Dragon Head came to english distributor Tokyopop in 2006 with little fanfare but consistently positive reviews. Good, not bad. Simple story, but builds too slow. This being both a psychological horror series you can expect that the story will unfold with little details dropped here and there to draw out the suspense. And since Dragon Head was a serialized story the suspense is reeeealy drawn out. At the end of volume 1 the biggest plot developments are that the reader has been introduced to the three main characters and we know that they were returning from a class trip when the train tunnel collapsed as they were going through a maintain pass. Now trapped alone in the dark surrounded by the mangled bodies of their teachers and schoolmates they have to keep it together as despair and thirst begin to take their tole. The biggest spoilers here are that this is all in the summary on the back of the book. Because of this extremely slow burning manga I will be looking at the first arc of Dragon Head encompassing volumes 1 – 3.
(REAL SPOILERS AHEAD) Minetaro Mochizuki’s story of the mental breakdown of three high school students struggling to survive in oppressive, claustrophobic darkness is not based on a wholly new premise. Subterranean horror survival stories such as The Descent and The Cave know very well that the tense atmosphere that can be built on a plot about being lost deep within the Earth makes a great setting. Next, the plot will devote some time to watching how each personality copes with the situation. We’ll see who steps up as the leader and who will be the weakest and therefore monster food or betrayer. Usually the next ingredient is to add something that is chasing the protagonists in order to turn what would otherwise just be a survival story into a horror survival story.
As you can imagine Dragon Head uses that same formula. 1)Trapped in the Earth. Check. Now lets watch our characters struggle to plan for their basic needs like water, food, light, and how to escape back to the surface. 2) Teru Aoki, our “John Everyman”, steps up as the glue that holds the group of survivors together while Takahashi Nobuo’s emotional disposition drive him headlong into a very frightening psychotic breakdown. In the middle is Ako Seto who, despite being unconscious for two thirds of the first volume, begins to really show a steel fortitude as the series progresses. 3) The Creature. At this phase Dragon Head takes a sharp right down Lord of the Flies Lane. We don’t know why the tunnel collapsed except that there was a massive earthquake as their train was passing through a mountain, and as our “John Everyman” observes, “The east sky was suddenly enveloped in a huge black cloud and there was a bright red pillar… like fire” (Dragon Head vol 1, 200). This could be anything from a bomb to the End of Days, but all that the characters know is that the earthquakes aren’t stopping and the temperature is steadily rising. Being trapped would be scary enough, but with Hell seemingly rising up beneath their feet to say hello, some very important parts of any human brain would go snap, crackle, pop. Imagination is a tricky thing, and just like the boys in Lord of the Flies had The Beast, a monster rises out of the hazy, oily darkness of the tunnel to pursue our characters for the length of the series. I won’t go into much detail about the disintegration of the group, but suffice to say it is well worth the price of a used copy of Dragon Head from your local second hand bookstore.
Now, a word on Tokyopop. For many people this was the first company that they turned to for a number of popular series in the early to mid 00’s. You know that series where a cadre of 14 year old girls fight monsters is search of tiara crystals or whatever? That show that parents were super scared was a marketing plot to sell toys, turn their children into sluts or turn their children gay? Yup, Tokyopop helped fuel the “Sailor Moon” madness way back in 1997 when they were still known as Mixx and manga magazines still existed. Good things: Tokyopop brought the US “Love Hina”, tons of CLAMP titles, and a way for a precious few lucky lucky nerds to see their stories come to life. Bad things: print and paper quality. Dragon Head, like many Tokyopop titles, was printed on a cheaper recycled paper with a high acidity levels, which means that it’s difficult to find any copies that aren’t crumbling or at least yellowed. And this, in combination with the old library stickers that seem to be on every copy of Dragon Head I have ever seen, is really the worst part of the series. In conclusion: I probably wouldn’t have paid full price for it, but for $5 at your local Raven Used Books or Book-A-Million it’s a very entertaining binge read.