The opening scene of Onani Master Kurosawa shows the titular protagonist vigorously pleasuring himself in an abandoned girls’ lavatory. The bottom of the first page offers a full, digitally-rendered shot of the stain he leaves on the wall. What else should we expect from a manga whose title begins with the Japanese word for ‘masturbation’?
Certainly not a Death Note parody, I’m sure. As we watch the aloof Kurosawa drift through school via vainglorious monologues, arrogant smirks, and carefully plotted toilet breaks, the manga appears nothing more than a puerile attack on a more popular title. The artist even goes as far as having the protagonist declare ‘I am Kurosawa’ with the same infamous over-the-shoulder shot as Light Yagami. This spoof seems an amusing but nonetheless quizzical choice for a beginning, as though it exists only because the mangaka wanted a light distraction. However, later, it proves the perfect way to show exactly how Onani Master Kurosawa differs from other shallower stories about disenfranchised youth.
The manga’s true intent worms its way out of the ludicrous premise as soon as Kurosawa meets the downtrodden Kitahara, a victim of bullying suffering from psychological breakdown. She’s small and reticent and utterly helpless, which makes a strong enough impression that Kurosawa decides to become a sick sort of avenger. In an unguarded moment of humanity, he betrays his ability to connect with someone more pathetic than he is, and everything from there is pure, marvellous character development.
Now, a straightforward revenge story would end with the victims finding relief in their torturers’ misfortunes. But this manga keeps things ambiguous in two ways. Firstly, victim and avenger find each other only because they both happen to wander the outer fringes of high school society and not because they in any way like each other. Furthermore, there is disturbingly little evidence that their relationship is a healthy one. Onani Master Kurosawa nurtures these ambiguities, ensuring that, even as we sympathise, we never become comfortable with the characters’ aggressive solution. It thus spins a moving tale of redemption while maintaining an unflinching eye for human weakness.
Of course, the chosen sexual motif is base and disgusting, but the intense personal drama simultaneously reveals an uplifting truth that many will identify with: even seemingly irredeemable people are anything but. Just as Kurosawa’s caricatured antipathy is mere scene setting tossed aside as soon as the story gets underway, his selfish pleasures prove a brittle mask intended only to keep people from discovering his fragile, love-starved soul.
With rough, sketchy lines that fray and overlap, the mangaka delivers a bold, unapologetic style that leaves every pencil stroke naked to the eye. On the one hand, this coarseness grants Kurosawa’s face the fluidity to shift easily from sinister glee during monologues to wide-eyed innocence when addressing others. And his design succeeds brilliantly at demonstrating his anonymity: he wears nondescript clothing and has the lank, longish hairstyles seen on heroes of plenty of other manga. Sometimes he looks like Light, other times he looks like no one in particular.
However, most of the supporting cast also sport disappointingly mundane traits - cute cartoon faces with large, bulbous eyes and small mouths. Moreover, since atmosphere is utterly irrelevant to this character study, backgrounds look perfunctory and exist only to provide a vague school setting.
At its most radical, the manga doesn’t shy away from cum stains, presenting more detailed shots of gloopy, stringy stuff than the average reader will be used to. Miraculously, these depictions never seem gratuitous or exploitative - after all, if the manga’s intention was to titillate, then the last thing it would show is actual spunk. Rather, the shock quickly wears off and the graphic images become vital, if also ugly, glimpses of a person in his most intimate and undignified moment.
Kurosawa’s beginnings as a petty Light allow him to shame the latter’s caricatured portrayal of apathetic youth. He is at first a stereotypical blank slate who interacts as little as possible with his peers and harbours a blunt hostility towards the world. Initially, he seems like a train wreck that’s already happened, offering only sinister laughs and depraved sexual fantasies. But the mangaka finds a glimmer of humanity in all that darkness and uses that leverage to pry him open panel by panel. By the end, he seems not just to have changed, but to have evolved into a uniquely inspiring sort of delinquent.
Onani Master Kurosawa’s cast generally includes people who think they are dirty and dark inside. Their insecurities make them bitter about other people’s happiness, but never inspire them to change or think of themselves as deserving of love. They are the kind of people so used to pushing others away that they cannot accept others accepting them. How can such persons ever escape their spiral of dejection? How will they reconnect with society and make friends? It’s this painful process of relearning their worth that will keep viewers turning from page to page as, I suspect, it speaks a blunt language to anyone who has felt self-doubt.
Onani Master Kurosawa is no ecchi trough from which fanservice animals can feed - it’s too graphic and direct for shallow titillation. And though it starts like a nihilistic piece set only to ride the opportunistic wave of Death Note satire, it eventually carves a new path with moving character studies. Here, high school children are not aloof geniuses but vulnerable beings who make big mistakes. If the Death Note-lite beginning is necessary, it is only to show that cartoon characters can be anything but.