Mujirushi: The Sign of Dreams

Mujirushi: The Sign of Dreams

Naoki Urasawa



264 pages

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Mujirushi: The Sign of Dreams is a manga all about duplicity, a story full of masks and doubles and forgeries and sleights-of-hand in service of an art heist, which is appropriate because creator Naoki Urasawa’s whole career has felt itself like one giant art heist meant to legitimize his status as the heir apparent to Osamu Tezuka, our so-called “God of Manga.” Not that Urasawa hasn’t himself worked overtime to try and draw that comparison: it’s one thing for developers at Capcom to reimagine an arc from Tezuka’s seminal Astroboy about dueling robots and come up with the four decades worth of Mega Man titles and quite another for a revered manga artist to work directly with Tezuka Productions and Osamu’s own son Macoto on turning the same goofy premise into Pluto, a potboiler sci-fi thriller that staples sub-Asimov meditations on what (if anything) separates robots from humans onto a mealy mouthed critique of the Iraq War that dabbles uncomfortably with the kind of “shoot-and-cry” storytelling that privileges the guilt and sorrow of traumatized war-crime perpetrators over the anger of their victims (in this case the titular “Robot of Mass Destruction,” whose told in so many words how even if his revenge is justified, hatred never solves anything: all he ever really needed was empathy and love). That I closed each volume of Pluto to find a quote from Junot Díaz on the back assuring the curious that “Urasawa is a national treasure in Japan” while sanctimoniously castigating any would-be critics for being “afraid of picture books” did little to convince me that my gut reaction to Urasaw’s own smarmy stylings was in the wrong.

His Monster only further reinforced my supposition. Criticism, marketing, popular opinion and even the series’ own inflated opinion of itself all sold it to me as a gripping psychological thriller in the tradition of Silence of the Lambs (a movie that Urasawa would later lift directly from in Pluto by featuring the Hannibal Lector of robots) or even The Third Man with “serious” things to say about morality and the nature of evil and the human condition and aberrant psychology; what I found instead was a trite melodrama quick to shamelessly trot out every last cliche you might expect from a globe-trotting thriller: there are clownish Nazis, there are genius children with split personalities, there are government programs to create supersoldiers and an endless parade of supposedly impossible Trolley Dilemmas that reveal themselves to have clean solutions only the saintly protagonist could uncover. There’s even a morally inflexible inspector cut from the cloth of Victor Hugo’s Javert (so you know this is a serious story about serious issues) with an eccentric tic that proves he’s a genius (here typing witness testimonies on thin air as if  he was transcribing all he hears to a typewriter). If it, or any other Urasawa production, had enough good sense to lean into its more sensationalistic impulses and played up these ideas to their logical extremes it might be fun; if it was a satire played dead-pan straight the better to deliver a scathing takedown of a tired and too-often conservative genre, it might be revealing. But Uraswa’s distinctly self-serious visuals preclude any possibility of that. Backgrounds are realistic to the point that it’s stifling, paneling is so rigid and so insistently cinematic that the stories feel like they’re ashamed of being comics and so are incapable of the capacity for spontaneity and surprise that make the medium so powerful; every Urasawa character no matter how old or young looks exceedingly stately, like they’ve been carved out of granite, like their heads would weigh hundreds of pounds from all the “serious” thoughts they’re having. Even his evident talent for caricature is used exclusively to saddle each character with a core facial expression that tells you everything you will ever need to know about them: Monster protagonist Dr. Tenma’s earnest, resolute eyes betray him as a noble man who will never compromise on his morals no matter matter what impossible ethical conundrum the story throws at him and be proven right for it while his ex-fiance Eva is a misogynist’s revenge fantasy whose permanent bitchy sneer and perpetually wrinkled nose (as if the world itself stank of shit) betray her as the kind of materialistic woman prone to ugly sobbing meltdowns who will come to learn how precious her former lover truly is. Everything is designed to convey an air of moral seriousness, of the artists’ grave consideration, which robs the art of any charm it might otherwise possess. If Urasawa’s talent is undeniable so too is his pomposity, his obsession with trotting out grandiose themes and concepts in order to hide a vulgar desire to be taken seriously. Reading an Uraswa book is something like the dream sequence in A Serious Man where deceased community stalwart and philanderer Sy Ableman growls “I’m a serious man” at hapless protagonist Larry Gopnick before grabbing him by the head and slamming him repeatedly face first into a chalkboard, only with Urasawa subbing in for Sy, the reader playing the part of Larry, and whatever Urasawa book is currently under scrutiny replacing the chalkboard.

While Mujirushi doesn’t end up proving itself all that different from other Urasawa productions, it at least finds its author exorcising enough decency to hold your head a little less tightly this time and provide a lighter cushion for your impact. It’s mercifully short at one volume, and briskly paced at that, wasting no time on needless digressions, mounting piles of side-characters or volume after volume of elaborate set-up. The central plot is even streamlined to prevent exactly this kind of noodling: reeling from debt, a nameless father and his precocious daughter Kasumi agree to assist the mysterious, nameless Director of the dubious France Research Institute (whose design and mannerisms are borrowed wholesale -- with the author’s conspicuous permission -- from Iyami, the recurring antagonist of Fujio Akatsku’s classic Osomatsu-kun manga) in stealing Vermeer’s The Lacemaker from the Louvre to facilitate the sale of near-identical forgeries. It’s a classic heist-movie plot, paired down and streamlined with the stakes mercifully low, the team of crack experts replaced here by a cast of goofballs whose ranks include an aging would-be opera singer, a hunky fireman whose only talent is his obnoxious scream and a crow named Maria (after Maria Callas). If not as ambitious a work as other fellow manga in the Louvre and Futuropolis’ line of Louvre Editions comics -- it lacks for either the emotional heft of Taiyo Matsumoto’s Cats of the Louvre or the madcap horror and surprising sensuality of Hirohiko Araki’s Rohan at the Louvre -- it’s a pleasant enough caper. Even Urasawa’s efficient paneling and stately art, normally such enemies to anything resembling fun or spirit in his comics, here lend this story a cinematic panache.The Louvre’s interior as rendered by Urasawa may look stuffier and less descript than it ever has before, but as backdrop to all this frantic running around and international thievery it lends at least a passing spirit of history and place sorely lacking in Urasawa’s other work. If as heist stories go Mujirushi lands closer to National Treasure than Heat that’s for the better given how Urasawa’s efforts at psychological thrillers generally ended up playing more like Mindhunters (the Renny Harlan film, not the David Fincher television series) than Silence of the Lambs.

Unfortunately, Urasawa can’t pass a chance to puff himself up and before the end decides to tie every element of the story up in a larger plot that involves political corruption, the 2016 presidential election and an understanding of politics that might be amusing if it wasn’t so patronizing. In a twist ending, it turns out that through the magic of coincidence all of the disastrous business decisions that saddled the deadbeat protagonist with insurmountable debt play an essential part in giving him and his family a second shot at life while also restoring the global status quo. His bad business decisions were necessary to drive his wife out of his house and onto a cruise ship where she could spill wine on the coat of an arms manufacturer who was sleeping with American president Beverly Duncan (a genderbent Trump analog in all aspects, from appearance to politics; “she’s a big-shot businesswoman who owns buildings...everything she says and does is awful!” chortles a foolish Japanese salaryman) thereby providing the photo opportunity necessary for a pair of journalists to expose this corruption. In turn, the low-quality Beverly Duncan masks the father sunk tens of thousands of dollars into end up serving not just as a useful distraction in the heist, but they inadvertently play a part in simulating and then inspiring global protests against Duncan, finally ousting her and revealing that all the scandals that plagued her presidential opponent were, in fact, fabrications. By story’s end the doubting wife has returned, the father’s fortune has been guaranteed by an astronomical demand for Duncan masks, the United States has a new, humane president and even the nameless director’s desire to hide a personal totem amongst the artifacts in the Louvre has borne fruit.

Lazy as this kind of saccharine wish fulfillment may be, it’s at least cute, and works well enough to give the story a tidy sense of closure; “Happily ever after” is easier to imagine in a world where every thorn has been carefully pruned. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to read Urasawa’s inclusions of political elements as anything but his own clumsy, smug attempt to deliver a verdict on the way things are and ought to be. While one might argue that these characters and incidents are just window dressing unintended to bear the weight of symbol and scrutiny, the question then becomes why even include them in the first place? The story’s central ideas and conflicts are small enough in scope that if the Beverly Duncan character and associated masks had merely served as a bit of introductory world building and then a cover for the protagonists’ escape from the museum it could have worked as a simple call-back to the beginning of the story, a clever little link in the chain of coincidence. Likewise with the nameless wife’s departure and return: there is no reason it had to be pegged to the larger political scheme, could not have served as catharsis on its own. Instead, these elements and more are directly contingent on a story about activism and journalism that posits a political landscape resembling our own only superficially and to political solutions so ludicrously simplistic they would be humorous if they weren’t so fatuous. The idea that a Trump analog’s political ascent could be overturned by the exposure of her corrupt business practices was quaint mere days after the real Trump was elected and it was revealed -- without consequence -- that the “blind trust” managing his globe-ranging businesses and assets would be overseen by his own children. Likewise this misunderstanding that allegations of infidelity are a relevant concern for voters anymore: despite numerous accusations of rape and the supposedly damning Billy Bush tape, Donald Trump won the election, while later revelations that he might have been using tax-payer’s dollars to contract sex worker Stormy Daniels provided nothing but tabloid fodder for a month.

It may be the case that Urasawa never intended these plot developments as anything other than a cute joke, that any commentary that can be read into them is stoked by the hysteria of the politically polarized times we live in, but if so that does nothing to undercut the callous stupidity of this entire subplot; if anything it only emphasizes it. Trump’s policies have resulted in the deaths of thousands domestically and abroad, have systematically targeted vulnerable minorities, ruined the American postal system and social safety nets, wrecked incalculable damage on the environment, and facilitated the widening of an already gargantuan wealth gap at home. While he’s hardly beyond satire or parody, any critique lobbed Trump’s way that fails to reck with the conditions that allowed for his ascent or the human and environmental costs of his actions and insists that the only thing needed to set the world to rights are protests (as if the last four years have not seen near perpetual protests across the United States, protests that often resulted in the murder of anti-Trump activists) and journalism brave enough to promulgate the truth (despite how the damning Panama Papers resulted in little more than the assassination of the the reporters behind them), that believes an ousted president will somehow be replaced by the runner-up of the national election (as opposed to the impeached’s own vice-president...), plays simultaneously into the clown’s idea that Trump’s no more than an amusing sideshow and into the smug Liberal’s contention that he’s an ahistoric abomination unconnected to the system that preceded him. Ironic, considering that Urasawa puts himself on the side of serious thinkers by including a character at the beginning framed as a fool for writing off Trump’s analog as “at least...entertaining,” but not unexpected, for however much these two ideas might seem opposed both crass dismissals arrive at the same end: in asserting that Trump (or, here, his doppleganger) is a globe staining blot that might be wiped out by committed Americans while ignoring how the decades’ worth of disenfranchising political maneuvering and dehumanizing neoliberal policies at home and endless imperial slaughter abroad that enabled his ascent, Urasawa ends up reducing him to a just one more freakish curiosity to be gawked at, a colorful cartoon villain who needs only be defeated to be erased so that the world might be restored to its rightful path. In a story that contends “If you do not visualize your dreams, then they will never become reality. Only the dreams you wish for ever come true” it seems especially telling that Urasawa’s own dream of political catharsis is so constrained that he wishes for nothing more than a return to the very status quo that resulted in this nightmare to begin with.

It could be argued that Urasawa is hesitant to dream too big for fear of rendering the story outlandish. That he must adhere to some base line level of realism lest he render the fears, failures and hopes of his cast absurd. The problem is that the story’s elements are already so contrived and overblown that any hedging on his part does nothing but call into question his own timidity. Again: he could have simply never included these elements in the first place. That he does at all -- and that he dreams so lightly -- is  proof enough that their inclusion is no accident. They are not even incidental: they exists to convey what, exactly, a better world looks like to Urasawa. They exist to prescribe his idea of the bounds of of political and private engagement. They exists, essentially, to assert the seriousness of  Urasawa’s project and of himself. To remind readers that here is a man who cares about the state of the world, who has deep thoughts about how bad things have gotten. Unfortunately, his imagination as a moral thinker is so limited that he can only think of moral and political goods in the most cliche of fashions. Look no further than the character of Kyoko, a muse whose influence is the secret engine driving the Director’s heist and thus the rest of the story. She is, unlike the other women in the story, faceless; like Moses before God, we readers are only ever allowed to view her from behind for it’s implied that to look on her transcendent visage would be too much for lesser people who do not dream of “going to Africa to start schools for children,” that old shorthand for a truly altruistic act and the aspiration of middle-class people with an overburdened messianic complex everywhere. Without her presence, the story would lack for its inciting inspiration and for its moral center. With it, though, the real shallowness of Mujirushi and Urasawa’s own moral project is revealed: this is a story desperately obsessed with proving its high-mindedness but in doing so reveals the shallowness of its creator’s moral vision.

Had Urasawa been content to play Mujirushi as a straight caper he might have succeeded in delivering a work worth reading. If it would have been slight and “merely” entertaining it would have at least been respectable enough to own its identity. Instead it attempts a kind of moral sleight-of-hand that’s too clever by half and gives the game away, a bit of artistic embezzlement meant to smuggle in a moral seriousness it has not earned the right to. Much as Urasawa and his champions try to sell the idea that he is the heir apparent to Tezua, his pompous approach eschews the proclivity for play and experimentation that kept the oft-times sanctimonious Tezuka from turning into a boor; he has none of the spirit of wonder and discovery that the “God of Manga” possessed, none of the joy of invention and none of his capacity for sustained playfulness. Muhirushi, like the rest of Urasawa’s ouvre, is a fraud, a pale imitation of works it does not understand the appeal of that’s too afraid of its own possible vapidity to play up its simple strengths, signs that expose it as a forgery just as surely as any misplaced stroke on a phony Vermer would expose the latter.

Ed. A previous version of this interview was published with images sourced from Google as interiors were not made available by publisher.