With its handsomely mounted hardback cover and slipcase, Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster (Viz Media) is clearly being marketed as a prestige package. And it deserves to be: the 460-page manga is a moody and mysterious look at childhood and its subsequent terrors, made all the more engrossing by rarely straying from its child’s eye view of the world. Though its title sounds like something that’d be affixed to a poorly dubbed Japanese kiddie monster flick (starring Godzilla and Godzookie, perhaps), in actuality GoGo Monster is an artful and enjoyably challenging read, one of the best American manga releases of the last year.
The story follows through five seasons, centering on two third grade students in Asahi Elementary School. Ruddy-cheeked newcomer Makoto Suzuki has just transferred from another elementary school (where it’s rumored the principal hung himself), where he is quickly attracted to the class oddball, “Weirdo” Yuki Tachibana, who he first sees drawing monsters on his desk.
Largely shunned by his fellow students, Yuki claims to be in touch with creatures on the other side of reality, including their leader named Super Star. As he grows older, however, his contacts with Super Star grow less frequent. “When people turn into grownups,” he explains, “their insides melt into a mushy glop and their brains turn hard and stiff.”
Throughout the book, though, Yuki gets periodic visions which he interprets as messages from the other side: a stray dog beseeches him to climb to the school’s unused fourth floor; his teacher’s head briefly turns upside down on her body; a message stating that “SUPER STAR Hates YUKI. He’s NEVER coMIng back.” appears on the classroom blackboard. That last prompts Yuki into angrily rising in class and yelling at the blackboard — which, of course, further cements his reputation as a weirdo.
Though the cover and slipcase to GoGo Monster show a horde of childlike monsters seemingly trailing after Yuki and Makoto, in the book we’re only offered half-seen shots of these mischievous, possibly imaginary, beings. At one point, Yuki shows a drawing of Super Star to his new friend, adding “They don’t have physical bodies . . . This is just a conceptual sketch.”
To school groundskeeper Ganz, Super Star is just the most recent name assigned to the Boss of the Other Side. Other kids, he tells Makoto, “with a talent for seeing things the rest of us can’t see” have given it other names: “Sasquatch or Giant. Every child calls him by the most powerful name they know.”
Whether Yuki’s Other Side exists or not, it’s clear that Asahi Elementary is experiencing a difficult year: acts of vandalism have increased, while the school’s upper class of fifth graders has grown increasingly non-compliant. Too, IQ, the quasi-autistic fifth grader who goes through school with a cardboard box covering his head, grows distressed when his favorite rabbit goes missing. Whether this disarray is a mirror of battles occurring on the Other Side or just a reflection of 21st-century anomie is a conclusion left up to the reader.
Though Asahi is presented as its own tight-knit microcosm, we’re constantly reminded of the presence of the outside modern world through the sounds and shadows of planes from a nearby airport flying overhead. More than once, Yuki tells his friend that he wishes he could leave and stay on the Other Side, and artist Matsumoto makes us see his point.
Matsumoto's renderings, which run the gamut from realistic to punkishly cartoonish — sometimes within the same panel — suit the story’s child’s eye view. His use of cross-hatching is particularly striking, most notably in a sgrafito styled trip between the two worlds. The artist’s storytelling style is subtle, and his detailed look at childhood is both realistic and enigmatic.
At times, I was reminded of the specificity in Gilbert Hernandez’ Palomar kids: good company to keep. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that one of those little rascals hadn’t seen a glimpse of Super Star in the shadowy corners of their own little village . . .