The next time someone tells you comics are “just for kids,” show them Jiro Matsumoto’s Velveteen & Mandala, a graphic novel that pushes the envelope on what most readers may be willing to tolerate. With scenes such as a group of zombies gang-raping a high school girl while she suffers a diarrhea attack, the book is sure to offend its share of readers. I can just picture a furious patron storming up to a library’s front counter and demanding Velveteen & Mandala be pulled from the collection. But as shocking as the book can be, it is also equally fascinating, and a challenging but rewarding read is in store for anyone brave enough to trek through the frightening, surreal world portrayed on the pages.
The storyline in Velveteen & Mandala is broken up into loosely-connected chapters presented in a non-liner fashion. However, one thing is abundantly clear: War has ravaged Tokyo, and the survivors are struggling to continue on with their lives. Even worse, corpses are refusing to stay dead, moving about during the dark hours of night. Matsumoto has an interesting take on the concept of zombies, with his undead “Deadizens” being trapped in various states of their previous existences. Some zombies play baseball, while others discuss their post-work mahjong plans. More often than not, the Deadizens come across as more human than the survivors.
High school students Velveteen and Mandala have been employed to aid in eradicating the Deadizen problem. Working as assistants to a seemingly unbalanced man known as The Super, they help “process” the dead bodies that are dropped from airplanes onto a remote patch of land near a riverbank. Specifically, the girls are tasked with making sure the Deadizens stay dead by shooting them in the head. The only safe time to do so is during the day when the undead stand motionless and are unable to fight back. However, like a crazed puppeteer Matsumoto tinkers with the plot and puts the protagonists into harm’s way by finding ways to send them out into the midst of the zombies after the sun has set.
Further complicating matters is the fact that neither Velveteen nor Mandala are what one would call typical teenage girls. Both characters have a number of psychological and personal problems, and there is a great deal of friction and hostility between the two. Their interplay is reminiscent of the relationship Black and White share in Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkon Kinkret. Velveteen is the stronger member of the pair and usually acts as the leader, though her mental state is often in question, and she sometimes makes poor decisions that put her into precarious situations. Mandala, meanwhile, is more childlike and lightens atmosphere by trying to bring some element of comic relief, though this only leads to Velveteen becoming even more annoyed with her. But for all problems the girls face, their hellish work as Deadizen processors is perhaps not nearly as awful as the lives they were leading before the war.
Reading Velveteen & Mandala is akin to having a delusional experience, and there is a strange, sometimes self-referential sense of humor that permeates throughout. For instance, one section plays out like a video game, complete with menu options that prompt readers to “save” at the chapter’s end. The hallucinatory nature of the book is reinforced by Matsumoto’s meticulous artwork, which is masterfully crafted and packed with intricacies but depicts terrible, nightmarish scenes. The drawings have a gritty, unpolished style that fits in with the horrific setting of a post-apocalyptic city facing a zombie threat. Matsumoto pulls no punches, either, which may make some of the more disturbing violent and sexual scenes too much for some audiences to handle. And the realistic scatological depictions are vivid enough to cause readers to close the book in disgust. I almost did.
But I’m glad I powered through Velveteen & Mandala’s edgier segments and made it to the book’s end. It is not an easy read, but it gave me a lot to ponder. The loose and open storytelling allows readers to draw their own conclusions and make inferences as to the symbolic meanings Matsumoto is trying to get across. It takes multiple readings to piece together the various plot strands and make sense of it all, though I have a feeling many people might be so appalled they won’t even make it through the first time. Velveteen & Mandala should be kept far clear of any graphic novel collection for children or teens, but for adults with a strong stomach and a taste for the esoteric, it provides an exhausting yet absorbing read that is not easy to forget.