I've been a fan of Usamaru Furuya for a long time; or more accurately I've been a big fan of Short Cuts, since until recently only that and maybe five pages of his other surreal gag series Palepoli were all that were available Stateside. But we seem to be coming up on a nice boomlet of his work in translation, so let's check it out.
A casual reader of this blog will notice I'm no opponent of excess for its own sake, but Lychee Light Club's earnest transgression seemed a bit pedestrian. Or maybe I'm just jaded. I'll just crib from the back cover in lieu of summing up the plot, since Vertical sells this better than anyone short of Carl Horn or Stan Lee:
"I AM HUMAN. IT IS IN MY PROGRAMMING."
For the sooty industrial town’s lads there’s only one point of light: the Light Club, a secret brotherhood they’ve organized in an abandoned factory. They’re on the verge of booting up their crowning achievement, a “thinking machine” fueled by lychee fruits. At the same time, the middle schoolers’ cooties-fearing solidarity is devolving into a downright National Socialist muck of murderous paranoia, perverse aestheticism, and (not always) suppressed homosexuality. Cult favorite Usamaru Furuya’s most flawlessly realized work to date, here is Lord of the Flies for our new century— a text, however, that will never be assigned in schools.
This is an adaptation of a stage play, and it definitely bears the signs of it, particularly the extreme parsimony of characters and location; the Light Club themselves are pretty much the only characters with speaking roles (and most of them get like five lines at best) and almost all the action takes place in the basement of their clubhouse. This does work pretty well for evoking a seething inbred hothouse of festering emotion, but on the other hand, the delicately cruel bishounen aesthetic of the character designs tends to make their ranting come off as overly mannered, whereas I'd imagine an actual actor performing the lines would give them some appropriately manic delivery.
There are occasionally moments of gonzo, and some genuinely wince-inducing moments (man, poor Tamako), but overall I kind of feel Lychee Light Club didn't provide much I couldn't have imagined just from reading the back cover. This is a strange thing to say about a story that involves a fruit-powered robot kidnapper, but I was expecting Furuya to bring more originality and genuine surreality to the basic Clockwork Orange/Lord of the Flies youth-gone-wild setup. Well, OK, he does add explicit gay sex, but that's not too unusual in a manga context (or if you know anything about Yukio Mishima). Actually, that's the problem in a nutshell; I can see this story being audacious and disturbing in live-action (Organ is uncomfortably coming to mind, and actually now that I think of it, Kei Fujiwara worked with the Tokyo Grand Guignol, didn't she?), but as a manga it invites comparison to some of the world's most infamously upsetting and nauseating imagery, and Furuya just didn't step up his game enough to compete. Better luck next time.