I first read about Minetaro Mochizuki's Dragon Head (Tokyopop) in Heidi MacDonald’s comics blog, The Beat, in an entry Heidi entitled "Manga for the Rest of Us." Though the post's title assumes a certain ambivalence about manga that I don't share, it managed to spark my interest in Mochizuki's work. I went scouring for it on the manga racks – a lotta books with "Dragon" in the title, doncha know – and recently was able to pick up the premiere volume.
The cover pretty much lays out what you get in the book: a hemmed-in close-up of the book's hero, Teru Aoki, looking desperate as sweat breaks out all over his face. The sweat turns out to be more than just a manga visual convention. The teen-aged schoolboy is one of three survivors of a railroad disaster that's occurred inside an overheated mountain tunnel. For reasons that aren't yet clear (earthquake? – that flash of light that Teru noted just before the train entered the tunnel?), the tunnel has collapsed on both sides of the train, derailing it and killing most of its passengers, trapping our threesome under what appears to be tons of earth.
We learn about this slowly, as Teru does, first waking to discover himself in a dark and tilted rail car full of dead bodies, then carefully exploring his surroundings as he searches for some light. An ordinary teen, Teru possesses no special knowledge or abilities to handle the seemingly hopeless crisis that he's suddenly been thrust into – it takes him more than half the book to realize that the alcohol in the club car will make a good hand-held torch, for instance – and Mochizuki convincingly communicates the kid's initial shock at being plunged into this seemingly hopeless situation.
On the basis of the first volume, Dragon Head appears to be a realistic work of survival horror, though there are hints that the ten-volume story will be headed into more fantastic areas. The work is rated "OT" for ages 16 and over, presumably for the gore, some in-character profanity and a story reference to the heroine's period. (Is that what constitutes "manga for the rest of us"?)
Teru's fellow survivors turn out to be an unstable Columbine-y kid named Nobuo, who immediately steals Teru's flashlight and refuses to give it back, and a young girl named Seto, who spends much of the first volume unconscious. While our hero struggles to hold it together (even as we see him occasionally retreating into dreams and fantasies of being back with his family), Nobuo quickly and distressingly heads into a more ominous place. Once a victim in school, he relishes the deaths of his former classmates and returns from a trek down the tunnel with his body all covered in blood. Though we haven't seen him doing it, the impression we get is that he's just spent time battering the body of a former tormenter.
Mochizuki keeps a strong visual hold on his clammy situation throughout – dark and shadow is forever threatening to impinge on our protagonists – though he perhaps repeats his core images (the disabled train, the caved-in tunnel) more than necessary. (Reflecting the story's original serial appearance, perhaps?)
While believably bloody, much of Dragon's omnipresent death imagery is presented in shadow and fragments, though the story doesn't shy away from the specifics of a train filled with dead teens – at one point, for instance, the threesome moves out of the rail cars to get away from the accelerated decay that the hyper-hot tunnel has set off. Mochizuki’s art makes plenty good use of sweat-drenched close-ups and anxious expressions, but he also catches every angle of that derailed train with obsessive attention to detail. The net feel is oppressively atmospheric. I kept mentally revisiting images from this work long after I finished reading it.
Manga for the Rest of Us? Let's just call it a moody and suspenseful graphic entertainment that deserves to find as many readers as possible – and leave it at that, okay?