It has Hikaru’s face. It has Hikaru’s voice. It even has Hikaru’s memories. But whatever came down from the mountains six months ago isn’t Yoshiki’s best friend. (Publisher’s blurb)
Yoshiki and his best friend Hikaru are on their way home from school. It’s summer, it’s bakingly hot and the local store only has one papicco ice cream left. As they sit outside the store to eat (half each), Hikaru says, grinning widely, “What it is is tor-cher, ain’t it?” and Yoshiki wearily corrects his pronunciation. It’s been six months since Hikaru went missing up on the mountain – and was found, a week later. But something’s been troubling Yoshiki ever since. Now he turns to Hikaru and says, “You ain’t the real Hikaru, are ya?”
Suddenly the atmosphere changes. Hikaru grabs hold of Yoshiki, holding him close, and says, “But I’m s’posed to be a perfect copy of ’im” and we see one side of his face disintegrate, morphing into something that oozes darkness. “I may be borrowin’ this body an’ personality… but my feelin’s for you are real… So please… I don’t want to kill you…”
Yoshiki says quietly, “Okay, ‘Hikaru’… nice to meet ya.”
But on the way home they meet a crazed old woman who points at Hikaru and yells barely distinguishable words, full of fear and warning. “Nounuki-sama! Don’t tell me yer down here now!”
Yoshiki now knows the truth – or some of the truth – about this Hikaru who is and isn’t ‘his’ Hikaru. But has anyone else, other than the crazy old lady, noticed? At school one day, classmate Maki asks Yoshiki to accompany him on the route he has to take home. While a short-cut tunnel is out of action, he has to go through the forest and he’s been seriously spooked. “It’s like my eyes can’t move away from the path in front of me.” Hikaru asks to go along too and two of the girls join in, excited at the possibility of some kind of adventure. But on their way back along the forest path, odd things start to happen – and Yoshiki suddenly notices something in the darkness of the trees that’s getting nearer… and nearer…
The constant whirring drone of cicadas dominates almost every page of The Summer Hikaru Died. We can almost feel the oppressive summer heat as we look at the lush vegetation, see the dragonflies zooming around and we also sense the nameless menace lurking deep within the trees further up the mountain from the village where the story is set. This sense of Something Other infects the whole look and feel of the narrative which is atmospherically recreated on the page. Mangaka Mokumokuren has taken a familiar trope in horror fiction: the infiltration of an ancient and inhuman power that haunts the wild places into the everyday lives of the local human community – and recreated their own version, a narrative that’s so well told and drawn that you’ll find yourself compelled to turn the pages to find out what happens next, even though you don’t want to look! Yoshiki – from the moment we first see him – looks haunted. There are dark circles beneath his eyes. He’s not the schoolboy we glimpse in flashbacks to earlier days when ‘his’ Hikaru was still alive.
Mokumokuren is very skilled at pacing the narrative, introducing more and more hints that all is not well in the village. To what extent can the adults be trusted? The crazy old lady the boys encounter is depicted in a terrifying way – although what follows is even more terrifying. The way the village cat Mince-aniki reacts to Hikaru is equally terrifying. We’re on familiar horror territory here: the animals that can see and sense what the humans cannot. But ‘Hikaru’ is not hiding anything from his best friend Yoshiki; quite the opposite. He – or it – is brutally frank. Later scenes show us how much he’s inviting Yoshiki to ‘know’ him, blending visceral horror (hints of Junji Ito but also Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi) and a strange kind of intimacy. Yes, there are unmistakable BL resonances here as the bond between the two boys goes deep – and even though ‘Hikaru’ jokes around, he’s told Yoshiki that although he has Hikaru’s memories, everything he’s experiencing as a human is for the first time and is fresh and surprising. But later on Yoshiki meets a middle-aged woman who says bluntly, “Ya gotta get away right this instant.” What does she know? Does Yoshiki want to hear what she has to tell him?
The translation for Yen Press is by Ajani Oloye (Blue Period) and uses an American backwoods style of speaking to convey the ‘country’ flavour of the villagers’ speech. (I can only assume that the original Japanese dialogue is also in a similar vein.) There are two useful pages of translation notes, including a fascinating explanation of the way Hikaru’s name is written in the original version (the Chinese character for the original Hikaru and katakana for ‘Hikaru’) and how that’s been adapted to work in the English translation. Praise must also go to Abigail Blackman’s lettering; the text is heavy with sound effects, from the chirring of the cicadas to a range of other sounds, many of them significant and sinister, and her reinterpretation of them – as well as her rendition of Other voices and sounds – is striking and effective. There are two colour images at the front, one a double-page spread, and a striking black-and-white preview at the end of the volume.
We knew, as its reputation preceded it, that The Summer Hikaru Died was going to be one of the best manga reads of 2023 and this first volume proves to be a chilling page-turner. I prefer my horror to be subtle and this delivers exactly my kind of slow-burn narrative. The next volume is due out in October 2023 from Yen Press and the series is ongoing at four volumes in Japan.