Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Can you tell that I love this?

God. Damn.

Disasters in fiction are, with little exception, treated in such a detached manner that at the best they simply become a catalyst for the plot or rush to the climax, or at worst become a footnote to more fantastical proceedings. Yet in our day-to-day lives, what else is a more mystical, more unifying event that can grasp our attention and concern when it involves People Like Us? It is this tragic spectacle and its consequent schism -- those that a society can identify with and stir up the most passionate of emotions, and those that maintain a distance of privilege, only seeing it as another human interest story or political opportunity -- that Hideki Arai fights with in volumes eight and nine of The World is Mine.

At the cliff-hanger of volume seven, the six principal characters had gathered in Odate, surprised by an appearance of Higumadon. The beast blazes through the city in a straight line, destroying anything that moves and in his way. And the results are devastating. Both of these volumes are entirely concerned with the giant brown bear's destruction -- both the event itself, and the reactions to it. Arai slips back and forth through the morning hours of the catastrophe, shifting viewpoint from the streets, hospitals, media, local and federal government and, eventually, to the rest of the world. The coverage is so personal, so wide-scale and so detailed that it attains a type of authenticity that's rarely seen in comics, film or television. Arai leads us through every angle and interpretation, emphasizing a sense of impact and importance that would be utterly lost with nearly any other writer.

With this scope enhanced, Arai flashes to various locations -- New York, Beijing, Kautokeino, Vancouver, Cairo, Berlin, Rome, London, Paris -- but none more important than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC. We are introduced to this universe's President of the United States of America, Dogwood Hayes (and various staff and cabinet members, one of whom is African-American and quite admirably devoid of the blackface). After a brief overview of the war in the fictional country of Aldonia (an allusion to Albania) and making a brief arrangement to announce the end of the war in time for Christmas, the Odate disaster is brought into focus. Hayes gets Japan's Prime Minister, Kanpei Yuri, on the phone, leading to the greatest conversation between two nation's leaders outside of Dr. Strangelove. The discussion starts absurdly enough, with Hayes remarking about his hot milk curdling while waiting for Yuri's call, then moving on to how the prime minister will have to perform a strip tease on live television on demands on the Toshi-Mon duo back in volume three. But this humorous exchange provokes the ire of the president, degenerating the talk to an arrogant war of words between the two. Yuri laments his lack of resources to deal with Higumadon's and Toshi-Mon's endless destruction (which has become more complicated as imitators have begun to use their own bombs), while Hayes is unrelenting about the notion of ever ceding to terrorists; both continue to express snide criticisms of the opposing nation's narrowed cultural outlooks and military might.

Then, as the surreal conversation ends, Arai smoothly brings us back to Odate. Iijima, the hunter, contends with dragging the reporter, Hoshino, to the hospital after the latter had been hit by one of Toshi's bombs during the confusion of Higumadon's rampage. While there, he reaches the attention of two police chiefs (one a deputy, the other recently demoted), Yoshiharu Yakushiji and Junichi Shiomi -- both having given extensive building by Arai previously in this volume, complete with exaggerated tics of the former's slobber and the latter's fidgety hands. While being questioned about what he saw when face-to-face with not only Higumadon, but also with the terrorists, Iijima notes that he saw a girl with them, being forced to a photo of their triumph of survival and proof of their prophecy. When asked why he didn't save her from them, he casually remarks that it's none of his business, invoking the follow scene:

One particular dilemma addressed in volume eight is moral judgment of and even loyalty to criminals. Having followed two terrorists for half of the series, Arai has humanized them near to the point of sympathy. Almost as if recognizing this, Arai breaks this down. Mon becomes an even grander specter in his meeting with Higumadon in Odate. Iijima watches the two otherworldly beasts collide and further confirms what the narrative has hinted previously. The other half of the duo, Toshi, shows no detached transcendence as he falls into an even deeper range of psychosis. Gone are the nervous tics of inexperience and overwhelming fear of being apprehended: Toshi kills as he sees fit, manipulating whomever he pleases with no regard to anyone's life but his own.

Even having shifted the character into a darker light, the complexity never wavers. After escaping the aforementioned Higumadon rampage, there is a brief struggle involving him, Mon and Maria -- the girl they had met once before, and have now kidnapped upon a second encounter. Facing potential death at having lost his gun to the girl, with Mon impassively observing, Toshi panics. He rambles on not just about the choice of killing himself, but also of Maria choosing to spare Mon for the fact that he has saved her due to a vague kinship that has grown during their brief encounters. Both decisions become problematic for the young woman, realizing that her principle of valuing life to the utmost degree would be compromised for killing Toshi, yet would also fall apart should she let him life because there is no question that his plans still involve murdering countless more lives; this is compounded even further by the fact that Mon has been directly response for far, far more humans than Toshi has. Amidst her deliberation Toshi prods her further, ranting about the system of law and killing numerous people both in and out of prison. His solution to cleansing this public image by winning the hearts of the media and society by becoming a bestseller with his memoirs and speculations, then donating any money earned to the victims' families.

Like anything else in the series, the scene is bleak, hilarious, over-the-top, gripping and just fucking insane.

Of course, there's all sorts of personal stories here, such as a man struggling to help another get out of their car which has fallen through his home's roof, his family watching aghast at his potentially suicidal actions; or a helicopter pilot recalling and regretting his inability to do anything during the Kobe earthquake, hoping to perform better for others this time; or a young woman filling in for a reporter that had been crushed by Higumadon, fumbling as she finds herself unable to genuinely report the horrors she's witnessed. Although they don't advance the plot, they emphasize the range and humanity Arai strives for, never dipping too far into sentimentality but consistently providing the different reactions to the violence and chaos that has fallen upon them all.

There's so much more that can be covered -- for instance, the narrative break to the life and history of Maria's friend, Junko, who becomes pivotal to the plot by the end of volume nine -- but little justice can be done by descriptions alone. The World is Mine has become even more socially, politically and philosophically relevant since its publication as terrorism continues to evolve in various incarnations, addling us with paranoia, distrust and division on a larger scale than anything before. It's an overwhelming work with an uncompromised ambition and vision with a story lurching on to something ultimately indefinable, but undeniably powerful.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I came upon The World is Mine by happy accident, and it's continued to reward me.