An individual knows that it is not status that defines who they are, but how they perceive the world around them.
Such is the case for Nakoshi Susumu: former-salaryman turned vagrant. Homeless he may be, but he does not think or act as one normally would. Living life in the comfort of his cheap car, he is ostracized by the homeless men that he interacts with.
An intimidating young man appears before him with an offer — 700,000 yen in return for an experiment involving trepanation, the drilling of a hole in one's skull. While initially reluctant (and for good reason, one might add!), Nakoshi eventually undergoes the surgery and receives what is believed to be a supernatural effect of the trepanation: the ability to see Homunculi, the repressed feelings of an individual by closing or covering one of his eyes.
But is it really something supernatural?
Despite its premise, Homunculus still manages to remain firmly rooted in logic. It never truly answers whether Nakoshi's experiences are a supernatural phenomenon or if they are simply a hallucination. While the characters will often use psychology to rationalize these events, several questions are curiously left open for the reader to interpret. And at the end, both conclusions are still equally valid. It is duplicitous but never contradictory.
What Nakoshi sees is often disturbing; at times repulsive. These aberrations may be represented by something as simple as a person with no face or a body of a robot, while in other situations it may be something far more unsightly, such a man with a penis for a head, or Nakoshi seeing his own face on a woman that he is sleeping with. At times it is even worse. For all the manga's phallic and unpleasant imagery, though, none of it is ever used for shock value. It is there to effectively immerse the reader in the mental state of Nakoshi, a feat which Homunculus brilliantly achieves with its abstract and detailed artwork. Perhaps you might need a bucket beside you, though. Just in case.
Homunculus carries an exceptional cast of characters, with Nakoshi in particular being wholly fascinating. We do not know his past or his situation, but as his ability pulls him into invariably bizarre situations, these details slowly begin to piece together in a relevant, harmonious format. And while he does not change completely, he develops. He grows and matures as a person. Nakoshi begins to understand that his running away was meaningless, and rather than adhering to his detached and misogynistic persona, he simply wishes for a person that can love him without the superficiality of appearance and wealth. After all, it is not sex that defines happiness, but something less tangible— something more personal.
And then there is Manabu Ito, the one responsible for the trepanation surgery. An example of the proverbial "Don't judge a book by its cover", he is a man who acts completely contrary to his appearance. With piercings, bleached hair, and a flamboyant outfit, you would normally think that such a person would sooner stab than help you. But that is not the case. His appearance is a facade, much like Nakoshi's, which inevitably brings the two together as accomplices and eventually friends. The dynamic between the two is consistently engaging (and occasionally amusing) with Manabu concurrently receiving his fair share of development over the course of the story. You may even grow to enjoy his presence more than Nakoshi's.
Notably, the side characters are also fleshed out and given unique personalities. Even the homeless men or yakuza that Nakoshi interact with have their own backstory, resulting in a much more authentic feel to the characterization. Clichés do not exist within this manga.
The artwork of Homunculus is meticulously illustrated and oftentimes beautiful. No panel is treated as inconsequential. Subtle symbolism, such as winter leaves blowing across a busy city or Nakoshi assuming the fetal position in his sleep, provide as much depth to the art as there is in the story. You may also find enjoyment in discerning what each Homunculus represents. Though with that said, you can just as easily ignore the symbolism and choose to focus solely on the story instead. This is a manga that is as complex or as simple as you want it to be, but it will reward if you choose to analyze and dig deeper.
There's an unpredictability to the narrative which makes Homunculus such an engaging read. When you think that the series has peaked in absurdity, the next chapter will reveal something even more abstract or revolting. When there is a twist, a more surprising one will soon follow. All the way until the final pages. It is never tiresome and will always compel you to continue reading.
Beyond the surreal presentation is a distinctively macabre story. A number of panels are depicted in a gruesome fashion. For example, there is a scene where a character enters a public bathroom and performs self-trepanation with a drill, knowing that they may die or suffer brain damage in the process. What occurs is a brief moment of madness, with the character displaying a ghastly expression while blood rushes from their forehead. Such moments are not uncommon in Homunculus.
You will certainly be surprised by the ending, too. There is no traditional happy ending to be found here, nor is it an inherently 'bad' ending. It is neither and entirely ambiguous. At best, it will provide you with one of the most intelligent and poignant endings in manga. At worst, it will leave you scratching your head. But it will not be something to be forgotten.
What Homunculus manages to achieve in the end is an experience unlike any other. With its beautiful artwork, subtle interpersonal themes, brilliant characters, and macabre narrative— this is not a manga that should be passed up by anybody with an open mind. It is intelligent, it is entertaining, and most importantly, it is memorable.
While we may not always be satisfied with who we are, Homunculus shows us that it is how we think and feel that ultimately decides our role in life. And things never do remain the same.