Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.
Another Warning: GOTH contains extreme goriness and disturbing content. Reader’s discretion is highly advised.
The last time I felt I should give readers a warning first thing in the review was with Sakura Gari which is a tale of a twisted love fueled by years of mistreatment and madness. Compared to that, GOTH is another ballgame altogether. At least in Sakura Gari, we see madness as madness. The characters are clear in their ethical stand points. In other word, the narrative of Sakura Gari is sane. In GOTH, there is no common outlook for readers to hang on to. We are thrust right into the world of Kamiyama, a high-schooler and a self-professed morbid psychopath, where crimes scenes are playgrounds and severed human hands are things of beauty. The entire story is engulfed in cold detachment towards the crimes, the victims, the criminals, and the motivations. It is the numbness that irks us normal people. Yet, the narrative of GOTH portrays this as normal as the sun rises and sets. But we know it is not, whether it is from ethical or psychological point of view. It tips me off right from the beginning and in the same time lures me on, because this is a thought-experiment; this is safe as long as we keep track of where the axis of our world really is.
But the minds portray here does not exactly arise just from thought-experiment. Unfortunately, they have real-world counterparts that we know existed. The title GOTH was supposed to be the implication to the kind of mind portrayed – the ones lured by darkness – but Goth subculture has nothing to do with the main content of this story. Otsuichi had apologized for the misuse which leads to some readers picking the book by mistake and, I presume, being more than disturbed by it. The only thing in this story that I would count as distinctly gothic is the fascination with death, but there is a large difference between toying with the idea of death and going out to find dead bodies and serial killers. The former I would find it within reason for someone to ponder over at times. To be obsessed with it would be a bit alarming but does not mean the person is a danger to anyone unless proven otherwise. The latter would set all my alarms off immediately because it means the person is not obsessed with death as an abstract concept, but seeks to make it tangible. I don’t think you need to be a psychologist to know that it is a sign of an unhealthy mind.
But that is the story of GOTH. Kamiyama, the apparently cheerful boy, and Morino, the gloomy girl, are two friends from the same school who share the fascination with death. They seek out places where crimes had occurred. While Morino is satisfied with staring into the eyes of the dead or standing in the place they have been, Kamiyama would only be sated by interacting with the perpetrators. They have no intention of stopping the crime or finding justice for the victims. These investigations are solely for their private fantasies. Morino associates herself with the victim. Kamiyama associates himself with the killer.
That leads us to main interest of the story: the serial killers.
Killing is not necessary an act of ending a life for some psychopathic killers. While there is a wide range of motivation for serial killing, none which can be easily understood and in most cases convoluted, a portion of serial killing is about possession. It came up in the recount of Ted Bundy and Jeffry Dahmer. While we can argue over the credibility of Bundy’s own word given his tendency to manipulate, Dahmer’s behaviour spoke louder. He killed men whom he came into sexual contact with (which probably means he was attracted to them, if that is even the right word) and occasionally kept parts of them with him, even ate them. He also did his infamous zombie experiment to make them submissive partners. I would say that speaks volumes of Dahmer’s drive, or part of it: he wanted a relationship he had total control over and lovers who would never leave him whom he could abuse or use at will. It is probably the most evident example of sadistic possession. This might be a twisted display of emotional attachment that we regular people could never understand.
That kind of motivation is also present in GOTH, albeit more subtly displayed and never laid out completely which actually is very appropriate given that in most cases no one can really pinpoint what really drives the killing. It is much easier to portray serial killers as just evil and crazy like in Silence of the Lamb or Psycho but that is a very narrow portrayal of what psychopathic killers are like. They typically are not crazy. It is in their head that emotion (or sometimes the lack thereof) and rationalization got so messed up something evil born out of it. And seriously, normal human has done a lot of evil. We don’t need to be out of our minds to do it.
However, I will admit that showing serial killers as distorted humans are far more disturbing than making them outright monsters from hell because no one knows where the line really is. Is Kamiyama a monster or just a really sick teenager? Will he really become a psychopathic killer? He had no qualms of killing, but if he does not commit a crime, should we still count him as a danger? I would say no idea, maybe, and probably yes for those three questions, but I have no idea how to appropriately deal with him. There are too many issues about predicting a criminal that the act itself should be considered unethical. But what if we found someone like Kamiyama who is clearly a hidden predator, should we single him out and try to intervene?
At least right now, the only motivation that can make Kamiyama cross the line is Morino. His attachment towards her started when he spotted a scar across her wrist indicating that she had tried to commit suicide. At that time, Kamiyama and Morino were yet to be acquaintance, so he saw Morino, and Morino’s hand in particular, as object of obsession. But as he comes to know her, his attention seems to be drawn away from a part of Morino’s body to Morino as a person. He almost proclaims her as his in the way he confronts the serial burier when Morino disappears on her way to school. It is even more obvious when he seems to be digging into Morino’s past which she finds distasteful. I guess she really starts to sense then that Kamiyama has an unhealthy attraction towards her, not that it is really unwelcome. She knows Kamiyama has the tendency to be a killer. That, I think, is the quality that draws her to him subconsciously in the first place.
It is after Morino’s past is exposed that they both finally confess their needs to one another. Morino, haunted by the death of her twin sister, finally admits that she wants to die. Tenderly, Kamiyama offers that whenever she feels like ending her life, he will gladly make her wish comes true.
It is almost a love scene – a twisted, morbid, and frightening love scene between the potential killer and his potential victim. I will admit here that I find it startlingly beautiful.
At the end of it, I think it is more of a dark fairytale with a very nice depiction of the deadly psychopathic minds. The ending reminds me of Kaori Yuki’s The Boy Next Door which is also a dark fairytale about a serial killer who found his perfect match in a prostitute with a death wish. But The Boy Next Door is a love story, and it isn’t even about the killing. As soon as they found each other, the killing stops because the killer finally has someone he enjoys the company alive. In the end, I think that might have happened to Kamiyama, too. He does not want to kill Morino on his own term but hers. I have a feeling that his attachment to her has gone beyond the need of possession. What you would call it, I do not know.
I have been told that the original GOTH, an anthology of six short-stories written by Otsuichi, has more insight into the characters than it is shown in the manga, understandably from the page-limit on the manga and the different presentation of the two media. While we have the visual realization of Otsuichi’s description in the manga, which some of us might want to forgo, it limits how much inner monologue can be put in without boring people out of their minds. The high contrast drawing lends a rather surreal and eerie atmosphere, like the minds it is trying to portray. I haven’t read the original anthology – though I’m seriously considering it given its award-winning reputation – so I cannot really say if the manga presentation had really done justice to the piece. As a standalone, I think Kendi Oiwa has done a splendid job with both the visual and the narration.
GOTH is also adapted into a movie directed by Gen Takahashi. After watching the film out of curiosity, I would recommend readers to stick with either the book or the manga as the film use a lot of creative license which ends up making it a lot like other serial killer movies. The killer in the story is reduced to a monster with a clear insane motivation. It also addresses the relationship between Kamiyama and Morino which is the dynamic of the story rather tactlessly. Having the subtle cues and gestures spelt out so bluntly and artlessly is insulting to the characters’ and the audience’s intelligence. Kamiyama and Morino can figure each other out on their own just fine. Thank you.
Despite the shortcomings, the movie still faithfully adheres to the original concept that the true horror is the mind not the crime, the gore, or the body parts. In fact, there isn’t much blood and no gore at all in the movie. It is a shame they couldn’t bring the main point to clearer light given they don’t have the visual distraction to begin with. But to give them credit, portraying a mind that is so complex, eerie, and with the ability to hide those things so effectively, is not exactly the easiest task on screen. For now, the book and the manga are the best shot if you want to see the world through the eyes of the killers.