It’s always a pleasure to pick up the second volume of a series you’ve had great expectations for and not feel like you’ve had the rug jerked out from under you. The first volume of Parasyte kicked off what promised to be a great premise, and the second volume doesn’t just rehash what we know; it boldly moves the story forward into new territory. Author and artist Hitoshi Iwaaki was clearly not content to just take the situation he’d set up and beat it to death, and I’m grateful as both a critic and a fan that he decided to stick his neck out a bit.
The second book deals with roughly three intertwined plot threads — school teen Shinichi’s relationship with the alien (?) parasite that’s cohabitating with him in his body; Shin’s mother falling victim to one of the parasites; and Shin’s on-again-off-again relationship with two different girls around his age. The first two are the most important, while the third is just a real-world leavener — a kind of bookend for the main action this time around, a reminder that the world outside of Shin’s increasingly bizarre life is at least halfway normal. Just because your arm’s been turned into a protean monster doesn’t mean you are going to automatically give up on feeling
“Normal”, though, is a relative term, and so is “human”. As Shin is quickly discovering, the metamorphic monster that’s taken over his hand and arm (which Shin has named “Migi”) is not only ignorant of the finer points of human society, but also quietly contemptuous of human morality. It thinks like a solitary predator: the idea of putting yourself at risk for the sake of protecting any other creature just seems, well, counterproductive. I guess Migi didn’t read the parts of Darwin’s Origin of Species where he pointed out that cooperation amongst and between different species was at least as useful for survival as competition.
As it turns out, Shin and Migi wind up having to cooperate to survive in a stupefyingly intimate way. When a parasite infests Shin’s mother and attacks his father, leaving him for dead, Shin is himself also caught off guard when “Mom” shows up and gets speared right through the heart and left for dead. (Shin is not able to completely put aside the fact that this thing looks like his mother, and may in fact still have some of her floating around in there.) With his host on the verge of death, Migi improvises to save them both — and does so in a way that bonds the two of them all the more tightly together.
Other surprises await both of them. While hot in the trail of the Mom-parasite, Shin runs into another “half-infected”: a man with a parasite that only managed to take over the lower half of his face. The scene where both man and parasite try to explain their predicament is a great example of the way the series integrates dark humor into the goings-on: when the parasite won’t shut up, the man angrily whips out a notepad and scribbles LET ME TALK to get his (its?) attention. And like Migi, this other parasite sees human emotion and behavior as oddly incomprehensible, full of traits that would be completely contrary to an organism’s survival — like weeping for the dead, or balking at the sight of something that only looks like your mom.
Back in the first book, one of the possible directions for the story hinted at was how Shin was going to be forced to deal with other parasites that had infiltrated society. The second book brings another wrinkle to that formula: how ordinary people have to deal with Shin, especially when they can sense (without knowing what, exactly) that something about Shin is … different. Near the end of the book Shin almost tips his hand too much, when he uses some parasite-imbued strength to teach a bully a lesson. A pretty obvious development, sure, but Iwaaki adds another layer to the goings-on by having the whole thing unfold with Shin providing running mental commentary about why anyone would be dumb enough to bother with something as tiresome as beating another person up. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s already operating on a different plane than his “fellow” humans — and I suspect we’ll see that put a little more thoroughly to the test when Shin has to reconcile the parasite side of himself with the part that’s still interested in doing things like dating girls. That is, if they don’t back away from him in a cold sweat first.
Now that I’ve got the second volume behind me, Parasyte is shaping up not as a gore parade but something smarter and more tightly controlled: a story about someone doing his best not to lose his humanity in an adverse situation. That’s far more inherently interesting to me than just working out different creative ways to dump someone’s guts on the floor.