Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review - Old Boy

Old Boy
Written by Garon Tsuchiya; Art by Nobuaki Minegishi
2007 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material - Japan

For a long time the Eisner awards had just one award for foreign comics. The proliferation in the popularity of Japanese comics in the U.S. prompted them to divide the category in two with Japan broken off. I'm not sure I agree with that since the proliferation of categories in the Eisners makes things confusing. Still it did open the awards up to an extra category that wound up promoting lesser known books so I think it worked out for the best. The first winner in the Japanese category was Old Boy and while it has some rough edges it's also a fascinating story that had me gripped.

There was an average young man who was settling into an average life. Then someone paid roughly three million dollars to have him abducted and locked in a windowless room with no direct human contact for ten years. His only companion was a television set and after the initial shock wears off this man chooses to spend his time preparing himself for the day he could hunt down whoever had him locked away and ask him "Why?"

That's how Old Boy starts and across eight volumes it never lets up. It's a game of cat and mouse that never develops the way you'd expect it to. Even thematically Tsuchiya is constantly switching gears on the reader. It can get frustrating as you anticipate a climax to the current developments only to have him deflate that tension by throwing the story into a completely different direction. It strikes me as intentional; a technique to keep the reader just as off balance as the protagonist and the story never lost me with those change ups.

What starts as a very dark noir story that promises a lot of action turns into a game of mental manipulation and it ends up as an introspective psychological exploration. Action to intellectual to emotional. Setting to plot to character. That's just the broad sweeps of the story development and it's an impressive balancing act that Tsuchiya manages.

As you'd expect from a story built like this the characters are engrossing. Ten years in isolation left the protagonist in a precarious mental state that he's been keeping in check. His allies and enemies are broadly drawn with enough development to keep them interesting. The real focus is on the protagonist (who remains nameless because he stays nameless for the first three hundred pages) and how he has changed from an ordinary person.

I did have problems with the ending. There was a plot element introduced almost at the very end that felt out of place to me. It was very close to a deus ex machina since this outside force wanders in and hands the protagonist a solution. It's not the solution to everything and the emotional arc still works but people wandering in to help him over an obstacle happens too often.

Another aspect to the story that bothered me was that there was some extremely gratuitous sex scenes. This isn't simply the fact that the protagonist meets a girl minutes after leaving his prison who immediately jumps into bed with him. That's just gratuitous. The woman who has a post-hypnotic suggestion that can only be released if he makes her orgasm? That's extremely gratuitous.

I became very fond of Minegishi's art style. He puts an emphasis on faces in his artwork that makes everyone look unique. Many people including the protagonist have an unpleasant, rough and puffy look to them that makes them look distinctive. Minegishi is also terrific at setting mood, especially early on where his artwork builds an oppressive atmosphere.

So overall I liked Old Boy; there was a film produced from it that won it's own accolades that I plan on seeing because I think it will translate well to another medium. It's an interesting story about how an extreme situation affected a person. And even though it doesn't play out as smoothly as it could I was won over by the interest in what happens next.