Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit Vol. 1 (VIZ Media)

ikigami-header.jpgWhat would you do if you knew you only had 24 hours left to live?




216 pages B&W; $12.99

(W / A: Motoro Mase)


What would you do if you knew you only had 24 hours left to live? It’s a classic, Hitchcockian scenario explored by veteran manga maker Motoro Mase in the Ikigami books.

Ikigami imagines that the Japanese government, in a cockamamie scheme to make children get serious about their responsibilities, randomly injects one in 1,000 schoolkids with a "death capsule" that will take their life later, when they’re in their 20’s. The potential threat of a short life is supposed to make children extra-studious and industrious. (Those with a bit more knowledge than myself are cordially invited to weigh in as to just how derivative of the popular Death Note series this may or may not be.) [Doesn’t sound that similar to me! — JG]

The cover to Ikigami vol. 1. Click for a larger image.It’s a conceit that can be used over and over to pack drama into compressed, morbid plots reminiscent of something from an EC comic, like Tales from the Crypt. When the doomed receive their Ikigami, or death notice, they have 24 hours to party, make amends, say goodbye, whatever.

We follow the action largely through an Ikigami delivery boy. He delivers the death notices with all the solemnity of an army envoy bringing the news that a son has died in an overseas war to his parents. When the doomed party gets the news, his freak-out, as drawn and expressed by the talented Mase, is realistic. Splash pages capture all the angst, tears, sweat, and rage fantastically.

In the first installment, a boy picked on for years by his peers at school gets the Ikigami. Through flashbacks we see his utter humiliation: he was held down, kicked, had cigarettes put out on his head, and even was pantsed and had his weiner photographed with a camera phone. Said photo was then circulated amongst the boys and girls of the school. It’s over the top.

His Ikigami sends him over the edge: he kills a couple of the former classmates who put him through hell (one of them he rapes and photographs, for good measure) before he drops dead himself. It comes off as needlessly juvenile (but again, painstakingly illustrated).

The second tale in this collection imagines a musician receiving his Ikigami. He regrets breaking up his duo and selling out to play music he doesn’t believe in with a new "poseur" bandmate. The Ikigami leads him to a final desperate moment of rejecting this lame new music to instead perform the music on which he truly thrives. There’s a twist involving his former bandmate lying in a coma at the same time. The tale comes off as melodramatic.

 The Ikigami construct has potential–it’s a plot that can be recycled in all sorts of interesting ways. In fact, despite the less-than-stellar choices in the first collected volume, there’s a glimmer of resonance to the stories. The unpredictability of our affairs, the vagaries of fate, the lottery that is life —Ikigami, with its forced intensity and frequent self-fulfilling-prophecy effect, can begin to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone.

It’s possible that there is another type of resonance here that largely eludes American readers – the particularly Japanese pressure to succeed. By re-imagining that pressure as a physical threat as opposed to a psychological one, the Ikigami becomes a metaphor for the all-consuming Japanese drive to achieve, and the dark fear that accompanies it. That’s the kind of morbid element that arguably drips through much of Japanese culture, landing in dark manga and the celebrated new wave of Japanese horror films alike. (And in 2008, Ikigami was made into a film, as it turns out.) | Byron Kerman

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