The second volume of MPD-Psycho does one thing right and another thing (still) somewhat wrong. On the good side, it tones down the often-gratuitous helpings of pathologically explicit gore that justified Dark Horse jacketing this gruesome little item in shrinkwrap and slapping an “18+” sticker on it. This time around, apart from a few sudden spurts of gore — including one thoroughly nasty scene where a girl throws herself off an apartment balcony and skewers herself on an electric pole — the book’s almost PG-13 rated all the way through.
On the bad side, we still get a story that milks multiple personality disorder (the MPD of the title) as shamelessly as it can for plot twists. Detective Kazuhiko Amamiya (originally “Yosuke Kobayashi”) has at least one sociopathic, don’t-give-a-damn alternate persona lurking inside that hide of his, Shinji Nishizono — and it has a horrible tendency to ooze on out when he’s confronted with someone else equally or even more sick (which happens with immense regularity). Fine, except that series author Eiji Otsuka isn’t content to just let him wrestle with one inner demon, or two, or even three. Amamiya’s three-way personality gains a fourth facet, “Kiyoshi Murata,” and by the end of the book we feel like the poor guy’s gone from being the closest thing to the story’s protagonist to becoming a veritable psychological clown car. I’m half-tempted to run a betting pool to see how many alters he ends up with by the time we get to the last book.
This sort of thing saddles a very thin line between a) being daring and b) being simply annoying. Think about it: If the authors can just make Amamiya/Kobayashi/etc. whip out another personality on cue whenever needed, like a suitcase with more than one false bottom or a room with any number of hidden entrances, how can we count on them to be straight up about the rest of their story? I got so distracted by the mere fact that they were using this gimmick that I had to stop, back up and re-read the whole book from the beginning just to pick up what I’d missed.
But let’s put aside the story’s questionable use of MPD as a plot gimmick / get-out-of-jail-free plot-hole card and see what’s left over. Truth be told, there’s quite a bit apart from that worth savoring: when MPD-Psycho backs off from the blood’n’guts and the plot games, it’s a more than passable thriller. At the end of the first volume, Amamiya discovered something deeply unsettling about himself (apart from the fact that he has multiple personalities, which would be enough to unsettle anyone for a lifetime): a barcode tattooed on one of his eyeballs. He’s worried that everything about him — his personalities, the bizarre crimes he’s been investigating, and now this thing on his eye — are all part of an “invisible puzzle.”
Volume 2 throws Amamiya into a whole new mystery, one which begins with the gruesome murders — or are they suicides? — of three high school girls. The only common factor, apart from their age: all had their nails cut exceedingly short. This is not enough for Amamiya, though, and once he begins digging he unearths evidence that the real common factor is hypnotic suggestibility. By itself that is not enough to cause someone to die, but Amamiya’s female cohort Machi Isono throws another, particularly Japanese, element into the mix: peer pressure. Get enough like-minded people together who want to die, give them a suggestion to act on it, and stand back and watch them goad each other into it. Their hunch turns out to be horribly on-target, and they arrive slightly too late to witness one of the suicide-circle members throwing themselves to their deaths.
That makes Amamiya boil over, and out comes Nishizono, who goes tearing off after a weird, white-haired fellow named Zenitsu who always seems to be hanging around whenever one of these things happens. He even corners the guy at gunpoint, even if that doesn’t work (Zenitsu takes Isono hostage at taser-point and makes a getaway), but he picks up a valuable clue. Another part of Amamiya — “Murata” — had already emerged days ago and was also using Zenitsu to tidy up some “loose ends.”
The second half of the volume deals with Amamiya’s origins, and about how his first alter surfaced quite a bit earlier than anyone has yet anticipated. A figure from his childhood emerges, the amiable but dim-witted Kiyoshi, who remembers “Nishizono” from his own childhood and has ghastly memories of a massacre at an orphanage where he was the only survivor (shades of Monster, a far better series than this one in many respects thus far). Again Zenitsu appears to be tangled up in this mess as well, and at the end of the volume there is the unsettling possibility that Amamiya’s other personalities didn’t emerge from within him but were absorbed from somewhere else.
I give the second volume of MPD-Psycho some credit — they’ve toned down the gratuitous nastiness and attitude of the first volume and concentrated more on the story this time around. But the more we see of that story — even if there’s supposed to be an all-encompassing explanation for what’s going on — the more I worry that it will simply be a front end through which the author shoves any number of absurd plot contrivances. And then there’s the part of me that simply puts all that aside and enjoys the story for what it is: lurid, dark, occasionally gory, and often absurd psychological horror.