By Kengo Hanazawa
Kengo Hanazawa’s I Am a Hero opens with its protagonist Hideo Suzuki slowly uncoupling the three locks on his door, with a page devoted to each unlocking. He cautiously enters the room, looks left and right, dances his way in, flicks on yet another light switch, peers out his windows, and checks every room in his house, including the bathroom. These opening pages not only inform us of the unusual personality disorder of our protagonist, but perfectly establishes the manga’s claustrophobic and uneasy tone. Everything comes from Hideo’s perspective, and precisely what is and isn’t visible consistently subverts expectations, questioning the truthfulness of events depicted throughout the book.
Hideo blatantly suffers from schizophrenia, and the first half of the book is a character study of how he perceives the world around him. He’s got all the classic symptoms: he hallucinates people that aren’t there, he’s paranoid that his girlfriend is cheating on him, and he deludes himself into believing he is a hero of justice. We quickly realize that Yajima, the companion he vents his frustrations to, doesn’t exist through his sudden appearances and disappearances from a setting. Hideo’s lonely egomania becomes even more apparent when he starts ranting about manga at his workplace, thinking he’s having a spirited conversation with a coworker, only for it to turn out he was just muttering to himself under his breath. Hideo’s schizophrenia fuels a mistrust of reality that presents the strange events underlying the first half of the book as just figments of his superstitious imagination.
Throughout the first half of this omnibus edition, we get hints at a greater strangeness happening in the world from snippets of news stories or an odd surreal occurrence here and there. Yet because Hideo is so absorbed in his daily life, it’s easy to dismiss what’s going on as part of how he’s perceiving the world around him. Hanazawa exploits this masterfully, gradually escalating the severity of the events told in the news stories, and subtly showing changes in Hideo’s daily life as the book goes on. Hideo complains that he feels like a secondary character in his own life, and his detachment from the crises going on in the world is a perfect reflection of this. He’s so detached from reality and focused on himself that he doesn’t notice that reality is actually changing. Only by the midpoint of the book, when Hideo’s zombified girlfriend attacks him, does the series bare its teeth, that it isn’t just a character study of a schizophrenic, but an apocalyptic survival thriller with zombies.
I Am a Hero shares a lot of similarities with Inio Asano’s Good Night Punpun in tone and content. Both stories feature characters with an abstracted, warped perspective of themselves and reality, which not only depresses them but develops an inherent mistrust in both people and their world. Hideo’s character study is as viscerally unnerving as Punpun’s in how his schizophrenia walks the line between over-the-top cartoonish and uncomfortably real. Whilst some of Hideo’s behaviors like his spontaneous dancing and rants about the news girls are humorous, other things he does like how obsessively he checks his room, thinks he wears better clothing than anyone else, keeps a firearm beside his bed, and rants about his hatred of everyone looking down on him is eerily accurate to how a lonely person with a mental disorder might think and behave. It’s very easy to compare his behaviors to someone like Elliot Rodger, the infamous gunman behind the 2014 Isla Vista massacre who documented his hatred of the world through several Youtube videos and a 140-page manifesto. Elliot Rodger is a recent and well-documented case of someone with a mental disorder who was left on his own, developed a warped perspective on the world, ultimately leading him to pursue a righteous crusade of homicide, thinking of himself as a hero righting the wrongs of the world. Hideo doesn’t get to the sort of breaking point Rodger did, but because of examples like Rodger it’s very easy to recognize his mental disorder and empathize with his character in spite of the bizarre nature of his actions.
Hanazawa’s raw depiction of his world and characters makes I Am a Hero feels simultaneously mature and juvenile. The world is richly detailed, rendered to an almost photo-realistic degree. Human character deigns are a little more stylized, but still have more realistic proportions and facial features than most manga. Zombie character designs are as varied as they are hideous, with bulging fish-eyes, mangled faces, and dehydrated bodies among the most common features. Hanazawa crafts a realistic world not only through this hyper-detailed and expertly shaded artwork, but also through the nuances of his writing. Hideo is very childish, but in ways that make sense contextualized by his mental disorder. The sexual innuendo and profanity in the manga feels appropriate for characters like him and those he surrounds himself with. These characteristics support the slow-burning character study in the first half of the book, whereas in the second half it augments the surreally visceral insanity. The grotesqueness of the zombies and the graphic shock value of the action is enjoyable in a trashy way, as if the manga is self-aware of its own absurdity. After the reveal of the zombies, the second half of the book is an almost non-stop ride of escalating action and insanity as the zombies proliferate the streets and the characters start fighting back, beating up their hideously mangled bloated bodies with the likes of baseballs bats. By the time Hideo’s friend Mitani has been decapitated by a crashing plane, you know that this manga is only going to get crazier.
The book sadly ends before Hideo gets the chance to use his gun, but by that point its clear the series is aiming to be a bloody violent action thriller in the likes of The Walking Dead going forward. There’s a wealth of things to appreciate about this series, from its equally unhinged supporting characters and their subplots, the emotional dynamic between Hideo and his (now deceased) girlfriend, to the Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga-inspired musings on the state of the manga industry. Its rare depiction of a schizophrenic character is deeply nuanced, with Hideo walking the fine line between being disturbing and empathetic. Where Hideo’s character arc will go in future volumes is a mystery, but being one of the few people in Japan with a firearm, something tells me that his lofty dreams of heroism may soon be realized.