Tuesday, May 5, 2015


"I had the idea for the basic plot, but I had difficulty in deciding where to set the story. One day I read a newspaper and a small article caught my eye. It said that at the Takashima-daira Estates (a huge public housing project complex on the outskirts of Tokyo) dozens of people killed themselves each year by jumping from the buildings. I suddenly realized that there was the setting for Domu...."

-Katsuhiro Otomo, on Domu in the Domu preface-
Long before Katsuhiro Otomo became a fixture in anime, the kind of visual master and rich storyteller fans of cinema really wanted to see in anime, he first staked his artistic visions in manga.

We continue with an extensive year long look at the work and influence of Katsuhiro Otomo by stepping back a bit before his journey into film with his work in the manga universe.

Before he entered the world of animation as an animation director Otomo first contributed character designs to Rintaro's Harmagedon (1983) (credited to Taro Rin), followed by his contributions to Neo Tokyo (1987) and Robot Carnival (1987). Long before anime Otomo was designing and creating characters and worlds that brought him notice and recognition.

His work on three manga in particular would establish his thematic visions, such as alienation, corruption, psychokinetic extrasensory powers and technological abuses, that would populate his animation and world-building for years to come.

In manga, Fireball (1979), Domu (1980) and of course Akira (1982) caught people's attention and gained Otomo a critical reputation as an artist to watch and truly relish. His richly established universes gained him notoriety and recognition with the latter two books winning him many awards. Both Domu and Akira's concepts can be traced back to the initial ideas established for Fireball and themes revolving around telekinetic powers, government and fighting forces.

For Domu, sometimes subtitled Domu: A Child's Dream, Otomo was awarded an excellence award at the 1981 Japan Cartoonists Association Awards. It was also the first manga to win the Nihon SF Taisho Award in 1983 by the Japanese Science Fiction Writer's Association. It is the only award awarded each year. Finally, in 1984, Domu was given the Comic Of The Year Award at the Seiun Awards.

Domu, without giving too much away, orbits the world of an old man and child who possess extrasensory powers and the events surrounding the two characters at an apartment complex when as they meet. There is a sense of mystery and even a Stephen King-like quality to the story. One scene in particular by Otomo very early on is extremely powerful when the young girl reveals her powers to the old man and turns the tables. He is chastised by the young girl and he is ultimately surprised by her unexpected appearance. Otomo brings real power to the moment visually and in the handling of the tale itself.

Otomo was able to draw upon real life experience for his story. He once resided in a similar complex in Tokyo and took away the drama of those years for his tale in Domu. It is a richly detailed manga that satirizes to a degree the generational divide in his native Japan between young and old. But Otomo truly draws upon the details of real life, law enforcement and other genuine points with regard to living in such an environment. Otomo richly pencils this world.

The story, Domu, in general, was an influence, and cited as such, for director Rian Johnson. The theme of supernatural power is indeed mined to great effect in the film Looper (2012), directed by Johnson and is really the best portion of the overrated Looper's story. Those segments with the child are absolutely mind blowing in Looper. Johnson owes Otomo a great debt based upon the mangas for Domu and Akira. The influence of those works is indeed on the screen. In fact, it was noted by this writer visually before learning of the fact much later. Perhaps Johnson will tackle the live action version of Akira. He definitely seems like a good and logical choice for the film based upon the effects work and drama in Looper.

For the manga Akira, Otomo was showered with praise and his additional artistic success was recognized yet again. In 1984, Akira won the best general manga by the Kodansha Manga Awards. More importantly, along with its cinematic complement, Akira was considered a primary influence on opening manga and anime to the American marketplace.

Other impressive honors include the induction of Otomo as the fourth ever manga artist to be inducted into the American Eisner Award Hall Of Fame (2012).

Otomo was certainly noticed for his accomplishments and innovation in dystopian science fiction. In Japan, in fact, it gained him notice from none other than veteran director and master animator Rintaro. As previously noted, Otomo was then committed to character design work for Rintaro's Harmagedon (1983), a film based on apocalyptic science fiction manga Genma Taisen (1967).

This association led to further work with Rintaro on the short story collection Neo Tokyo (1987) and eventually scriptwriting Rintaro's feature film Metropolis (2001).

But it was in the world of manga that Otomo first spread those wings and cut his visionary teeth.

Domu, now out of print, was not the easiest publication to come by. I managed to purchase the three part Dark Horse comic series for this post. Later, all were assembled for a single graphic novel release by Dark Horse.  All are becoming scarce and more and more exorbitant by the day. Should Otomo attempt to do for Domu what he did for manga Akira in anime, perhaps a re-release will occur. There is always hope for that Domu anime by Otomo. And wouldn't it be something? Ironically though it is Otomo's grasp of tragedy and cynicism that makes his work so damn appealing. Domu offers us an early masterpiece of things to come for Otomu.


Francisco Gonzalez said...

Awesome! I remember when Dark Horse printed these...all those years ago, I'm going to try and get a hold of this one, it looks amazing. Wasn't aware that otomo also did the Akira manga...for some reason I thought some other artist had done it and he translated it into the film...damn, Otomo has my admiration now even more!!! Will get my hands on this!

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Absolutely Francisco.

High quality output in manga and anime from Otomo! The man is a genius at what he does best.

Roman J. Martel said...

I've never read "Domu", but I had a friend who loved this even more then "Akira". Really enjoying your Otomo retrospective (even if you did have to slam on "Looper".) ;)

Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks Roman.
Good grief, Looper was slightly overrated.