+ Personal & universal story
+ Depicts gritty violence realistically
+ Beautiful and stylish art
4.5 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
Old Boy Manga Review
Written by: Frank Chavez III on 8/26/2009
When most of us think of prison, we think of ugly grey concrete, steel bars, armed guards, and convicts in dull uniforms. However, there are many kinds of prison. Created in 1996 by writer Garon Tsuchiya and artist Nobuaki Minegishi, Old Boy is the story of Shinichi Goto, a man kept in solitary confinement with nothing but TV for company. After 10 years he is suddenly released and sets out on a quest to find his captors and learn the reasons behind his confinement.
Tsuchiya introduces his hero and his situation through the clever device of having him accept a delivery of noodles from a nearby ramen shop. Shinichi Goto has been confined to a small apartment hidden in an otherwise unassuming office building in Tokyo. Shortly after the noodle boy departs; Shinichi is joined by a trio of men dressed like stereotypical gangsters. They give him fresh clothes and tell him he is free. After a discussion of the nature of prison followed by a brief scuffle, they knock Shinichi out pack him in a suitcase and drag him to a park where they let him go.
Shinichi exalts in his freedom but is also disoriented by it. Nobuaki shows us our hero's mixed feelings of exaltation and existential dread through his remarkable art. For example, when Shinichi realizes that he truly is free, Nobuaki shows him to us while he looks towards the moon against a panel encompassing backdrop of twinkling stars. Later, as it starts to set in that he is a slightly desperate situation, we see Shinichi staring up at the sky against a backdrop of the crowded streets overflowing with the citizens of Tokyo. Shinichi makes his way to a phone and briefly contemplates making a phone call and returning to his old life. Deciding that no one would believe his story, he grimly determines to get his revenge. Nobuaki shows us his determination in an extreme close up of Shinichi's face, his every facial hair bristling, his eyes tiny and piercing, his face divided by shade and harsh light. Much like Frank Miller's Sin City, Old Boy is old school film noir splashed across the comics page in gritty black and white.
As the story starts to heat up, Tsuchiya follows Shinichi as he goes about the task of getting the resources for his revenge. It's a tough, bloody business. He starts by using a drunken businessman routine to lure unsuspecting street toughs into an ambush. Tsuchiya and Nobuaki depict fights in a style that captures a certain gritty realism and avoids reveling in or glamorizing the violence. When Shinichi punches or throws someone, it looks like it would in life and it looks like it hurts. Shinichi makes short work of the wannabe thugs and proceeds to pick their pockets. However, beneath his tough guy exterior there is a streak of decency. He doesn't take all the money in their wallets just what he needs to get through the next phase of his plan -- just as he earlier gave his pocket change to a homeless man when he decided not to make the phone call that would give him back his old life.
Like most stories in the noir tradition, Old Boy does include encounters with beautiful women. Shortly after robbing the street thugs, our hero finds himself in the Japanese equivalent to a greasy spoon (greasy chopstick?) eating his first real meal as a free man and tasting his first beer since being locked up. A waitress name Eri entices him to come home with her and when he agrees, she plies him with beer until he loosens up enough to make love to her. Afterwards, Shinichi realizes she was a virgin and she admits that she invited him to lodge with her so she could finally lose her virginity, "to a nice guy like him." The nudity in this scene is tastefully rendered and the sex evolves naturally out of the emotions of the story, it is a desperate act of two desperately lonely people.
Meanwhile Tsuchiya hasn't forgotten the plot. Shinichi has been trailed to the woman's apartment by a sinister figure who makes a call on a cell phone. The call is answered by Dojima, a businessman in a fancy office. The story flashes back 10 years to a cold, rainy evening in the big city. We see Dojima in a sleazy bar as he meets with another sinister figure. Dojima agrees to pay 900 billion Yen to have our hero locked up for 10 years in a secret apartment hidden in an office building built by a front company. The operators of the secret prison have deep pockets and are well connected. Of course Tsuchiya doesn't give away too much too early and Dojima is interrupted from his memories before the audience can learn exactly what happens.
At the same time, the relationship between Shinichi and Eri, which began as a one night stand, is beginning to develop into something far more significant. Much to his own surprise, Shinichi finds himself spending time with her and opening up, at least a little, about his feelings about being confined for 10 years. Through flashbacks he explains that he wasn't the only prisoner in the building and that they were regularly rotated and that gave him some reason to hope. However, he can't quite put his finger on who had him locked up or why they would do such a thing. The audience can tell from the expression on his face when he talks about it that when he does find out, his revenge will be something memorable.
Old Boy is a work of subtle power. Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi are a perfectly matched writer and artist team. Tsuchiya is one of the rare comics writers who seems to intuitively understand the truly complex nature of stories that can be told in the comics medium. His characters are fully developed, realistic human beings that could exist in the real world. His sparse, lean dialogue is precisely balanced against Nobuaki's subtle, stylish artwork. The pair work much like theater artists or filmmakers and manage to tell the story through subtext, getting more mileage out of what characters don't say than out of what they do say. As is the tradition in manga art, Nobuaki suggests details rather than fully rendering them. When he does include details, he lingers on them, often in extreme close up. Details, such as props including whisky glasses, beer bottles, and electronic devices push the story forward on a subconscious level while details of characters such as stubble, eyes, or a mouth give the audience insights into a characters thoughts and motivations without unnecessary distractions such as thought balloons, expository dialogue, or excessive narration. Nobuaki handles both characters and backgrounds with equal deftness. The story moves from tiny claustrophobic rooms to page spanning shots of the cityscape, helping to create a story that is both personal and universal.
Old Boy is a tightly written, taut thriller. It's characters, while drawn from the pages of hardboiled detective fiction and from film noir are realistically developed human beings that could exist in the real world and not just on the printed page or movie screen. It balances Garon Tsuchiya's intelligent, lean script with Nobuaki Minegishi's subtle powerful art to create a story that is intimate, personal, and universal.
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