Minetaro Mochizuki’s suspenseful survival drama Dragon Head (Tokyopop) has been strong since its debut, but I think it improves markedly with the fifth volume. After four installments of escalating suspense, Michizuki takes time to explore the psychology of his characters and the philosophical issues surrounding their circumstances. The tension doesn’t abate so much as it deepens with the additional development of character.
It isn’t as if Mochizuki has been neglecting these aspects of the story up until now, but he hasn’t addressed it with this degree of directness. I find myself more invested as a result. If you’ve been resisting Dragon Head because of a perceived emphasis on action melodrama over more substantial story elements, you might reconsider. (If you’re avoiding it because of a distaste for graphic violence, you’re still making the right choice.)
(Spoilers for the fifth volume from this point forward.)
High-school students Ako and Teru and A.W.O.L. soldiers Iwada and Nimura get a break from the frying pan, reaching Japan’s devastated coastline and connecting with another survivor, a matronly school teacher who is almost ridiculously welcome to both character and reader for the compassion and solace she provides. She’s also competent and clear-headed, having survived the devastation and deaths of her family and students without devolving into bitterness or isolation. In other words, she’s unlike anyone we’ve met so far, yet she fits in the world of the story.
She could be a blatant Jiminy Cricket, the voice of conscience in a moral wasteland, but she somehow escapes that. She’s not a stereotypical nurturer so much as a person operating on earned wisdom rather than panicked instinct. It’s fascinating to watch Ako draw strength from her while not falling into a clichéd mother-daughter dynamic.
And, important as the teacher is, this volume does belong to Ako as she struggles with exhaustion, danger, and a desperate need to see Teru through a health crisis resulting from previous events. She isn’t turning into an action babe, but she is very believably finding new sources of strength and determination in unthinkable circumstances. Mochizuki is detailing her evolution with tremendous care and intelligence.
Dragon Head was always fascinating survival drama, but it gains additional layers with each new chapter. It’s a tremendously good book, deeper and smarter than it initially seemed, but still genuinely suspenseful.