Thursday, October 18, 2012

Manga Judgment: Hellstar Remina (地獄星レミナ) by Junji Ito (伊藤 潤二) (2005)

Hellstar Remina is easily Junji Ito's best work to date. It has some of the best artwork I have seen in a manga as well as having the best long form story he has ever written. It works on every level, being an incredible read without having some of the problems that a lot of Ito's longer works tend to have... or at least the problems are much less noticeable. Uzumaki and Gyo, while both are very well done, also both have pretty heavy inconsistencies in tone and pacing throughout, with Uzumaki never having a consistent plot until the end and Gyo being the type of story where suspension of disbelief is absolutely paramount and also absolutely hard to do with such a premise. Hellstar Remina has none of those inconsistencies and generally works as an incredible manga and an incredible story in general.

The story starts out with a young woman on a cross ready to be killed by an angry populace. This lynching is being carried out because this young woman, Remina, shares a name with a "Hellstar" that was named after her. This star/planet is found to be moving throughout the galaxy, eating other planetary bodies in its wake. Eventually this star finds its way to our own solar system, eating each and every planet before finally finding its twisting path to Earth. The citizens of Earth are absolutely terrified, and eventually turn against the scientist who found the star and his daughter, who the star is named after. Remina, throughout the story, tries to flee from a mob bent on murdering her to appease the "angry" Planet Remina.

The Hellstar itself is incredibly anomalous though. It is both very hungry and seemingly sentient, with eyes, a tongue, and the ability to meet the eyes of a scientist looking through a telescope. Once it knows where Earth is, it makes for the quickest path to the planet, eating all others in its way. This is terrifying on a cosmic level. Just thinking about something that huge and terrifying ready to eat the entire world... something that could eat Jupiter like a snack... is terrifying in so many ways. There's nothing anybody can do about something that large. It is literally unstoppable.

At the same time that the horrific nature of the moving "Hellstar Remina" becomes apparent, astronauts are sent to explore the "planet's" surface, seeing if they could survive or if the "planet" could be determined to be friendly. What they find is an incredibly hostile alien, almost extra-dimensional, environment, one that is certainly not going to be hospitable for human life. And one that is certainly going to kill them all one-by-one as horribly as possible. And I have to admit it's a nice touch to show the entire world's surface as hostile as well. This is a planet made to destroy; it exists for no other reason. And that is terrifying.

Remina continues to flee from the mob of people hellbent on murdering her to appease the planet, but is eventually captured with a few others that she was fleeing with. Her father, the scientist who found the Hellstar, is killed, and Remina is near-death herself as she hangs on a cross for her sin of having the same name as the planet. Most of the "cult" lynching her believe that naming the planet after her brought the planet to Earth, and they feel that killing her might also kill the planet as most feel that the two Reminas are linked in some strange way.

I should also mention a few other characters, male figures, that are also central to the story in Goda, Yasumi, and Kunhiro (as well as her father, but he dies fairly early). Kunhiro, the son of one of Remina's sponsers, is a very obviously Junji Ito evil character, with THAT FACE that any reader of his manga would know instantaneously as the "this character is evil face," while Goda is the president of Remina's fanclub, and a gentleman for the most part, although he seems to have an obsession with Remina that is pretty damn creepy. Remina has a fanclub because she was pushed into being a Japanese pop idol because of the whole being named after a weird planet thing. It's Japan. I guess it's normal there? Why not? And Yasumi is Remina's manager as well as her love interest (to a point), but like all Junji Ito horror stories, love is not something that is allowed to occur, and he dies fairly early on just like her father. Kunhiro then takes over the role of being the guy who wants Remina to love him, but he is so creepy and OBVIOUSLY EVIL that it's impossible to like the guy or feel any sympathy towards him. He basically tries to take Remina into his family's fallout shelter and then take advantage of her, even going as far as attempting to rape her, but they are interrupted by his parents who go on to blame her for the corruption and attempted rape of their son by an obvious harlot. Victim blaming. Wonderful family you have there, Kunhiro. I can see where you get it from. It's pretty terrible all around though because this girl has done nothing to deserve all the hate she's receiving. But this is Junji Ito. There doesn't have to be reasons for characters to suffer. Remina does find her way out of the house, but only after being beaten and broken in so many ways mostly by Kunhiro's mother.

The last major character is then introduced. He is the bum. And the bum is the best character. The bum stumbles across Remina as she begs him to help her. He's reticent to do anything at all, but when the cult of people trying to kill her finds them both they are both tortured. This is a hard scene to read through as Remina's will is broken. Her father's burnt corpse is shown to her. A cultist leader is revealed and proceeds to almost embody the spirit of the Planet Remina. As the Planet licks the Earth with its awful tongue, so too does the cultist leader lick Remina's face.

The story plays out nicely now, pacing well, as the bum attempts to wake a passed out Remina, just as the leaders of Japan are launched into space to try to find peace on Remina. But their plans are for naught when they too find the inhospitable environment of Remina like the astronauts before them, and the character of Kunhiro, there because of his important parents, is one of the characters to die to the hostile alien world. The bum then realizes that the Earth is spinning like a top after being licked, and flying is now possible. He grabs Remina and they flee from the mobs trying to murder her. This is a pretty awesome sequence, punctuated by some grand heroics from the bum, and a flight that takes the bum, Remina, and the mob that's following behind them across the entire world.
I should also mention that throughout the story, a character is mentioned but never quite shown until near the end. It's the brother of Kunhiro, who fled his family and was heavily suspected of being an astronaut on the first flight to the Planet Remina. He was not, in fact, that astronaut, and is revealed to be the bum instead, basically redeeming his abhorrent family by virtue of being the best bum on Earth. Goda, on the other hand, who had left dejectedly after Remina kind of yelled at him to stop fighting with Kunhiro near the middle of the manga, comes back for a final time, revealing himself to be the lead cultist who had been pursuing Remina throughout the second half of the story, whose spurned advances to Remina caused him to actively hate her guts and want her dead. Because that's love in Junji Ito's mind for you. This is played out nicely and never quite hinted at. It makes all the sense in the world, but is done very subtly. I liked that a lot. There is an element of surprise, but also understanding. He had fallen very far from the man he had once been. But a crisis involving the entire world is going to change people, for better or worse. And in this case, most people are changed for the absolute worst, seeing themselves as falling into the trap of thinking that killing a young girl will save them. They had to hold onto hope even if it made no sense at all and damned each and every one of them as horrible people with no redeeming qualities anymore.

Well, the bum, revealed as the brother of Kunhiro, Daisuke, leads Remina and a good "family" (made up of a few unrelated-ish survivors) to his own (terrible) family's mansion where the fallout shelter still exists. They find themselves far away from the mobs, from the evils of humanity, and finally from the world itself as Planet Remina devours the Earth, but they survive floating in space in their fallout shelter. All the while Remina expresses regret over those who died.

Now, this right here is how to write a wonderful and compelling story. It has everything in it from intrigue, to society falling apart in a crisis, and then all the way to people's true faces being revealed in the darkest of times. It's a true apocalyptic story, every bit as much as a novel like The Stand is... except with a much darker outcome. There is never any hope for Earth once Remina finds it. Yes, there was always the Planet Remina as a refuge, but the readers know that there will never be any hope there even if the leaders of Japan or the world or anything else think that there could be hope.
The Planet Remina is one of the most visually impressive artist renditions I have ever seen. And this story has more heart to it than any single other Junji Ito work. I mean, sure, that is my opinion but there is so much good here and so little that I can complain about. It has a focus that is never punctuated by nonsense or senseless distractions like Uzumaki, and its premise is much more terrifying than the stretch of science-fiction that is Gyo. Some of his short works may be more concise and maybe even slightly better on average, but for a work that introduces complex characters with a long story that is both deep and meaningful, this manga is king.

The few negatives that I can find are mostly Junji Ito specific tropes, like the evil characters being obviously evil (which I feel negates tension) and the female character being largely passive (even if it works for Remina in this case). Those are my two biggest gripes in regards to Hellstar Remina, and neither gripe is that big of a deal for the story as a whole entity. Mostly this is a solid manga that anybody, manga fan or not, could enjoy. The horror is there. The art is fantastic. The story is well done. There is nothing scarier than an end you cannot fight against, and you can't fight a planet that wants to eat the world and succeeded in eating Jupiter. You just can't. So, this is a cosmic horror story with an incredibly dark ending. Sure, there is a little hope there in the end... but the darkness of the ending is astounding. Killing the entire world is ballsy to the extreme. It's something most writers will never even attempt, and for that alone Junji Ito should be applauded for his awe-inspiring storytelling. I can't recommend this manga enough. It is fantastic in almost every way. Watching society devolve and the cults come out and blame Remina for Earth's imminent destruction is a wonder to behold. It's a story I will hold with me forever, definitely one for the ages.

3 comments:

  1. To be honest though.. how are they going to survive in that shelter??

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    1. They won't. They'll only last for a year, they will still die.

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  2. The surface of planet Remina reminds me of the nightmare I had when I played Silent Hill and Saya No Uta for the first time.

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