There’s something ugly lurking in Yuureitou. It seeps in from every corner, lurking in too-close panels of drifter Amano savoring his darkest instincts, or his new friend Tetsuo reacting with uncommon violence or disdain. It’s there in the way the panels themselves fetishize Tetsuo, who seems uncomfortable in his own seemingly unwanted skin. It’s ingrained in the manga’s horror tones and exploitation roots, the way it crosses sex with violence so callously that you’d almost guess the mangaka thinks they’re one and the same. And it erupts in vivid, hideous bursts, as the story’s characters are made instruments of fear by lurking, bag-faced men.
It’s almost hard to tell whether Yuureitou is control of its weird instincts, or whether those instincts are themselves guiding the artist’s hand. It embraces the mysterious and grotesque and absurd, self-consciously standing in an often disparaged genre tradition. Protagonist Taichi Amano is a failure and a lech, living alone at the tail end of what he assumes are his last productive years. Amano has no job, but still feels the need to prove to an old school crush that he’s successful and loved. He’s saved from embarrassment by a stranger, Tetsuo Sawamura, who invites Amano to join him in investigating an old clocktower. The clocktower was the site of a murder two years back, when a woman’s body was contorted into an impossible shape by the ticking gears – in Yuureitou’s first chapter, Amano almost suffers the same fate. But Tetsuo assures Amano that there is a treasure hiding in the clocktower, and so Amano is led blindly into a darker world.
It doesn’t take much convincing for Amano to join Tetsuo. Amano is in fact almost distinctive in his patheticness – merely being valued by Tetsuo is enough to make him blush, and most of his motivation comes not from a genuine desire to be self-sufficient, but merely the urge to seem impressive to his old crush. Amano smiles at the thought of showing up his old rivals, and Tetsuo stares, seeing the ugliness of this temptation playing out on his new friend’s face. Amano’s base nature is not a mystery to Tetsuo.
Tetsuo’s own nature seems like one of the principle hooks of this narrative, a variable that constantly wavers between legitimately reflective and purely exploitative. Tetsuo has a feminine body, and the camera never lets us forget it. The manga’s treatment of Tetsuo lingers dangerously close to the “transgender deceiver” stereotype, alternately framing Tetsuo as a figure of danger or sexual allure. It’s a fraught choice that seems almost destined for offense – you don’t expect a melodramatic horror manga to be exhibit A for thoughtful expressions of trans identity, after all. But it’s equally clear that even though there’s a real and easily harmful seediness in the way the manga treats Tetsuo, Tetsuo’s position also reflects the absolute core of this manga.
It’s no accident that this manga’s first visual setpiece is a victim watching their body be contorted horribly by the movements of a giant clock. Body horror often plays on the ways our bodies can be fundamentally horrible – the hideously conservative slasher philosophy of “killing the non-virgins,” or the simple fact that a betrayal of the flesh seems more terrifying than some outside aggressor. Yuureitou seems clever enough to be aware of this legacy, and possibly even be commenting on it. Amano is a base and cowardly man, and his feelings towards his old classmate Hanazono are petty and self-interested – but her feelings are far more sympathetic. In an era where women are prospective merchandise or bought wives, Hanazono takes dangerous risks in order to secure her own independence – and she is punished for this, as women are. She is made a visual spectacle for the crime of seeking her own identity, with her prospective husband ultimately only seeming worried at the freshness of his product.
At this volume’s sharpest moments, Tetsuo’s behavior towards Amano echoes Hanazono’s unhappy knowledge. Amano has the luxury of being shocked by Tetsuo’s aggressive actions; Tetsuo can barely muster the energy to disabuse him of his naivety. When Tetsuo invites Amano to join him in a world of ugly violence, you don’t get the feeling Tetsuo is “corrupting” this boy – given the withered edges and ugly motivation of everyone here, it seems clear that Tetsuo is simply offering to rid Amano of his own naive pretense. Tetsuo is not the ugliness in the corners, but Tetsuo will do what he has to in order to survive a seedy world.
Yuureitou’s art does a great job of elevating its grim exploitation narrative. The constant spreads highlighting Tetsuo emphasize an intimacy the audience has not earned, constantly provoking the question of whether this manga artist is just one more abusive set of eyes. But that intimacy is present all throughout this manga, clear in uncomfortable closeups of the entire cast. The manga is at its most beautiful and evocative when it leans fully into horror – the death of Hanazono, the one undeniably “good” character, is a gorgeous sequence of panels that make high art out of base violence. And then the audience is made complicit in that ugly beauty, as Hanazono’s body is exploited for one more grim frame.
I frankly can’t tell yet whether this manga is very smart or just kind of awful. Does it understand all the things it is talking about? Is the choice of focusing on a trans man in the context of exploitation stories an incisive spin on the body horror premise, or just one more of the mangaka’s personal kinks? The line wavers back and forth, ticking towards pure indulgence with one gaze-happy spread, leaning back towards commentary with the next cutting, unhappy line. There is a very compelling manga here, and also a manga that cannot be redeemed. There is an ugliness here, but it is an ugliness that should not be denied.
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