Manga in the museum! Whoo-hoo!
I’ve been enjoying these graphic novels that are produced in conjunction with the Louvre, so of course I ordered Rohan at the Louvre, which is by Hirohiko Araki, costs $19.99, and is published in the States by NBM.
Rohan at the Louvre is a horror comic, and it exhibits both the strengths and weaknesses of the genre.
It’s also a manga, obviously, and I, for one, was very keen to see manga in actual color. Araki’s artwork on this book is spectacular, and the colors, for the most part, are superb. The star of the book is a manga artist named Rohan, and part of the story takes place when he’s 17 and the rest a decade later. Araki gives him a distinctive look – he’s always wearing that strange, Jughead-looking thing that you see on the cover, and it’s never clear what it is; he has a very nice sense of style; and he’s long and lithe, also slithering through the book (not in any evil way, like how we usually think of snakes, but just in a loose, fluid way). The other characters are nicely designed, too, even though only one – Nanase – is really that important. The first part of the book is almost a tragic love story (I suppose I should leave out the “almost,” because you could argue that it really is one, but I don’t think it quite qualifies), and Araki does a wonderful job with Rohan and Nanase interacting with each other, and the soft earth tones of the house in which they both live (it belongs to Rohan’s grandmother, who rents out rooms) helps create that feeling both of romance and the nostalgia Rohan feels about this time (he’s telling us about it in flashback). The second half of the book, which takes place in the present, is colored more bluntly, contrasting nicely with both the time of the flashback and the change in tone from a youthful romance to a horror story. Araki is marvelous with the horror – it’s terrible and tragic, even if we don’t have too much at stake in the characters except for Rohan. We already know that something bad happens to them, so when it does, it doesn’t hit us as hard as it might, but Araki’s depictions of their fates is brutal and harrowing. He also draws Rohan’s ability – he’s able to “read” people very accurately – as literal truth, so that occasionally people’s skin becomes the pages of books that he flips open and “reads.” It’s a good device to show how well he does this, although it’s not explained as well as it could be. Araki uses the stereotypical tropes of manga – lots of speed lines at occasionally odd times and seemingly overwrought emotional responses to certain events – but American comics use stereotypical tropes as well, and once you get used to them, it doesn’t detract at all from the storytelling.
This is a beautiful comic, as even the horror section at the end is filled with wonderful if terrifying images.
The story is a bit less successful, unfortunately. It’s not awful, but it does rely a bit too much on horror clichés and resolves itself a bit too quickly. I wouldn’t have minded if this book were longer, honestly, to give Araki a bit of time to explain all the weird shit that happens. In horror, it seems like the most successful stuff is either completely unexplained or explained very well, and this book falls somewhere in between, so it’s just not as compelling as either of the two extremes. The 17-year-old Rohan meets Nanase, a young woman (she’s 21) about to be divorced. He’s still practicing his artwork, so he uses her as a model without her knowledge, and when she finds out, she gets very upset. They begin a strange friendship – after her initial anger, she likes looking at his artwork, and he, of course, has a big crush on her. But she receives upsetting phone calls that Rohan doesn’t understand, and she tends to disappear for long stretches of time. She does tell him about a cursed painting by a Japanese artist that is now in the Louvre, and he becomes very curious about it. Then she destroys some of his art that features a person based on her before disappearing for the last time. It’s all very odd.
Ten years later, Rohan is reminded of the painting, and he decides to find it by going to Paris. There he meets Ms. Noguchi, a Japanese interpreter who works for the Louvre. She discovers the painting in a storage area that shouldn’t be in use, so she calls in a curator, who tells them the storage area was abandoned 30 years earlier. The curator doesn’t know why the painting would be down there, but he invites Rohan and Ms. Noguchi, along with two firemen – for protection in the run-down area – to go check it out. If you think this is a bad idea, you’re not wrong. It turns into a typical “evil thing locked away for a very good reason, but God forbid anyone tells anyone about that reason” plot, and Rohan has to figure something out to stave off the evil. This is where the plot really breaks down.
I mentioned that he’s able to intuitively “read” people and that Araki shows this literally even though we’re supposed to believe it’s figurative. Well, at the end of the book, it appears to be literal, and it makes no sense. Rohan also acquires a lot of knowledge about the painting seemingly instantaneously, and I really don’t understand how he came by the knowledge. There’s a lot that’s left confused in the book – what Nanase was doing, why Rohan was so important to her, how Rohan knew some things, how he escaped the evil. Technically, it’s all there on the page (well, except who she was talking to on the phone), but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I mentioned, if Araki had left it more ambiguous it might have worked, and if he had really explained everything it might have. The half-assed explanation we get leaves us with more questions than answers, and it’s frustrating. It could certainly be the translation – I’m always wary about blaming the original writer when the original is in a different language – but it feels like Araki had a page count and realized he wasn’t going to be able to wrap everything up, so he simply explained everything he could in as little space as he had. I’m sure that wasn’t it, but that’s how it feels.
It’s too bad, because the premise, while a bit familiar, can work very well, and Araki’s idea of Rohan being able to understand everyone quickly could make for a quirky twist on a standard horror comic. Plus, the artwork is absolutely wonderful. I was enjoying the book until the final few pages, when it got first a bit ridiculous when Rohan was a target, and then dull when he started explaining everything. It’s good enough that I will Mildly Recommend it, especially if you’re a manga or a horror fan, but it’s a bit disappointing nevertheless.