If you’ll recall (from last week, when I finally remembered to post my review), the first volume of this series didn’t make the best impression on me. Much of it felt like self-parody as mangaka Shuzo Oshimi tried to cultivate an air of sinister intent in a way that felt more ham-fisted than suspenseful. It wasn’t until the last chapter that the mangaka revealed his hand and gave us a (kind of obvious) shock in showing us the incident that would drive the series from here on out. I’ve read so-so first volumes of series that later turned out to be great, with Oshimi’s own “The Flowers of Evil” falling directly into that category. So I was willing to give “Blood on the Tracks” some time to see how it turned out.
Volumes 2 & 3 show that Oshimi hasn’t lost his touch. Yet. His latest series about a girl who leads a boy down an unexpected path in his life shows that he hasn’t wrung all of the blood from that particular setup just yet. There’s also his knack for milking the discomfort of his main characters as they try to deal with these new situations they’ve found themselves in. The catch here is that Oshimi may have done too good a job here when it comes to that. That’s because things start off in an uncomfortable way and get positively skin-crawling by the end of vol. 3.
The uncomfortableness at the start comes from the fact that our Jr. High protagonist, Seiichi, is still in shock after his mother Seiko pushed her nephew, Shigeru, off of a cliff. As far as we know, this is because he was teasing Seiichi a bit and Seiko wasn’t having any of it. Shigeru didn’t die from the fall, however. His family found him in a near-comatose state and he was taken to the nearest hospital for treatment. Questions were asked by the family and the police, but Seiichi was a good little boy and said that his mother’s version of events, where Shigeru fell off after goofing around, was correct.
Oshimi’s attempt to create tension in the first volume was a failure because it felt like he was doing it just for the sake of it. There was no reason behind it. Now, after Seiko has pushed Shigeru off of a cliff, it’s much more effective. Seiko’s aloofness now comes off as genuinely creepy as she carries on like nothing has happened. Seiichi, meanwhile, is barely holding himself together as he tries to process how his mother could have done such an awful thing and how he’s now complicit in her actions.
It doesn’t stop there. Things get even more complicated when, while his parents are out, Seiichi gets a visit from Fukiishi, a female classmate of his. He tries to be a good host, but is still too disturbed to pull it off. So she gives him a letter and leaves. Before he can open it, his parents return and his mom walks up to his room. Naturally, she wants to know what’s in the letter.
If the first volume didn’t already give you creepy incest vibes before it things hit the fan, the last chapter in vol. 2 most likely will. No lines are crossed, but it really feels like Oshimi wants the reader to know that he’s ready to go there. I’m not worried about him pandering to certain readers in this regard, as the whole scene is just too uncomfortable to come off as sexy.
That said, if you thought that sounded like peak discomfort for this series, then Oshimi has a beer he wants you to hold. Vol. 3 turns the cringe factor even higher as Seiichi develops a speech problem that hampers his ability to communicate effectively, if at all, with those around him. It also allows the mangaka to show off some really disturbing facial expressions for his protagonist. You might go so far as to even call them comical… until you realize that they’re the result of the psychological stress he’s under after having to keep his mom’s secret and be subject to her manipulations.
Oh, and speaking of mom, Seiko’s aloofness finally starts to crack in the third volume. She loses it early on when her husband asks for the family to go visit Shigeru, and then she has a much longer and more illuminating argument with the man later in the volume. That sequence provides a little insight into her mindset, making it seem like ennui is the reason behind her actions. We’re not getting answers just yet, though. That’s not a problem for me as it doesn’t seem like the reasoning behind Seiko’s actions is meant to be a huge mystery here. The real draw is seeing how far she’ll go before someone decides to get her some help, or calls the cops.
That is, assuming you can stand the uncomfortable situations Seiichi winds up in. From being unable to effectively communicate with his friends at school, to a visit with a hospitalized Shigeru who now looks like something out of a horror movie, to a climactic late-night hallway plea to his mother, vol. 3 has no shortage of scenes to make you cringe. Oshimi is giving us a story that’s showing what happens when a relationship that should be strengthening for both parties turns septic and starts eating away at both of their lives. He may be playing up the drama a little, but I think the mangaka has made Seiichi and Seiko’s relationship believable enough that its disintegration is genuinely painful to watch.
I realize that this might not be anyone’s idea of a good time. While I can’t exactly say that “Blood on the Tracks” is an enjoyable read, it’s definitely one which has managed to hold my interest. I appreciate that it’s going somewhere most other series wouldn’t dare to, and it’s doing so with effective characterization and a minimum of salaciousness so far. This might change, but Oshimi’s track record indicates that things won’t likely spiral off the rails. Still, if this doesn’t sound like something you’d be interested in, or if you don’t like stories that specifically aim to make you feel uneasy, then this really isn’t going to be for you.