GoGo Monster by Taiyo MatsumotoViz, 464 pages, $27.99
GoGo Monster bears a number of resemblances to Matsumoto's other, more well-known (at least in the U.S.) work, Tekkonkinkreet. Both, for example, feature two young boys as protagonists, one of whom is in touch with more primal, perhaps supernatural forces and possibly even in need of "saving." Both feature a wise elderly man who serves as guardian for the pair. Both feature enigmatic narratives that tease at meaning. And both trade highly in allegory, with readers being able to draw all sorts of thematic possibilities from the elliptical roles the various character serve.
The story is set entirely in a Japanese elementary school. Matsumoto never takes us off the school grounds and we never see any of the students' parents or siblings. Apparently the school is haunted. That's what young Tachibana says. He claims he can see the spirits and other creatures that inhabit the abandoned third floor of the building, a gift which earns him the scorn and derisive laughter of his peers. Only newcomer Makoto attempts to form a friendship with the eccentric boy. While Makoto cannot see the spirits, he seems to recognize on some intuitive level that there's something special about Tachibana, and that there's something odd about the school in general.
There's a third child, IQ, who is given to wearing a large cardboard box over his head, with only one eyehole cut out for visibility. As depression over one of his missing pet rabbits ensues, he ends up painting his entire box black. As his nickname suggests, he's given to logic and reason, and he takes it upon himself to ween Tachibana away from his fantasy world.
We never see the monsters that plague the school, and indeed, have no real way of knowing if they actually exist or are some fevered figment of Tachibana's imagination. Whether the monsters are real or not, it's clear that Tachibana is in danger of being completely subsumed by this fantasy dimension. There are stories of students heading up to the third floor to never return again, having been completely consumed by the spirit world.
What's more, the spirits seem agitated, chiding Tachibana with hallucinations. Everyone at the school, teachers and students, seem oddly on edge. It all comes to a head as Tachibana and IQ seemingly enter the mysterious third floor dimension, but will either of them come out intact without Makoto's grounded presence?
All this is told in Matsumoto's roundabout, vague manner, one heavily influenced by European artists like Moebius. Anyone who's read through Tekkonkinkreet will no what to expect here in terms of structure, dialogue and characterization.
One thing my description of the plot should readily give away is the extremely high allegorical nature of the the story. A number of interwoven themes and interpretations -- again, similar to themes explored in Tekkonkinkreet -- seem to float to the surface: society as an organism; society vs. the individual and the need for the former to find their place in the latter; the consuming power of fantasy; the need for fantasy and reason to co-exist; the body vs. the mind; and the healing power of friendship. It's of no small significance that Matsumoto plays up the natural world in many of his panels, focusing on the gardens and insects around the school, and diving the book up to reflect the changing of the seasons.
But all of this layering and sussing out of meaning would be worthless if GoGo Monster were not the compelling and incredibly artful book it is. Matsumoto does a masterful job of showing the day to day lives of the students, gracefully giving readers time to acclimate themselves into the school and its environs and then creating a good deal of tension by hinting at mysterious (and potentially sinister) things hiding just around the corner. Some of the most highly effective sequences involve Tachibana's hallucinations, where suddenly a dog starts beckoning him to "come," a school address suddenly turns nasty and personal, and the teacher's chalkboard scribblings spell out a message that only he can see. The final sequence, with Tachibana entering the spirit world, is a bravura affair, done in almost complete black ink, with only the slightest bit of cross-hatching to suggest form and shape. It's a daring bit of cartooning that in lesser hands would have just been a mess.
Viz did a bang-up job packaging this material. Encased in a cardboard slipcase, it's apparent the company put a high level of care in its production. And justifiably so. While GoGo Monster is a considerably more sedate, less action-packed, and more contemplative manga than Tekkonkinkreet, it captures much of the spirit of Matsumoto's other work and is just as compelling, and stunning a read.