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Another, written by Yukito Ayatsuji, art by Hiro Kiyohara, Yen Press, 720 pages, $29.99
Another is a ghost story in which no one is quite sure who the ghost is — or if they themselves are the ghost.
It’s told through the eyes of 15-year-old Koichi Sakakibara, who has been shipped off to stay with his grandparents in the country while his scientist father is conducting research abroad; his mother died shortly before he was born. The school year starts off inauspiciously for Koichi, as he suffers from a collapsed lung and misses the first few days of school.
While he is in the hospital, Koichi meets and briefly talks to a girl with an eye patch, Mei Misaki, and when he finally gets to school, he learns that Mei is in his class. He is intrigued by her and tries to start a friendship, but everyone else acts as if she isn’t there. The other students are friendly to him, but they don’t seem to even see Mei, and Koichi begins to wonder if she is real.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
It takes a while to get to the meat of the story, but eventually Koichi’s schoolmates explain what is going on: Class 3 is cursed, or at least, that’s what the students believe. According to school lore, 26 years previously, a popular student in that class died suddenly at the beginning of the school year. Traumatized, the class simply pretended that the dead student was still there, and at the end of the year, the dead student showed up in the graduation photo.
Since then, class 3 of the third year (roughly corresponding to ninth grade) at Yomiyama North Middle School has experienced a higher than normal mortality rate — but only in certain years. The curse is triggered by an extra person who appears and is part of the class for the entire year. That person is really a ghost, and at the end of the year, he or she fades away and so do the students’ memories; even the official records are altered to obliterate the extra person. There are only a few clues, such as a mismatch in the numbers of desks and students, to let the class know that there is a ghostly interloper among them. The ghost classmate appears to be ordinary and doesn’t threaten anyone, but his or her mere presence is enough to cause at least one student, or the close family member of a student, to die every month.
Koichi’s classmates have reasoned that the only way to fight the curse is to figure out who the “extra” person is and act as if he or she doesn’t exist. At the beginning of the book, they think it’s Mei, which is why they don’t seem to see her. But their thinking changes as the story goes on, and they grow increasingly desperate to stop the string of apparently random deaths.
There’s a strong psychological aspect to Another; while it’s a ghost story, much of the horror comes from the way the students react to the threat, rather than any supernatural phenomena. The very banality of the ghost — just an extra person, displacing someone from a desk — is part of the creepiness of it. This is also a puzzle story, as Koichi and his classmates try to figure out who the extra person is and how they can stop the curse — something that only one class has succeeded in doing in the past.
Another is drawn in a style that is slightly less-stylized than most manga. It’s a bit less cartoony, a bit more solid. Artist Hiro Kiyohara draws the students’ faces in a simplified, standard-manga style but uses a more sculptured look for the adults, which makes them stand oddly apart. It’s also a very atmospheric manga, set in a school with dark, empty corridors in a village where it always seems to be raining, and the gloomy interior spaces add to the sense of menace.
Kiyohara makes particularly good use of the manga trope of showing fragments of a scene. When a girl trips and falls down the stairs he breaks it into small moments, most of them close-ups: Her feet slipping on the top step, her eye, wide behind her glasses, her umbrella tumbling down the steps, and then, in the center of the page, a long shot up the stairs of her body in that one moment when it hovers in space before crashing down below. Breaking up the scene like that slows the progress of the story a bit and really hones in on the chilling details.
Another is adapted from a novel (which is available as an e-book) and was originally released in Japan as a four-volume series. Yen Press has bound them up into a single monster volume, which is a very smart thing to do, as this story is a real page-turner. The problem with manga like this is often that the point-of-view character is kept in the dark for so long that it just becomes tedious and confusing, but Another is well paced, with pieces of the puzzle dropping into place at a good clip and an amazing twist at the end. With the entire story in a single volume, this makes for a very satisfying read. Just be sure to set aside plenty of time, as once the story gets under way, it’s hard to stop reading.