The protagonist, a poor, moody student named Tachi Miroku, was recently recognized as the Best New Writer in a major literary competition, but the stress of living up to his family's goals of him becoming a powerful man has broken him on the cusp of greatness. Despite his tremendous potential, success does not come easy. Alone and without direction, every day is a vicious battle with his past and his moral fiber. He hasn't been to work in four months and his dreams are a total mess filled with abuse, taunting, and the strong smell of blood. And that is just the tip of the iceberg...
:: Intro & Narrative ::
"I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me." - Terentius
Some manga fly under the radar. Especially those by authors with no other popular works that are based on novels from well over a century ago. And seinen titles generally just receive a lot less attention than series aimed at younger demographics. HOWEVER, A Falsified Romance deserves better. The art is outstanding, the story is thrilling and the dialogue thought-provoking. A psychological profile of a killer disconnected with life, complete with an accurate representation of the human mind, this is a manga that offers everything.
First of all, an
explanation is needed. In 1866 the Russian novel 'Crime and Punishment' was released. A Falsified Romance is a modern Japanese re-imagining of this novel. Key plot points remain the same but the circumstances are changed in order for Japanese readers to better relate. The best example of this is how two common problems that plague Japanese society - the hikikomori phenomenon (reclusion) and schoolgirl prostitution - get combined to replace a plan to rob a pawn-broker. The lead's complex thought processes and the end result remain the same, but little else. Even the Yakuza play a role. You could read a Wikipedia summary for the novel and apply the novel's structure to the manga, so it is a faithful adaptation in that sense, but going from mid-19th century Russia to 21st century Japan obviously required A LOT of editing. Most modernisation aspects worked well, but an implausibly dumb school gang-rape scenario further down the line weighed the series down with unbelievable drama.
'A Falsified Romance' is a title sure to make people curious. So, what does it refer to? A romance started under a false pretense, perhaps? Surprisingly, it does not matter until the latter stages of the manga. First and foremost, the series is a psychological thriller. It is about committing a crime, the guilt and fear that follows, and finally redemption. And it is redemption where the 'falsified romance' factors in. The narrative can almost evenly be broken up between these three plot points, leading to a somewhat uneven flow that makes the direction equal parts unpredictable and gripping. Unless you are familiar with the original work, you will be left eagerly flipping pages, trying to discern what path the plot will follow, whilst also being a bit lost as to what the focus is. The first section of the story focuses almost solely on thrills as the lead attempts to pull off the perfect crime, only for everything possible to go wrong. The second deals with the fear and paranoia in the immediate aftermath, leading to a flashback that explains what lead the lead to become so desperate. The third is where the rails start to come off as the series starts 'spinning its wheels' during a period where a vitally important character is introduced: the other half of the 'romance'.
:: Characterisation & Emptiness ::
"You have your philosophy and ideas, but it is all useless in the real world. You can not even face a naked woman without running. You are not interested in people at all. How can you write about people when you do no not even care a little about them? I will say it again: that is why you are empty." - Kai Sudo
The series opens with its lead, Miroku Tachi, already living alone as a recluse in an apartment in Tokyo. He survives on the money his equal parts beautiful and kind older sister (oblivious to his current lifestyle) sends him and is tormented by guilt over his failure to live up to the expectations placed on him. His sister marrying for money - mainly to support him - after having already sacrificed much of her life to raise him pushes him over the edge, with a hint of jealously coming from his sister complex. You do not learn why he became reclusive until after he executes his plan and commits the crime. In his mind, this is his last chance to stop his sister sacrificing herself by stealing money, whilst proving himself worthy as a human by getting rid of vermin for the greater good.
Miroku has an artistic idealism that serves to distance himself from others. A flashback to his university days highlighted both his intellect (realising it was pity) and social failings (making a scene) when he threw a part-time job offer given by a classmate in his face; in public. He wants to be a writer, and he writes about people without understanding them. His first attempt at a novel - a book about how a killer thinks - is described as empty by a character that acts as Miroku's counterpoint and, later, inspiration: Sudo Kai. He tells Miroku to live life before writing about it, mocking him. Hell is paradise, according to Sudo, whilst Miroku represses his desires out of fear of being tainted by the world's depravity. Miroku has a cynical, nihilistic view of the world and fears the impurities of desire as a consequence of his upbringing.
As the above should highlight, what sells the series is Miroku's character and how his development is handled. It is a fascinating character study. He looks down on others and is highly intelligent--crafting a complicated plan to rob and kill, after months of preparation... yet he is only human, and no plan is perfect. All the time he was planning, he was doubting whether he had it in him to kill. And every little oversight comes back to haunt him. After committing the act, his mind freezes. He panics and does incredibly stupid things, like not locking a door, only realising the arrogant stupidity of his actions after the fact. Every aspect of his failure makes him come across more human. He tries to justify his actions by using the book he wrote, which states how exceptional people shed blood for a greater cause, but the harder he tries the more he sees his own folly.
:: Art & Flaws::
"My God, is this me? These eyes, this dead stare... I killed. This is the face of a murderer." - Miroku Tachi
Moving away from the characterisation, the most eye-catching positive is the artwork. The dead eyes of Miroku; the bags under his eyes; the stubble growing on his chin--the art captures his psychological state beautifully. There is a moment early on and another later where Miroku looks at himself in a mirror and is shocked by what he sees. And the reader can understand why. The best of the art comes in the full/double-page shots during the more dramatic moments, such as when Miroku holds a cleaver above his head, ready to swing down. But what really caught my eye was the shading, such as when Miroku turns towards the 'camera' and you see his face completely shrouded in darkness; reflecting his mind. Or more subtle shading, such as the lines under his eyes, or even the usage of light & dark. It sets the mood and atmosphere wonderfully. And the art style itself, along with the realistic proportions, is very attractive. In addition, the volume covers rank among the best I have seen. The front covers and spines are black, with facial close-ups of the cast in colours that vary from volume to volume. Most interesting though is the back covers: they are all fully coloured scenes from the story, most if not all drawn specifically for the purpose of being used as cover art.
What lets the art, as well as the characterisation, down a little is how... one-dimensional the more sinister supporting cast are drawn. A cruel school girl character, for example, always has a one-sided smirk and small eyes that leave no doubt about her evilness. Where as Miroku is drawn to show he is emotionally complex, all you see is what you get from her. A little more subtlety artistically would have made how gruesome the crime was a lot harder to stomach. The same could be argued about Sudo with his one-sided smirk but, in his case, the amount of dialogue and the depth of what he conveyed made him more than the sinister smirker he initially appeared to be. Basically, I think the author went a little too far at times with graphic novel exaggerations in a story about dealing with the very real repercussions of taking lives. Nowhere near as over the top as, say, in Battle Royale, but still...
Far more troubling is the direction - or lack of - the series seemed to have after its opening 'murder & memories' sections. Two new characters were immediately introduced: a former teacher and his former student wife. The latter of the two needed to be introduced for the series' title to make sense and to help draw the story to a close, but the flashback involving teacher blackmail, gang-rape and the porn industry that followed was absurd, to put it mildly. And then the series finds itself in a loop where the police suspect Mikuro but have no evidence and Mikuro remains in despair over how badly his plan backfired. Basically, the plot comes to a standstill. Even more irksome was how characters that appeared in flashbacks, with their roles seemingly finished, randomly turned up to see Mikuro in the present. One of the characters being a wanted fugitive that, last we saw, had formed a harem of underage girls in some obscure foreign country. Thankfully, the multi-chapter confession scene that came just before where I was able to read up to was excellent and re-added some much needed focus, and I am hoping the series retains its earlier brilliance as it edges toward its conclusion.
:: End & Finish ::
"It was not love. Her feelings for me were nothing but hate, anger, fear and contempt. But what really drew her towards me was the pity she felt for someone deeply unhappy. I should have found that humiliating, that she was only interested in me for that reason. But, strangely, it filled me with warmth and tenderness." - Miroku Tachi
I would have preferred to do this after the translation is finished and after reading the source material. But, given how stop-start-cancel lengthy manga translation projects for unknown seinen titles understandably are, I felt a need to do this sooner rather than later. And, should my opinion change considerably after finishing, I will edit my score and/or review to reflect that. Under 300 ratings at the time of typing is shockingly low for something of this caliber; even just in terms of the art. Manga adaptations of classic literature are not terribly common. There is actually a three volume manga called 'No Longer Human' that deals with the same subject matter as A Falsified Romance AND is also a modern re-imagining of a classic piece of literature. It is also as unread and unknown as what I am reviewing. Both series deserve to be read, and I am hoping a few people at least see the title, description and/or score and read it.
In closing, let me say this: as of yet unfinished (in English) and flawed though this 'inspired by' adaptation is, it combines excitement with food for thought with effortless ease. It begins as a hopelessly addictive page-turner that pulls you into the world of an intelligent yet distant from reality character, as he embarks on the path to insanity by trying to figure out how to murder someone without getting caught. Then it fills in the blanks and follows through on the hints about its lead's past, with some disturbing arguments about just what it is to be human. It is not unusual for a chapter to consist entirely of one conversation, which is to say the dialogue is both intense and well-written, on the whole. The plot does stumble here and there as its narrative switches between plotting a murder to how a person copes after murdering but, ignoring the intrusive supporting cast subplots, the quality is consistently high. If you are looking for a psychological exploration married to thrills, look no more.