It’s not about the answers. It’s about how you ask the questions. That’s the feeling I get from Oldboy, and it becomes all the clearer with each passing volume. It’s not really about why the man who goes by the alias “Dojima” took another man named Shinichi Goto and locked him up in a private prison for ten years, then set him free (also for no apparent reason). Think about it: if someone did that out of some deeply personal hurt, wouldn’t the reason(s) be essentially arbitrary anyway?
I suspect that’s why so much of Oldboy, up to and through Volume 5, has been about the process of finding answers. What will Goto do to get those answers, especially when the man who has all the answers to begin with insists on doling them out one at a time, like expensive truffles? “Dojima” wants to see how far Goto will go on his end, and Goto wants to see how he can make his opponent come to him instead.
In Oldboy Volume 5, “Dojima” drops the broadest of hints so far—that he was someone whom Goto knew at least peripherally from elementary school. No one from that time period stands out; Goto obsesses over a photo in his grade school yearbook and comes up as emptyhanded as we do. No, none of the students, but there is the teacher—Yayoi Kusama, now retired from teaching and an author of middle-list, hard-boiled crime novels. Goto manages to get in touch with her and is surprised by the way she so quickly senses he’s not just here for a class reunion: “I’m not the pretty little lady teacher you knew back then,” she insinuates.
A strange dynamic forms between them, one borne out of mutual fascination as much as it is mutual circumstance. She’s made a living out of probing the mind-sets of criminals and “outsiders”—something really only possible by other outsiders in a country with such a “suffocating communal mentality” (her words). There’s a scene where she delivers psychological assessments of both Goto and “Dojima,” after having barely met the first one and without knowing much of anything at all about the second. It’s the sort of thing where you ask, “How does she know all this?” until you realize, she doesn’t. She’s whistling in the dark, too—that’s part of the way the story is designed.
Kusama digs into her own past as aggressively as Goto has tunneled through his, and comes up with one disturbing hint after another. “Dojima” was once named Kakinuma—a passive, shiftless little boy with a presence that just made everyone around him, especially his teacher, uncomfortable. Her gut feelings were clinched when someone (it had to be Kakinuma, she claims) threw a cinderblock off the roof of the school and missed her by inches. The story leaves open-endedly the possibility that others were simply reading what they wanted to into Kakinuma’s behavior. And then, by the end of the volume, it opens up another whole slew of possibilities—namely, that Kusama has been, in her own time, manipulated as broadly (albeit a great deal less visibly) by Dojima. Improbable? Maybe, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the overall logic of a story about manipulation and counter-manipulation.
People used to conventional thriller-story or action-movie theatrics are going to be frustrated with Oldboy. I’ve accepted that as one of its quirks—it’s just the way the story is built, and on its own terms it’s become perversely fascinating. Just don’t get started with it unless you understand walking in that it’s about the chase and not the catch.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind