Some artists make their name from one great thing, while others make it from many good things. Katsuhiro Ōtomo is normally lumped into the first class (ahem, AKIRA) but he really belongs in the second, if only because so much of his other work isn't as widely known now. Domu was, and still is, one of those works, and the one I elected to revisit now that Ōtomo is back in the news. Released from 1980 through 1983, before AKIRA itself, it's evidence to the argument that while Ōtomo may have produced relatively little compared to some other creators, he was no one-trick pony. Any reissue program of his work that began with AKIRA needs to be followed up with Domu at some point.
Veteran of a thousand psychic wars
Domu is set in Tsutsumi, a giant apartment complex akin to one Ōtomo lived near as a younger man, early in his career. Hundreds of families live there, cheek by jowl and knee to knee. And over the last two years, more than two dozen people have thrown themselves to their deaths from the roof. The suicides have no pattern; the victims showed no outward sign of being suicidal. Baffled, the police do their best not to let on to the residents how stymied they are — especially Takayama, the young detective assigned to the case, a long-haired fellow reminiscent of the young Kenji Sawada.
Ōtomo gives us a sly little whirlwind slice-of-life tour across a Greek-chorus sampling of the residents across the first third or so of the story: the kids who pester the cops, the silent, insular grown son of one resident who's trying to get into college. But there's also "Little Yo", the lumbering, developmentally disabled man living with his mother; the mother who lost her baby to a late-term miscarriage and has been an emotional husk ever since; the crippled former truckdriver who's now a full-time alcoholic. All is not well.
But how does any of that add up to a rash of suicides? More bizarrely, how so when the roof was inaccessible to the victims in question? And why was the most recent death wearing a distinctive hat owned by one of the other residents' children? "A locked-roof mystery," is how the young detective puts it. It's his supervisor who learns how all the pieces snap together, but at the cost of his life: the senile, harmless-looking old man who lives in the complex, "old Cho", is in fact a psionic of terrible power, feeding the victims their worst guilty feelings, luring them to their deaths, and hoarding possessions of theirs that catch his magpie eye.
Telepathic kid vs. psionic geezer
Then the balance of power in the complex shifts. A new family moves in — mother, father, daughter. The girl, Etsuko, is also a psionic, and she arrives just in time to stop Cho from murdering an infant by dropping it from a ledge. She doesn't think anything special of it; she's more appalled that Cho would do something so vile than anything else. No one, not even her parents, seems aware of what she can do, but she and Cho make each other right away.
Cho is powerful enough that he can seize control of someone else and puppeteer them into horrible things, but Etsuko is at least as powerful, and is still only a child. At one point early in their psychic duels, Cho takes control of the would-be college-student son and sends him after Etsuko armed with a boxcutter; she panics and turns him into a gory mess straight out of a Dario Argento movie. Cho's next step is to arm the alcoholic ex-trucker with a stolen police pistol — one pinched from an officer he lured to his own death earlier — and use him as the vehicle for the next showdown.
What unfolds next is a masterfully escalated showdown, over one terrifying evening, that takes up a fair slice of the book's page count. Etsuko and Cho use the apartment complex as the arena, each in their own way — Etsuko mainly using physical objects and sheer psychic force as a blunt instrument, Cho manipulating people and the occasional thing (such as a whole slew of gas stoves). One is malicious, possibly senile; the other determined to protect herself, her family, and her new friends, but barely in control of herself. Both are prepared to destroy anything in their way.
Too good to go missing
Most of the great manga artists I've encountered have been movie buffs. Ōtomo not only started off as one and let that influence his art, but ultimately went behind the camera as well — not just for the sake of AKIRA, but as a commercial director and ultimately for projects like the excellent live-action adaptation of Mushishi. (Side note: when do we get to see his alternately hilarious and horrifying 1990 film World Apartment Horror again, which has some of the same thematic elements as this story?)
Domu is great evidence of how exacting his eye has been since the early days. Clichéd as it is to talk about comics as movie storyboards, the cliché is entirely apt here: the Dutch angles, the IMAX-size backgrounds that all but swallow the characters, the frame-filling dead-tech geometries of the apartment complex. And every now and then comes something with an effect that would be impossible to replicate directly in film, like the two-page spread of Cho with his eyes bulging and his face in a rictus of horror. Images like these make it clear why Western directors have circled the material for a possible adaptation. (Darren Aronofsky apparently optioned it at one point, but nothing came of it.)
It ought to come as little surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with Ōtomo's work that the night ends with the apartment complex in near-ruins. But Domu has a lot more to offer than Ōtomo's staple grand-scale destruction (and his other omnipresent element, the perpetual incompetence of authority structures). It showcases many of Ōtomo's other strengths, like his elegant weaving together of multiple, apparently unrelated elements, or his use of panoramic casts as commentary on the action. All that, along with the scale and detail of the devastation that unfolds, presages AKIRA quite nicely. And then there's the delicious twist ending, one that seems like it could constitute a lead-in to what AKIRA itself would eventually provide.
Domu ought to be one of the best ways to get to know Ōtomo's work without having to dive off the deep end into AKIRA and pray you survive. The only reason it isn't is because it's out of print: Dark Horse's English translation, which debuted in 1996, now commands preposterous prices on the collector's market. I suspect Ōtomo has plans to reissue this properly — with unflopped artwork and more technologically sophisticated localization — but on his time and terms, much as he did with AKIRA. When it does, I plan to make a noise about it. For Domu to go missing in English for so long amounts to a nutritional deficiency in our manga diet.