So why would someone kidnap a total stranger off the street, lock him in a custom prison cell for ten years for no apparent reason, and then just as blithely let him back out again? The fourth volume of Oldboy begins with the first real hint as to why all this happened to Goto, the Everyman hero of the story whose life as a cipher in urban Japan ended when he was spirited away a decade ago. “Look into your childhood,” a woman moans to him after she agrees to trade sex for secrets, and Goto soon begins digging into everything from his high school yearbooks to his estranged family members.
In an attempt to determine if something in his past led him here, Goto reaches into his own history and excavates an unexpected amount of unease. He wanted to be as unextraordinary as possible, he confesses to his girlfriend Eri (his sole confidant for now), and he eventually slid into gambling and alcoholism — and then one day he ended up in that little cell. Was it something he did in a fit of drunken rage, or something deeper — something that he hasn’t been able to unearth yet?
Not long after this, Goto’s tormentor — who thus far has been watching silently from a distance — takes the unprecedented step of coming forward and introducing himself. Goto’s first response is to grab the guy by the lapels of his suit and slam him against a wall. Unfortunately, killing this man — who calls himself “’Alias’ Dojima” — will accomplish nothing. “If only you hadn’t existed,” “Dojima” tells him, and drops a slew of other hints as to why this has happened. The game between them has finally been started in earnest. If Goto remembers what specifically happened that caused all this to unfold, “Dojima” will gladly end his own life.
Part of what makes Oldboy distinctive is also what makes it insufferable for some audiences. It’s slow — deliberately slow, in every sense of the term “deliberate.” It’s not about the actual discovery of the answers, but the process — about how Goto and “Dojima” bluff, mislead and misdirect each other through every step of their perverse relationship.
One other thing about Oldboy that will either infuriate or enthrall you is how the story does not hint at what (if any) of Goto’s theories actually hold water. Some mysteries, you’re given enough clues early on to fit it together yourself; that doesn’t happen here. Goto follows any clue that seems likely, and we follow right along with him, even if it leads to a complete dead end. In some ways this is a good thing, because you’re forced to think about what goes on for yourself — even if most of the time you’re as much in the dark as Goto himself is.
Once again, Oldboy isn’t for the impatient. It also doesn’t measure up to the film, if that’s what you went in looking for — but then again, what could? That and the manga has a perversely fascinating mood of its own, one I’m finding myself growing accustomed to and even savoring with each passing volume. That doesn’t mean I think everyone else will, though.