Back in June, Brigid Alverson, Robin Brenner, Martha Cornog and I gave a presentation at the American Library Association’s annual conference called “The Best Manga You’re Not Reading.” Our goal was to remind librarians that manga isn’t just for teens by highlighting fourteen titles that we thought would appeal to older patrons. Response to our presentation was terrific, so I decided to make “The Best Manga You’re Not Reading” a regular feature here at The Manga Critic. Some months I’ll shine the spotlight on something obscure or out-of-print; other months I’ll feature a title that you may have heard about (or even read) because I think it has the potential to appeal to readers who aren’t necessarily mangaphiles. This month’s title — ES: Eternal Sabbath (Del Rey) — was one of Brigid’s picks, a sci-fi manga that she felt had strong visuals and a suitably creepy atmosphere. I couldn’t agree more, so I decided to revise an old review from my PopCultureShock days to explain why you ought to read this trippy, thought-provoking story about the perils of cloning and extrasensory perception.
ES: ETERNAL SABBATH, VOLS. 1-8
BY FUYUMI SORYO • DEL REY • RATING: OLDER TEEN (16+)
The vivid images that haunt us when we sleep seem like perfect fodder for art, yet we often produce dream-inspired work that’s much goofier and far less potent than our nocturnal imaginings: think of Salvador Dali’s unabashedly Freudian dream sequence in Spellbound (the one false note in an otherwise great thriller), or John Fuseli’s heavy-handed symbolism in The Nightmare (in which a Rubenesque sleeper is tormented by a ghostly horse and an incubus, the ultimate Romantic two-fer). These images fail to shock because they seem too mannered, too staid — in short, too neat, failing to capture the subconscious mind’s ability to juxtapose the banal with the fantastic. In ES: Eternal Sabbath, however, manga-ka Fuyumi Soryo (best known to American readers for the shojo drama Mars) steers clear of the cliches and overripe imagery that reduce so many dreamy works to kitsch, producing a taut, spooky thriller that reminds us just how weird and terrifying a place the mind can be.
The first volume of ES introduces us to Shuro, a young man with the ability to read thoughts. Shuro uses the information he gathers from other people to impersonate their friends and family members, wiping their memories clean when he tires of the situation. His aimless routine is upended by a chance encounter with neuroscientist Mine Kujyou, who spots Shuro sauntering past a brutal crime scene in a state of utter indifference, as if he knew what was about to transpire. Her researcher’s instinct piqued, she begins to track Shuro’s movements, initiating a game of cat-and-mouse that quickly escalates into psychological warfare.
In a plot twist that would surely please Fox Mulder, a researcher from a clandestine government laboratory arrives on the scene, Smoking Man-style, to explain that Shuro is, in fact, a clone, created by scientists on the hunt for the “eternal sabbath,” a.k.a. eternal youth, gene. (The psychic powers powers are a happy by-product of the experiment.) Shuro escaped from his creators with fellow clone Isaac, an even more powerful, less scrupulous mind reader with a destructive agenda. Mine must then decide whether to assist Shuro and Isaac’s creator in re-capturing the wayward clones, or to allow Shuro to disappear back into the shadows and resume his impostor life of borrowed memories and feigned emotions.
To be sure, many of ES: Eternal Sabbath’s themes are science fiction staples: do scientists have an ethical obligation to treat engineered life forms with the same care as humans? Are there realms of knowledge and experience that cannot be quantified or explained through modern science? That such tried-and-true questions inform but never overwhelm the narrative is testament to Soryo’s storytelling skills. She creates a small, intimately linked cast whose conflicting desires, insecurities, fears, and friendships dramatize the series’ overarching theme, what does it mean to be human?, while underscoring the poignancy of the clones’ liminal status. (Isaac, as his name suggests, was intended as a sacrifice; his creators raised him for the sole purpose of studying and dissecting him.)
Soryo’s artwork is a bit stiff. Though her character designs have a languid, almost sensual quality to them, they can seem blank-faced when called upon to express intense emotion. Where Soryo really shines are the dream sequences, which are visceral and unsettling. Some of the symbols she employs — horses, thorns — are familiar from television and movie dreams, yet the way in which she orchestrates these dreams is not, as she captures the peculiar rhythm and logic of a nightmare. One of the most effective sequences occurs right at the beginning of the series: a large insect emerges from a disturbingly organic mass that suddenly shatters into hundreds of living, moving pieces. The strangeness of the image, the abrupt shift in mood, the blurry line between inanimate and animate objects — these feel like an authentic product of the subconscious, and not a Freudian rebus to be decoded by the audience.
I could cavil about a few details (the translation, as Jan Harper notes, is rather flat, as are Soryo’s pre-fab backgrounds), but on the whole, this eight-volume series has few wasted pages. The story moves at a brisk clip without sacrificing characterization or common sense; the art suggests the workings of the subconscious mind without silliness; and the ending is genuinely moving and surprising. Science fiction fanatics will find much to like here, as will horror buffs and readers who like the idea that women can kick butt in the sciences, Lawrence Summers and evil clones be damned.
This is an updated version of a review that appeared at PopCultureShock on 6/22/2008. The Best Manga You’re Not Reading is an occasional feature that highlights titles that aren’t getting the critical attention — or readership — they deserve. Click here for the inaugural column; click here for the series archive.
CJ saysAugust 6, 2010 at 1:31 pm
I’ve read it! I rented it from the library ages ago and then when I saw the first three volumes at a comic book shop for dirt cheap I pounced! Then completed my set of it this past winter. It was great stuff, although when I read Mars afterwards I wasn’t quite as enthralled as I had been by ES. Still, this is one of the series I try to get people to read more often when I find out they like science-fiction. After of course I try to get them to try out Banana Fish because if given the opportunity I would pass out copies of that series like a religious fanatic. I really wish it worked out that the better something is the more popular it is, but alas, it just doesn’t usually work out that way :(
Can’t wait for the next installment of this though, I’d like to see what other titles you come up with, both that I have and have not read.
JRB saysAugust 6, 2010 at 1:35 pm
“Science fiction fanatics will find much to like here, as will horror buffs, josei aficionados, and readers who like the idea that women can kick butt in the sciences, Lawrence Summers and evil clones be damned.”
ES is actually seinen; it ran in Kodansha’s Morning. And I’m kind of annoyed that Soryo felt the need to make Mine clumsy, as if she were a shoujo lead. But other than that, ES is awesome. Definitely needs more love.
Katherine Dacey saysAugust 6, 2010 at 2:21 pm
@CJ: I had the same experience as you did: I read ES and loved it, but was disappointed by Mars. I probably should have read the books in the reverse order! I’m glad to know the “best manga” concept appeals. I have several follow-up columns in development, and promise to to mix things up with some more obscure stuff, too.
@JRB: Not to worry—I’ve tagged this entry as “seinen,” not “josei.” I mention josei in my conclusion only because I think that ES would appeal to readers who liked, say, The Embalmer or Doll. There’s probably a more precise way to express that idea without implying that ES is josei, so I’ll give the final sentences fresh look tomorrow.
Jade saysAugust 6, 2010 at 3:46 pm
This sounds really cool! Mission accomplished, Kate!
I’m worried that titles that are too obscure might come across as The Best Manga You Can’t Read, though. :3
You’re opening reminded me of Nightmare Inspector; did you ever read any of that?
Katherine Dacey saysAugust 6, 2010 at 3:57 pm
@Jade: I promise not to feature any books that are so hard to find that eBayers are charging $200 for battered copies. (So no, I won’t feature Four Shojo Stories—Scout’s honor!) I haven’t read Nightmare Inspector; is it worth a look?
Jade saysAugust 6, 2010 at 10:04 pm
The availability of some of the MMF features has left feeling a bit left behind, so I do really appreciate if you can put some thought into that with this feature.
Nightmare Inspector…I’d like to just say you’d like it, but it’s one of those series like Library Wars that I’ve been so charmed by that I worry I couldn’t give it a properly unbiased consideration. It’s basically an episodic supernatural investigation story, but puzzling out the mundane catalysts of the surreal dreamscapes gives the nightmare investigations a really interesting dynamic. It’s awkward to compare, but in overall tone I think anyone who likes Black Butler can find a more complex fix for those same interests here, but with a bit less action.
Laura saysAugust 8, 2010 at 6:03 pm
I was one of those who read Mars first and then went on to read E.S. I love sci-fi and horror, so I thought this would be right up my alley. I wasn’t surprised by the darkness of the story, since Mars’s characters have some disturbing backgrounds or psychoses. But I never finished E.S. I stopped reading at about volume 3. Since it’s only 8 volumes I may have to give it another try. I like this new feature, Kate!
Katherine Dacey saysAugust 9, 2010 at 8:30 am
Glad to hear it, Laura! I spend a lot of time beating up on books, so I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to talk about some I actually like. I have plans to talk about some great shojo and josei titles (it won’t be all seinen, I promise), so stay tuned!
abcici saysSeptember 5, 2010 at 3:14 pm
aw, man! Love ES, if there’s any manga that satisfied my twisted wayward mind it was ES. Great to see it getting the attention it deserves.