Undercurrent is an excellent, mature, adult, drama. The art isn’t fancy, but the story is a good exploration of abandonment, understanding those closest to you, and living in the aftermath of losing a family member.
It’s also an insight into the way Japanese public baths work, as the story’s main setting is in one. Main character Kanae runs a public bath with her husband, when one day he suddenly disappears from her life without any explanation, leaving no clues whatsoever.
Did he die? Did he run away? There could be a million reasons for why he disappeared, and that is the true horror of such a scenario. The constant questioning, the lack of answers, the unproved possibilities always plaguing you night and day without end.
What do you do when your husband leaves the house one day and never returns? Kanae goes out of her mind with worry, she phones the authorities, hospitals; she wonders about motivations, did he cheat on her? Did he get bored of her? Did he commit suicide? She doubts even truly knowing him in the first place.
The dread of not knowing why someone disappeared one day is the ultimate nightmare, it is a never-ending hell with no resolution, and it’s explored very well with Undercurrent. There is a sad melancholy way about Kanae and her predicament that never veers into melodrama or histrionics; it’s perfectly subtle in that typically Japanese way.
Undercurrent poses this question: ‘what does it mean to understand someone?’ And it poses it in such an effective way, with multiple examples, scenarios and lots of poignant moments that are steeped in the kind of darkness human beings are capable of, and capable of surviving. There are really great revelations brought to the surface in the story, and they are executed in satisfying ways, with no shocking double-page panels or anything of that nature, they’re simply brought to the reader in a matter of fact way, which in a way is more effective.
The more Kanae tries to discover the truth of her husband's disappearence, the more a hidden truth in her subconscious rises to the surface of her mind, and its this duality and subtext that makes the manga an excellent read.
Undercurrent may disappoint the majority of manga readers, because it’s not concerned with typical manga conventions; it’s more concerned with story and drama, so you won’t see attractive character designs or wardrobes, you won’t see speed lines, action scenes, excessive nudity or fan service, and this is to be commended: Knowing what belongs in your chosen genre, and what doesn’t.
Author Tetsuya Toyoda's preoccupation with telling the story at a slow measured pace and reserved style ensures maximum emotional impact because the story and character conflicts and relationships are always at the forefront.
Undercurrent is a tense mystery, a melancholy drama, a subtle romance; it’s a quality manga.