Disaster movies tend to follow a pretty standard formula. Take a group of otherwise-normal people, put them smack in the middle of a catastrophe, and watch them become as much a danger to each other as the earthquake / fire / alien invasion around them is to them. Throw in some social commentary and some emotional stacking-of-the-deck (kids in danger, pining for loved ones, etc), and you’re good to go.
Metro Survive was put together from the above list of ingredients, but there’s a few things about it that keep it consistently interesting and readable. For one, the mere fact that it’s set in Japan — where earthquakes can be unbelievably devastating, as the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the Hanshin / Kobe earthquake of 1995 demonstrated — gives the social-commentary part of the story a bit more bite than usual. That’s in fact one of the biggest angles that author and artist Yuki Fujisawa takes on the whole thing: do people grow complacent if they don’t have disaster hanging over their heads? Or do they just find new ways to be lazy no matter what the circumstances?
Survive opens with thirty-something salaryman Mishima on his way to work in the newly-constructed Exopolis Tower, a massive high-rise building that’s almost a city unto itself. He’s a maintenance worker — underpaid, horribly overworked, his job teetering on the brink no thanks to his bloodthirsty boss. His duties are made all the more difficult by the fact that the Exopolis was built with a disgusting amount of shoddy engineering — and since Mishima is an engineer at heart, it turns his stomach to have to work in such a place. “I could just blow this whole goddamned monstrosity into smithereens!” he fumes. Talk about shotgun foreshadowing.
Mishima’s resentment is fueled all the more by the fact that all this double and triple overtime is ruining his family life. He’s determined to get home in time that night to celebrate his son’s birthday, and the way his plan falls apart is handled with a poignant touch: at first he’ll be grateful to get home just after dinnertime; then, he’s hoping he’ll be able to get home before his son is asleep; and finally, he hopes he can just make it home before sunup so he can put the boy’s gift next to his bed.
Early the next morning, while heading home on the subway after working all night, a massive earthquake hits Tokyo. (In a panel depicting the destruction of the building, there’s shades of the collapse of the Asakusa Twelve Stories Tower in the ’23 earthquake, the upper half of which snapped clean off and fell.) The car he’s in is derailed, and he’s stuck there along with several other passengers: an elderly couple, a husband-wife-and-son family, a couple of self-important tough-guy punks, and a girl whose preternatural calm seems way out of place. When the punks panic at being trapped in the subway, she coldly derides them: “If you want to bitch and moan, do it yourself; don’t drag me into your narcissistic hissy fits.” Is she stupid, or just one of those people who copes with disaster by becoming very quiet?
The group makes its their way back to the nearest subway station — the one under the building itself — only to find that it’s impossible to get out. Worse, the train station itself is filling up with water, electrified water at that. Mishima goads himself into thinking of a solution, and finds one: the maintenance crawlway under the escalators. He’s not inclined to think of himself as a leader, let alone a hero, but he’s coming to the conclusion that he may be the only one really equipped to help these people survive. And it’s not just because of his technical skills, but his sense of justice — he’s the one who’s most openly incensed about the fact that if the designers of the subway station and the Exopolis hadn’t cut so many corners, they might have been already safely away.
When they reach ground level, they find to their horror that what’s left of the building has become an impassable chimney of debris, with them in the middle of it. There is no sign of life outside — no radio signals, no cell connections, no word from anywhere else. There are other people trapped inside the building as well — another motley gang that includes a couple of host-club members, a judo class, some drunken salarymen who were on their way home after a round of bar-hopping, and a few subway workers. There’s even food in a local convenience store, but eventually the food runs low, the bottled water runs out (the host-club dandies used it up shaving), and the stronger begin to remorselessly exert their dominance over the weak.
Art: Yuki Fujisawa’s art feels a little bit like it’s Eighties-era work, but I don’t mean that in a negative way — it’s just reminiscent of stuff from that era in terms of its character design choices and visual tropes. Since this story’s about the environment these characters move through as much as it is about the characters themselves, a good deal of attention has also been paid to the backgrounds in most of the panels. Fujisawa also uses a lot of low angles to give a strong feeling of claustrophobia — not something you notice immediately, but which does have a creepily cumulative effect.
Translation: The translation’s a joint effort — Stephen Paul and Ailen Lujo, with the former doing the actual translation and the latter doing additional adaptation work. Any native idioms that might have been in the original have been swapped for local ones, but it’s fluid and readable, and not at all intrusive. Effects and signage have been annotated directly on the page instead of being retouched (which I prefer), and the few things that don’t translate at all are annotated in the margins.
The Bottom Line: I’m always curious about the kinds of off-the-beaten-path titles that manga publishers pick up for English-speaking audiences. Metro Survive makes for a nice change from the glut of more run-of-the-mill material I’ve seen lately, one that fans of modern-day adventure/survival flicks should look into.