Memory, Sin, and a Welcome to the Apocalypse: Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph


After two readings of Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph, I, like many other reviewers that tackled the 2014 English translation of the collected chapters of the seinen manga originally released in parts from November 2003 to December 2005 in Japan, will admit that I may not completely understand the series. However, absolute comprehension does not prevent any enjoyment of this tale; in fact, it mostly relies on an ebb and flow of guttural reactions ranging from repulsion to somber recollection in the best Takeshi Miike way but with a bit (though not much) more anchored in reality.

Cover of the English Volume of Nijigahara Holograph

Opening with butterflies, a boy walking on the exterior of a school, and then a young man speaking about his ill father and the merging of reality and dreams to an elderly man whose face we cannot see, Nijigahara Holograph immediately distinguishes itself from what the West generally expects from manga. Expect no adolescent scantily clad women here; in fact, leave any hope for romance or lost love or even any bit of catharsis at the door. The world of Nijihara Holograph is severe, bleak, and unforgiving, and every single character suffers for his or her own actions or for the sins of others. This is not a read for the faint of heart.

The Eerie Second Page of Nijigahara Holograph

Time has no constancy in Nijigahara Holograph as ghosts and memories of the past never fade away: beyond the flashes we see in the minds of the characters, the evils of the past have a physical manifestation as glowing butterflies that swarm the city. As time unravels in the novel, so does reality, with everything in the present clouded by recollections, dreams, hallucinations, and even a touch of prophecy fulfillment. While the different characters have their own branches and paths that occasionally intersect, their arcs remain rooted together by Airé Kimura, a young woman who has remained in a coma in the local hospital since childhood. Airé prophesied the end of the world via a monster in the Nijigahara tunnel, and the people around her did not believe her and caused her harm by attempting to sacrifice her to the monster in the tunnel.

Airé is not new to the world; her spirit has transformed multiple times, with each version warning the surrounding world about the apocalypse to come and each message of caution receive with skepticism and distrust. The citizens of the village murdered Airé’s previous incarnations, but in the most recent cycle, after a majority of her classmates push her down a vent that ends in the tunnel fated to have the monster, Airé survives, but she remains unconscious through her adolescence and early adulthood. This permanent state of sleep keeps Airé safe from the world around her, away from the various predators who have either psychologically or physically attacked her, but it also keeps her force present on the earth. While life has remained quiet for most of the people who crossed paths with Airé, with her classmates growing uneventfully into adults and teachers having families as they approach their early 40s, an energy of dysfunction and hysteria has recently descended on the town, causing macabre scenes of violence and various, seemingly unconnected journeys toward the Nijigahara embankment, the entry to the tunnel that contains the creature of the apocalypse. An awakening to Nijigahara will arrive soon, and as the time approaches, more and more butterflies spread across the town and begin to consume people connected to Airé in one way or another.

While Asano alludes to philosopher Zhuangzi’s well translated and studied quote about the philosopher’s dream or reality as a butterfly, whether or not all of Nijigahara Holograph captures the dreams of Airé, her childhood friend Kohta, or Amahiko, the student transfer from Tokyo who never met Airé in person but who may have encountered her spirit, remains unclear by the end of the series, but whether everything occurred under dream logic or not is unimportant to Nijigahara Holograph, for the actions in the series speak as gravely in dream form as in reality about the cyclical desecration of purity through violence, cowardice, and fear.

Highly experimental in its image and story construction, Nijigahara Holograph creates a unique mood of dread with its sudden juxtapositions of visual beauty of Airé and the butterflies against the most abject and abominable acts of human will. As a result, the feelings of desperation and futility do not stem from Airé’s declarations of the impending end of the world; they come from the abject nature of the humans which gets passed on from generation to generation without a clear end in sight. This cyclical nature of pain, torment, and the destruction of beauty drives the world of Nijigahara Holograph, making the idea of the apocalypse paradoxically welcoming because while it does end life, it finally will end suffering generations of people have inflicted on each other.

More of a punch in the chest rather than a distanced, ruminative read, Nijigahara Holograph demands and consumes all of your attention. It challenges your own perspective, thoughts, and dreams along with the definitions and conventions of the comics and manga medium, making it a sobering read in the first week of the new year. While I still feel that I may not understand all of the layers of Nijigahara Holograph, I do know that it encourages me in 2016 to dig deeper for comics that test the boundaries of storytelling, and for that inspiration alone, I am grateful to Inio Asano, even if this work accomplished a remarkably overwhelming sense of gloom and desolation in its exploration of some of the deepest, darkest crevices of our collective hearts and minds.

The Mystery and the Dread of Lauri and Jaakko Ahonen’s Jaybird


Based on my experience with Finnish films, Finnish creative works seem to have a pace of their own. In the films, there seems to be a general bleakness mixed with glimmers of absurdity and most noticeably a terseness that make every word and gesture feel a tiny bit awkward but all the more meaningful because of the space and extended silence between every dialog or plot event. The films do not represent this style alone. In the comic book ream, Jaybird by Lauri and Jaakko Ahonen transfer this distinctively Finnish tone into a somber tale about a jay stuck physically and psychologically in his childhood home.

Stunning Cover Image of Jaybird

Jaybird, the first comic book and winner of the 2013 Comic Book Finlandia prize by the Ahonen brothers, develops a unique amount of dread and sorrow for a story centered on probably one of the most adorable and heartbreaking animated birds. There’s a lot of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth seasoned with a dash of William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily and even a sprinkle of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in here, creating an unrelenting, unsettling feeling heightened by the dark and lush illustrations of the decrepit house. And, to push the creepiness further, the Ahonens include very little dialog and spend a great deal of the book focused on Jaybird’s house. Consequently, with less plot structure and dialog to focus on, the bleak atmosphere climbs out of the book, pulling you in the house where hundreds of paintings of ancestors hang on every hallway wall with their eyes perpetually devoid of life yet eerily able to follow and watch Jaybird’s every move.

Left alone in a large, once glorious, now ramshackle Victorian house, Jaybird spends every moment of his day taking care of his ill mother and meeting every demand she makes. Jaybird cooks for her, changes her diapers, and responds to her requests made by ringing a homemade chain of bells, empty cans, and silver plates hanging from the ceiling of the halls. He has no world outside of his home and his mother, and he never will. No sunlight enters the home, and it never will. Jaybird’s mother has boarded up every window and has kept Jaybird from ever wondering what lies beyond the boards by instilling a paralyzing fear of the “Bad Birds” who live outside of the house who will torture and murder innocent birds who cross their paths. Jaybird himself has no desire to test his mother’s claim and does not develop any curiosity about a world beyond, so he remains in his home in the constant fear that the Bad Birds may even find him inside of his home.

Living a life of pure isolation and knowing nothing about the world beyond the little information his mother relays to him to remind him why he needs to stay quiet and clean the house, Jaybird is unable to understand any facet of reality beyond his own. Consequently, one day, when he befriends a tarantula in the house, Jaybird’s world begins to fall apart as he asks more questions and explores the forbidden parts of his home. And through Jaybird’s response to the things he discovers, we also begin to see traces that perhaps Jaybird was not just a dutiful son.

Possibly a pure psychological horror story exposing the perversity and damage (both psychological and physiological) parents can inflict on their children, Jaybird leaves many open questions for the reader to infer. By the end, we wonder what exactly is real or a figment of Jaybird’s all-fearing imagination. Does his mother even exist? Who are the relatives on the walls? Who is alive, and who is dead in the Jaybird house? Who is responsible for the decline of Jaybird’s once triumphant and noble family? The only concrete information we have to piece everything together is Jaybird’s paranoia and agoraphobia stemming from his mother’s tales of the Bad Birds. This information has thrown him deeper into his crippling alienation, but the paranoia and isolation may have existed before in a hidden form of psychopathy, so his mother’s tale may have only exacerbated his condition.

By the end of the book, it is uncertain who is the villain in Jaybird because the Ahonens do not lead us in any absolute direction to decipher where the line between Jaybird’s imagination and reality lies. We have sympathy for Jaybird but suspect he serves as an unreliable and unstable narrator. We know his mother protected him from the world at the cost of his psychological well being, but some uncertainty remains on how much of his antisocial tendencies stem from her alone. Jaybird almost leaves a little too much unanswered by the end of the book, but it deserves an applause for the amount of mystery, horror, and gloominess it accomplishes with few pages and minimal dialog and plot; I have yet to encounter such a simple yet cryptic book where almost any interpretation of the end leads to such grim and severe outcomes.

Jaybird establishes an unwavering melancholic mood and atmosphere to explore some terrifying corners of the human mind through the adventures and possible illusions of a potentially psychotic cartoon bird. That sentence definitely sounds insane and absurd, but I think it means you should take a look at Jaybird. Bravo Lauri and Jaakko; you have created an absurd, horrific, and tragic story told from a perspective far from American or French ones, which currently dominate the graphic novel and comic book scene. Please do keep the distinguishable and unique Finnish tone and style going in comic books to come.

Jaybird is written by Jaakko Ahonen and illustrated by Lauri Ahonen. It is available via Dark Horse Books. 


I Was Attacked by Underwater Nazi Zombies at The Coolidge Corner: A Midnight Screening of a Restored “Shockwaves” from 1977

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Original Poster for Shockwaves

What a mind-opening experience it was to hear director Ken Weiderhorn talk about his most famous film, “Shockwaves,” last week at the Coolidge Corner. Though I was thrilled to hear him speak in person about his now notorious 1977 underwater Nazi zombie film, his overall tone that night was that of a dad who was forced to talk about his son’s recent ballet recital. After hearing him sadly recount his story of how a late night CBS television screening of his film caused folks at his then television job to lose respect for him, thus making it difficult to thrive in his chosen career, I get it, he was not happy. But let’s put the potentially un-PC, career-ending subject matter aside, “Shockwaves” is a visually unique chunk of horror that can boast about a cast containing a pre-“Days Of Heaven,” Brooke Adams, and B-horror movie legends( who were only paid for four days of shooting BTW) Peter Cushing and John Carradine at their creepiest. Also, “Shockwaves” can still give you the thrill of saying to your co-workers, “well tonight I’m seeing one of those underwater Nazi zombie films” because that statement should be good for at least another forty years of bad looks.

The film begins with a father and son who rescue a sunburned, disturbed woman from her rudderless dinghy.   Something horrific has happened to her and you need to know why. As she starts to recall what occurred, you begin the backtracking by placing her on a pleasure boat that is being captained by a very drunk John Carradine (he’s was really good at this) , with a salty crew of young and old, and a passenger list containing a cast of vacationers that any 70s film would be proud to have: You have the hunky curly-haired guy, the annoying know-it-all redhead, who is of course married to the whiny Herb Tarlick-styled salesman, and the radiant, raven haired, level-headed protagonist of our film, Brooke Adams, who was our gal adrift at sea whom we just saw at the beginning of the film. The boat is far from ship-shape, the meals are cooked my a man who usually eats chili with his fingers, and the captain played the always cantankerous John Carradine, who has a pony bottle of Bob’s Vodka permanently glued to his hand as an accessory. As mutiny begins to fill the air, they are sideswiped by a ghost ship which does some damage and are forced to land the SS Minnow on a desolate island that has the shell of a long since destroyed military ship off its coast. Our captain goes missing and is then found dead, and so now it’s up to the passengers crew to figure out a rescue plan.

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Director Ken Weiderhorn at The Coolidge Corner

They soon come across the lavish, dilapidated estate of a semi-retired SS Commander (Peter Cushing), I say “semi” as he almost immediately explains that his group of “Death Corps,” a scientifically created group of immortal soldiers, still roam the island. These troops were designed to be U-Boat crew members so they really like the deep blue sea and continue to live there, but as World War Two had ended some thirty years prior, they just got to kill everything they see out of loyalty or boredom once they uniformly pop up from the various rivers and ponds on the island. Armed with this knowledge, the crew find a place to hide and try not get killed before they can and make a dash off of Club Hitler the next day. I must admit the story is pretty thin but the Death Corps zombies are the most interesting thing about “Shockwaves.” These zombies (for lack of a better word) behave more like” Val Lewton” zombies and not like the Romeroesque “eat your face” zombies of “Night Of The Living Dead” which had come  forth from beyond a decade earlier. More maniacal and cunning than shambolic, yes this 70s cast will not be a food source for walking meatloaves; they will be drowned and strangled by these highly trained, and oddly nostalgic, undead fascists. These choices of murder strategies that they employ were due more to budgetary restraints, than a thoughtful desire to omit bloody outcomes. In fact, as we learned from Mr. Weiderhorn that night, a lot of this film was guided by the lack of funds. Ken stated that the money people had a desire to bankroll a horror film because, “they always make their money back,” and according to our director, they did make their bread back with “Shockwaves.” Also as we all know, sometimes being restricted by funds does bring out some creative alternatives that work better than the usual, and there are several clever ways that Ken got results out of small money.

As we now know, every zombie has an Achilles Heel, and these happy go lucky denizens of the deep cannot lose their special Biggles of the Camel Squadron goggles or they go all floppy. Why?  According to Ken, “we had to come up with an easy way of killing them that would not compromise their makeup, which was the biggest challenge of the shooting, as getting makeup to stay on when the Nazi’s are going in and out of water is a pain.”  Still, the look of eyeless, waterlog undead creatures of the sea writhing in pain with screeching synth music playing behind their passing adds a good amount of dare I say, “shock.” Also, getting back to their particular killing style, these whimsical fascists love bringing the living back down to their murky un-graves as they seem pretty upset about having to live out eternity as overdressed bottom-dwellers, so I suppose that they want company. Unlike the flesh-eating in Romero films which I rarely found scary, these slow suffocating deaths are actually quite chilling. And the Death Corp, unlike the boogeymen of children’s stories, love walking around in plain sight during broad daylight, which I would say is pretty ballsy. Because of this brash behavior, you usually see them before their victims see them, and that too adds to the shock of “Shockwaves.”

So where did the idea for these creatures come from? I was lucky to have personally asked Ken the question of where he got his inspiration for such a strange horror film monster. Sure, these days you can’t turn on the History Channel without some program on “Hitler and the Occult” or “The Satanic Armies of the Third Reich,” but what was there in 1975 when the film was written to inspire such a creation. Ken responded that there was a book that he had read entitled “Occult Reich” that had all of this info about Hitler and his weird obsession with the Satanic rites, so from there he thought that perhaps that wacky millennialist was using these methods to fuel his campaign of world domination by creating some kind of super solider. Ken continued by saying, “Even their symbol, the swastika, wasn’t that a sacred Buddhist symbol that was perverted by Adolf and crew to go counter-clockwise?” I’m glad he answered that question and I am very glad that he showed up to the Coolidge that night, a night when a hundred or so loyal horror film fans braved some seriously cold weather to see his film, ask him some questions, and acknowledge his 1977 work as a lost and nifty film that is packed with some well-done politically incorrect instruments of terror.

 Original 1977 trailer for “Shockwaves”

The good folks at Blue Underground have also acknowledged this work and just recently, they have released “Shockwaves” on Blu Ray. Pick one up, it looks great.