Maybe it sounds like a cheap shot to say I picked up the manga adaptation of Otsuichi’s Zoo for a dollar, but it’s the truth. I was already curious about how the short-story collection had been adapted into manga, but having a pricetag that low closed the deal, and now I’m here to tell you if this doesn’t show up in English anytime soon you won’t be missing too much.
Well, that does sound like a cheap shot, doesn’t it? Especially since Zoo itself was bumpy going; the best stories in there were cheek-by-jowl with other stories so inept I wanted to red-pencil them as I went along. The manga version adapts three good stories from that collection (“Words of God”, “Zoo”, “Song of the Sunny Spot”) and one dud (“Kazari and Yoko”). Art’s by Akihisa Yanari, the creator of Tattoon Master, which is not exactly the biggest credential around but the results are acceptably clean and dramatic-looking. On the whole, though, it’s lockstep: for fans and completists only.
“Kazari and Yoko” made me genuinely angry when I read it in Zoo, and it’s equally stacked-deck and tasteless here. Unfavored daughter is forced to sleep in the kitchen next to the trash can, suffers no end of abuse from Mom, survives on her sister’s meager charity, and contrives a way to fake her own death as an escape route. It’s unpleasant and exploitive in the worst possible way, the way Mommie Dearest made people wince and wonder why anyone needed to watch this as “entertainment”. “Words of God” has some of the same evil-in-the-home vibe, but at least it works as phantasmagoria and fantasy, instead of a contrived domestic-abuse story. It starts with one far-out idea (kid can make the impossible possible by simply speaking it) and then encapsulates it within the ultimate consequences of such a premise.
“Song of the Sunny Spot” had the simplicity of a fairy tale in the original story, and the adaptation respects that perfectly. This was my favorite item in Zoo to begin with, and it’s been given the right treatment — no second-guessing of the material, just something sad and lovely like it needed to be. And with “Zoo” itself, you could see the end coming a mile off but that didn’t make it any less creepy. Imagine the photo-montage from the “Sloth” killing from the movie SE7EN spun out into its own story, with a schizoid twist on top.
Now I have to ask, without sounding terribly cynical: is there a good reason for manga adaptations like this apart from mere commerce? Is at least part of it an attempt to get manga readers to migrate sideways, out of comics and into the growing light-novel/fiction market? It makes sense, given that the manga market in Japan by all reports has no place left to grow; every possible primary, secondary and ancillary audience has been reached. Maybe that’s a sign the very idea of a target market has also been tapped out, and Zoo’s manga is its own incremental amount of evidence for that.