A man finds himself imprisoned for a reason unknown to him for ten years before he is released. He keeps himself sane by acknowledging one logic of the situation - that he is still alive. With his past behind him and nothing to lose, his only goal is to find a man who has kept him imprisoned all this time.
The world of manga, much unlike its brother in the western culture (i.e. comics), is undoubtedly plagued with fictions that do no better than to establish a rather conventional story, a rather predictable set of characters, and art that is well refined but nothing reflective
of the real world. With Oldboy, however, the rules of convention are left completely neglected. There is nothing enticing about Oldboy as a manga at the first glance. Characters are just people dressed in normal clothes and with no dramatic expression on their faces. Little amount of action takes place in relation to the whole manga. The setting mostly takes place in Tokyo - again, nothing extraordinary.
What makes this manga unique within its first chapter from other mangas is the concept behind the whole story. The idea of a man being imprisoned for ten years where he was well-fed, provided a room with full bathroom and TV, plus monthly haircut service, as part of the act of a vengeance is truly extraordinary. On top of that, this was done at an expense of 300 million yen (roughly = 3 million US dollars), all paid by the perpetrator. Could he not have sent an assailant after a person whom he clearly loathes and have him murdered? Or even tortured? Why imprison him at a place that have costed him 300 million yens to pay for... especially with the intent of releasing him some time later?
One of the unfortunate drawbacks of the manga is that it's too long. The motive behind the story is truly captivating and intriguing, but, even with all the fascinating characters, their development and interactions in between, it takes simply too long for the truth of it all to unravel. However, the sheer volume of the events that take place before the truth is revealed is not without purpose. All the events leading up to the final moment of truth do contribute to the ultimate impact of the motive behind the antagonist. There is an underlying theme in this manga that is as thought-provoking as it is melancholic. What is it that keeps us going in the world of superficial people, unfairly played games and the ultimate demise that is as forthcoming to all of us as a clock clicking towards the next minute? No one is safe from the imperfection that prevails in our world, and Kakinuma - the antagonist - in particular has a surprisingly heartfelt story to tell. Then, at the core of it all, is Gotou, a man who is honest and empathetic to the point of them being a flaw to his character.
Where this manga truly thrives is its subtle dramatization of the characters and the relationships they build throughout. Unlike the heroes and the bad guys of most conventional mangas, the characters here are not immune to the flaws of humanity: the greed and carelessness that comes with our self-preservative intents; the vulnerability to establishing meaningful relationships; and - among the most damaging quality of humanity - the ability and the sense of obligation to care. These characters are no different from people who we may encounter in our lives, and are as respectable, flawed, and despicable as our friends and foes alike are.
Oldboy is a manga of highly realistic characters that have found themselves within the grasp of an unbeatable nemesis to humanity. It is frustrating, dark, and depressing, but it is also touching and also surprisingly sympathetic. The underlying atmosphere of melancholy is haunting and well established through not only the story, but the never-exaggerated, subtle portrayal of characters and the settings. This truly is a triumph in both the world of manga and literature. 9/10.