Manga-ka: Taiyo Matsumoto
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: December 2009
Synopsis: “Third grader Yuki Tachibana lives in two worlds. In one world, he is a loner ridiculed by his classmates and reprimanded by his teachers for telling stories of supernatural beings that only he can see. In the other world, the supernatural beings vie for power with malevolent spirits who bring chaos into the school, the students’ lives, and nature itself.”
Taiyo Matsumoto isn’t the easiest manga-ka to get into. His style is a strange blend of Japanese and European, of cartoony and realistic. Even his stories, set in mundane places like elementary or high school, have a surrealistic quality to them, making it seem like they take place in a dream world rather than the real world. Gogo Monster manages to bring out all of Matsumoto’s best qualities – his unique art and strange plots – while still being more coherent than some of his earlier works. It is also very, very good.
Makoto Suzuki is the new kid at school. He ends up sitting next to Yuki Tachibana, the class weirdo. Yuki claims that there is another world existing alongside our own, an ‘other side’ full of mischievous spirits. The spirits may cause trouble, but they’re Yuki’s only friends.
As Yuki and Makoto start to grow closer, the spirits begin to grow restless. They start breaking windows, haunting bathrooms, and harassing other students. Even teachers notice the change that’s come over the school as the school year goes on.
Makoto isn’t worried about the other side as much as he is worried about his friend. He can’t see the things Yuki sees and feels unable to help his friend as Yuki gets more wrapped up in his fantasy world.
With Gogo Monster, Matsumoto creates a manga that is whimsical but also dark. Sinister forces appear not only in the shadows of the school but in raindrops, leaves and other unexpected places. At times the manga almost feels on the verge of horror, but the book always leaves things to the reader’s imagination, making for a very creepy but restrained atmosphere throughout the book. I never really thought of Taiyo Matsumoto as being a master of suspense but here he really plays it well. Even a simple thing like going up a flight of stairs becomes a tense moment thanks to his skilful panelling.
The restraint Matsumoto shows throughout the book was one of the biggest surprises for me. In other works like No.5 and ‘=Tekkon Kinkreet he goes all out with weird characters, strange visuals, and bizarre plots. All three are present here but in a way that’s much more toned down. The plot is a pretty standard coming of age tale, focusing on Yuki as he starts to outgrow his fantasy world and make connections with other human beings. There is plenty of bizarre imagery (for example, in one scene everyone has flowers for heads), but it is pretty much all comes from Yuki’s point of view.
Characters have always been one of Taiyo Matsumoto’s strong points. In his stories the plot is used to serve the character relationships, rather than the other way around as it is in most fiction. The two leads are well done but the minor cast is also interesting. There’s a child at Makoto and Yuki’s school named Sasaki who wears a cardboard box at all times. Like Yuki he’s a strange one, but where as Yuki is given to daydreaming, Sasaki is much more logical and analytical. The other students even nickname him ‘IQ’ because of how smart he is. Throughout the book there’s an air of mystery around Sasaki. Is he really a kid at the school or something else? What does he look like underneath the cardboard? His story arc is a nice compliment to Yuki’s and repeats the book’s themes about letting go and growing up.
It would have been easy to make the adults in the manga be cruel or ignorant, but luckily Matsumoto doesn’t take that route. Ganz is an elderly groundskeeper and the only adult Yuki actually likes. While Ganz can’t see the other side like Yuki does, he’s seen enough in his life time to keep an open mind. He acts as a kindly confidant for both Yuki and Makoto. There’s also Sasaki’s homeroom teacher, an older woman who believes very much in her gifted but strange student. It’s nice to see a manga-ka put thought into even minor roles like hers.
Taiyo Matsumoto is more restrained art wise here as well. In the past his character designs have often been really stylized (even when set in the real world) but in Gogo Monster the character designs are all much more down to Earth. That doesn’t mean they’re boring. They’re still very aesthetically pleasing and have Taiyo Matsumoto’s stamp on them. My only complaint is that once Yuki cuts his hair, he and Makoto look a little too alike at times.
The background art is great too. It’s very detailed and clear, but there’s still always a shaky quality to it which really sells the fact that you’re seeing this from a child’s point of view.
I mentioned before that Taiyo Matsumoto’s layouts do a great job of building suspense. He manages to do this in some very simple but impressive ways, such as cutting back and forth between two different scenes until one of them reaches a climax. Or he’ll spend a few pages showing something strange going on – something that none of the characters in the book ever see. His layouts are great for pacing. The book takes place over the course of a school year and thanks to a combination of dialogue and panel layout, it actually feels like it.
VIZ did a beautiful job with the production of this book, as they usually do with Matsumoto titles. The book is not only hardcover, it comes with a cardboard slipcase too. The slipcase is kind of cumbersome (I don’t think opening a book should be a several step process) but it looks cool. So does the book itself. The edges of the paper are red and when closed actually forms a picture that’s a continuation of the cover.
The dialogue reads great, especially the background chatter from the kids at the school. My one compliant with VIZ’s production is the font. It looks much too formal, considering that most of the characters are young children. The thinness of it also stands out in a bad way against Matsumoto’s art, which uses a lot of thick lines not only for characters and backgrounds but for speech bubbles too.
Sometimes when an artist holds back it weakens the end product. Other times it produces their best work. With Gogo Monster, it’s the latter case – well, at least regarding his work that’s been released in English. Hopefully VIZ will bring over some more of his work, like Ping Pong, so I can make a better judgement (and just so I can read more of one of my favourite manga-ka). Gogo Monster is a manga that should be able to please long time fans of his work while still being accessible to newcomers.