coincide with the arrival of the ‘others’ – a second group of spirits vying for control of the cold, decaying school building.
Over the last couple of decades Taiyo Matsumoto has justifiably gained a following as one of Japan’s most talented and intellectually challenging mangaka, with his critically acclaimed story of homeless street fighting children Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White not only cementing his reputation in the west but also spawning a lavish, high budget big screen adaption courtesy of influential anime producers Studio 4°C. While both Tekkonkinkreet and this latest work of his look at the perception of reality from the viewpoints of children labelled as ‘special’ or even ‘disturbed’, GoGo Monster is perhaps even vaguer and less direct than it’s predecessor, and as a result is arguably even more powerful for it.
At first glance the subject matter coupled with Matsumoto’s enthralling yet gloomy artwork gives the impression of a near-generic Japanese horror story, but in truth it’s surprisingly closer to a gently paced, psychological mystery. Up until the final pages the reader is left guessing as to whether they are enjoying a supernatural tale or a study of delusion and imagination. Scattered throughout the book are possible clues and red herrings, from the schoolyard rumours of teacher suicides to flight path roars of the passing airliners that rhythmically interrupt the flow of the panels. Are any of these significant? Again Matsumoto refuses to answer his readers, instead leaving them with a desire to flip back and re-scan previous pages in an attempt to piece their own interpretation together.
Certainly one reading it is easy to come away from with is that it is a study of Yuki’s possible autism. The way he is ostracised from his classmates is both skilfully depicted and moving, and watching newcomer Makoto’s attempts to befriend him whilst also fit in with the other students is heartbreakingly familiar to anyone that’s struggled to communicate with a severely autistic child. Throughout the story Makoto seems torn between wanting to believe his new friend and trying to convince him to accept reality, while Yuki himself remains convinced of what he sees and hears despite wanting to embrace this new human contact. Perhaps this conflict is manifesting itself in the emerging struggle between rival spirits that Yuki perceives and obsesses over – but again Matsumoto refuses to spell it out, leaving a number of interpretations open.
With this in mind, it’s also easy to view GoGo Monster as an examination of one of manga’s most prevalent and played out archetypes – the ‘supernaturally sensitive child’. Even if this isn’t Matsumoto’s expressed intention it’s a chilling and fascinating look at what has become a generic staple of Japanese literature, film and manga since centuries old yokai folk stories.
While western comics and graphic novels largely split the work of artist and writer between at least two individuals, the tradition continues in Japan of the mangaka creator taking both roles. Too often the failings of this way of working become apparent in either lack-lustre artwork or – more usually – in generic plotlines, but when both excel it hammers home to talent of the creator. GoGo Monster fortunately falls into this exclusive latter bracket, with Matsumoto’s artwork being a joy to pour over, each panel conveying the childish humanity of his protagonists, the sparse intimidation of school corridors and awkward chaos of the playground. At times it takes on a hallucinatory edge, from subtle images hidden within other to full-on trips of the imagination. Coupled with the fantastic quality of Viz’s print of the English translation – I weighty hardback in a handsome slipcase – it’s a perfect example of manga as a mature, desirable art form, and a perfect introduction to one if it’s most important and talented creators.