In a bit of fortunate synchronicity, I had just finished reading Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and how it Drives Civilization before diving into the latest release from One Peace Books, Breathe Deeply. Because I had just gotten a crash course in humanity’s endless attempts at extending life and defeating death, I was better equipped to understand the perspectives and philosophies — if not the medical techniques — that are addressed by Breathe Deeply.
Breathe Deeply is not the age-old Science vs. Religion debate. It is not even the Transhumanist debate. It is about Science vs. Science. It is about what prices people are willing to pay, and as stated “Just because we can do something, doesn’t me we should do it.”
In the story, there are two brilliant young doctors. Inaba Sei is a chemical engineer working on mechanical hearts and plastic cells that replicate human cells. Oishi Tsuyoshi is a biologist working with ES stem cells to grow new organs. Both were in love with the same girl, Yuko, who died of a heart condition when they were young. Yuko’s death drives both Inaba and Oishi, but in different directions. Both want to extend human life, but Inaba feels that life should never continue at the expense of someone else’s death, so he is opposed to transplants and stem cell research. Oishi feels that filling up a body with plastic parts that don’t work very well is just a dream. Transplants and stem cell research work, and that is what matters.
Because Breathe Deeply is a thick book — 248 pages — there are a host of other characters and perspectives as well. There is the organ donor advocate whose own wife was turned into donation parts, and who feels strongly (too strongly it turns out) about Inaba’s opposition to transplants. There is the chief research doctor, whose studies haven’t shown results, and isn’t above using deception and her own sex appeal to advance herself. There is the mother whose child is waiting for a transplant, and doesn’t care about points of view and humanity, she just wants one of these high-and-mighty doctors to fix her little girl. And then there is Yuko herself, shown in flashbacks, torn between Inaba’s ideals of purity, and her own desire to live at any cost which she shares only with Oishi.
Breathe Deeply is not an easy read. I had to read it twice through to pick up on all of the nuances, all of the philosophy being discussed. I don’t know how accurate the science is, but the book lists a heady roll-call of Tokyo University chemical engineers and biologists who acted as consultants, so I assume it is a step-up from your average medical drama. There is definitely a bit of science fiction going on, as Inaba’s breathing plastic polymers exist nowhere in the real world, and neither can we grow new hearts from stem cells.
Philosophically, I recognized many of the debates put forth. There are sides taken; the heroes and villains all stand on one side of the debate or the other. One gruesome image in particular of a genetically engineered baby born without a brain to be used as spare organ parts shows where the writer’s sympathies lie. The anti-transplant narrative was hard to digest, especially the insinuation that brain-dead patients marked as donors have the ability to magically wake up from their comas. This isn’t so. The point of view I find the strongest is what The Quest for Immortality calls the Wisdom Narrative; meaning that we will all, 100% of us, die eventually, and that accepting that fact is the only true path to happiness. But nobody likes to hear that.
The art in Breathe Deeply is well done, but not particularly outstanding. It serves the purpose of the story, without distracting. The characters are distinct. The situations believable. The only problem I had with the art was the image of Yuko in a coma, looking angelically beautiful. I have seen people in comas before, with their slack faces and odd coloring; they look anything but angelically beautiful. It is a love story, however, so some license must be taken. The series is credited to Yamaaki Doton, which is a pseudonym of a husband-and-wife team, but I am not sure how they split the chores.
I would have a hard time recommending Breathe Deep just as a comic. The story is solid, but unless you are interested in the debates over stem cell research the love-triangle isn’t really enough to carry the book. There are long pages and passages that delve into science and possibility, and those pages stand a good chance of boring the average reader. If I hadn’t just read Immortality, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this as much as I did.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the ’90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.