Dead Dead Demon’s Dededededestruction opens with a kooky children’s comic, clearly reminiscent of Doraemon. A child protagonist has a problem, their mushroom-shaped friend has just the invention to solve it, and trouble ensues. The camera then pulls back to reveal this text as an in-universe comic, one of countless objects strewn across a teenage girl’s messy, cluttered bedroom. It’s a fair enough metaphor for Asano’s work, which consistently transposes the purity of tiny emotional fragments against the inescapable messiness of everyday living. And it’s perhaps even more appropriate for this story, given Asano has outright admitted that Demon’s more cutesy character designs are intended to trick young people into reading his work. Dead Dead Demon isn’t exactly Doraemon, but it could well be intended as his version of a story for children.
Either way, it’s impossible to deny that Dead Dead Demon’s protagonists are adorable as hell. The manga follows two slightly weird girls, Kadode and Ontan, as they navigate high school and think about their futures and investigate alien activity. If A Girl on the Shore covered “deeply broken adolescence” and Solanin covered “the edge of adulthood,” Dead Dead Demon is aimed directly at fairly mundane teenagerhood. In light of that, the style of dialogue is different here – more artificial and self-aware, prone to lines like “I’ll become a corporate slave!” and “if you can’t grow courage, at least grow some breasts!” These characters are quoting their worldviews and influences at each other, as teenagers often do. Their dialect comes across as genuine in its fakeness.
The relationship between Kadode and Ontan feels absolutely true to a specific kind of childhood friendship. Ontan is the leader, and Kadode the follower – Kadode feels insecure about a variety of things, but Ontan gives her a sense of certainty in continuously embracing childhood passions. As the volume progresses, Kadode experiences struggles both in her family life (her mother is getting remarried and wants to control her life) and her love life (she has a crush on her teacher, but isn’t sure how to deal with it). Ontan is her rock – consoling her when she’s hurt, laughing with her on the way to school, inviting her on any number of crazy adventures. Even Ontan’s quiet presence, when she doesn’t know what to say, is a comfort to Kadode. You get the impression that Kadode is actually growing up faster than Ontan, but Ontan’s certainty in her childishness is still something Kadode needs right now. Kadode is lucky to have Ontan as a friend, even if she won’t always be willing to go investigate spaceships with her.
Oh, also there are spaceships.
That’s the actual conceit of Dead Dead Demon. Kadode and Ontan are normal girls living normal lives, but their world is just a little bit abnormal. Three years ago, a giant mothership appeared over Tokyo, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Today, the government alternately uses the alien threat for political gains or for testing weapons with the Americans, and the city dutifully keeps a tally of alien-based deaths alongside its accidental ones. We never see these aliens, and even the spaceship can seem to disappear from time to time, before reemerging in some massive, overwhelming spread. There is an alien menace overhead, but it’s not a big deal. This is an Asano story, after all.
It’s actually pretty charming how absurdly Dead Dead Demon’s scifi premise interacts with Asano’s storytelling preferences. It seems likely enough that, just like the adorable character designs, adding a scifi schtick was a marketing ploy. Asano seems as puzzled by these creatures’ presence as his characters are – given a giant alien overseer, all Asano can think to do is frame it as an object of curiosity for the girls, or a metaphor for their evolving relationship. Ontan is deeply curious about all these alien activities, but they’re framed in exactly the same way as her interest in videogames. When a small spacecraft crashes in their neighborhood, Ontan rushes to investigate, but Kadode begs off because she’s visiting her crush’s house. The giant spaceship overhead might well be just one more symbol of the “childish certainty” that Ontan represents.
Asano’s obsessively detailed art is a great match for Dead Dead Demon’s material. The meticulous illustrations of giant crafts and military hardware only seem to make them less real – the detail becomes background noise, a grey light that only emphasizes the immediate feelings of Ontan and Kadode. There’s an inherent humor in the contrast between the background detail and Asano’s clear narrative priorities. In many manga, and many works of science fiction generally, the precisely rendered peaks and furrows of the spaceships would be the point – “here is my magic object, see how carefully I have considered every element of its existence.” Here, attention is consistently drawn from these staggering illustrations to the broad-faced girls sharing a hug or a smile in the streets of their city. In the busy madness of a hyper-detailed world, some things parse as clear and true.
It’s strange to say this, but Dead Dead Demon actually feels like the most mundane Asano story I’ve read. Not in a bad way, but just in that its characters have problems that basically anyone could immediately relate to. Yeah, there’s a spaceship overhead, but the real issues here are an evolving relationship between two friends who have been together forever, or deciding where you want to go after high school, or dealing with an adolescent crush. It seems very like Asano to make a story about the potential apocalypse his most charming and everyday narrative yet. Apocalypses come and go, but human feelings are eternal.
I don’t really sense any bitterness in Dead Dead Demon’s weird counter-focus. If this is Asano’s response to market forces, it’s an absolutely charming one that still exhibits all his core qualities, minus perhaps a spark of interpersonal violence. I can easily read this as “if I’m going to make a manga that has spaceships and cute girls, I am going make the girls absolutely human and the spaceships absolutely metaphorical,” but it parses fine as its own passionately felt story, too. And in the end, Ontan often wins Kadode’s internal fights, with Kadode regularly choosing the comfort and interests of her friend over the perils of assumed adulthood. Asano is operating from a place of empathy for these interests; there are reasons we find magic in spaceships, and reasons it is right to juxtapose that wonder with the affection of a close friend. Growing up doesn’t have to mean leaving Doraemon behind.
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