Superpowers and Concrete Towers: Katsuhiro Otomo’s ‘Domu: A Child’s Dream’

Patrick Haddad / May 7, 2018

In 1989, almost a year after it was released in Japan, the Western world was given its first cinematic taste of anime with the sci-fi epic Akira. Acclaimed writer Katsuhiro Otomo’s vision of a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, a sea of concrete edifices laid waste by war, was adapted from the manga of the same name, serialized in Japan from 1982 to 1990. Religious fanatics, biker gangs, and shadowy government figures all vie for control of children with superhuman powers, while the truth behind World War III teases just out of reach. But before Akira, Otomo penned and illustrated a shorter piece of raw, dystopian horror: Domu: A Child’s Dream. Set in a government housing complex where a series of inexplicable deaths are taking place, Domu (serialized between 1980-1981) is resolved through a conflict between an old man and a young girl, both of whom secretly possess extrasensory powers.

While Domu foreshadowed Akira in many ways, it is a much more intimate story with fewer characters and just one location, the Tsutsumi Housing Complex. The residents of Tsutsumi are a forgotten, surplus community. Dreams left unfulfilled, private sufferings gone unchecked, and the struggle for identity in the monotonous wash of concrete go some way to explain the rash of suicides plaguing the complex, yet the police are at a loss to explain exactly how many of these deaths occurred. From the beginning, Otomo sets out to introduce the overwhelming, modernist structure as a character in and of itself. Full panel shots of the building in high detail and high contrast are found throughout, and are often employed as bookends to each chapter. Its circular layout insists upon dreary introspection for half of the residents it houses: there is no looking out to the city, to a potentially brighter future. Many prisons, schools, and hospitals also follow a similar template. The circular design—reminiscent of the Panopticon—allows for both greater visibility and fewer places to hide, and is often accompanied by a raised central observation point. Tsutsumi is monotonous in its aspect as well as its makeup: hard concrete, hard lines; no facade, no flair. Behind this impassive exterior lie grimy, cramped apartments hidden among a labyrinth of iron and concrete hallways. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Tsutsumi as the backdrop to one of Freddy Krueger’s nightmarish rampages, and Otomo almost certainly drew upon similar feelings of unease regarding the homogeneous modernization of postwar Japan as did Shinya Tsukamoto, who created the shocking cult horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).

As the story progresses, it becomes clear—to the reader at least—that the mysterious deaths can be traced back to Old Cho, an apparently senile old man who is in fact using his telekinetic powers to cause fatal accidents or, as in the iconic scene featuring a depressed young man with a craft knife, forcing residents to commit suicide. Old Cho frequently kills from the background, unseen by his victims, his twisted revelry seeming to come from the building itself. Old Cho is not the only resident with special gifts. He finds an adversary in the form of a young girl called Etsuko. They clash the very moment Etsuko and her family move into the tower block, when she uses her abilities to catch the plummeting baby Cho, using his psychic powers, had snatched and dropped from the balcony.

As the story progresses, Cho’s and Etsuko’s confrontations escalate, as the tally of innocent victims climbs. The final act of Domu marks a stark departure from earlier passages, as the static panels showing the impassive monolith and its cowed inhabitants are replaced by dynamic and violent scenes, splashed with blood and fueled by emotion. By the end of the book, it is hard to tell who really won or what a victory would even mean, but it is clear that most of the violence was down to random malice, or misguided fear and rage. It is ironic, then, that the reduction of human beings to just pure function results in senseless, unproductive violence.

Many modernist, and particularly Brutalist, social housing structures were built after World War II in order to show that “A dwelling can be standardized to meet the needs of men whose lives are standardized,” according to urban design pioneer Le Corbusier. Projects such as Les Damiers in Paris, Robin Hood Gardens in London, Habitat 67 in Montreal, and the Unité d’habitation in Berlin are iconic examples of an architectural style that would dominate social housing well into the 1970s. However, the utopian vision set out by modernist architects—to create socially progressive and egalitarian housing—became twisted by time and by the reality of the project’s application. Affordable social housing turned into isolated ghettos, while the idea of social progress became just a gear, an empty promise, in the great Soviet machine. The modular, repetitive nature allowed for quick and cheap rebuilding, but, perhaps in part due to its success, it also aided in the dissolution of identity. Each building, each home, was just a copy of the last, with nothing substantial to distinguish each from each: an existence stripped of form, each building nothing but raw function. And so too its occupants.

In contrast to the urbanization implied by modernist housing, America saw large numbers of people, many of them returning veterans, flee the cities after World War II in favor of suburban living. Combining the power of assembly-line mass production with the G.I. Bill’s loan assistance saw entire communities of cookie-cutter homes spring up in a remarkably short space of time. Spreading out in a grid, rather than towering above, suburbia very often entailed a similar rationalization of living spaces. The mass produced sprawl, built to the same specifications and filled with the same stylish appliances, fits nicely into Le Corbusier’s definition of homes as “machines for living in.”

Things were much grimmer in Japan, of course. Suffering atomic bomb strikes that wiped two of its cities clean off the map, as well as the death of an Empire, caused a national crisis of identity. The country was then occupied by and rebuilt in the image of its conquerors: centuries of culture burned to the ground or consumed by industry and replaced with bloodless, uniform architecture. Tower blocks went up where pagodas once stood, no longer hewn from stone and wood but erected with concrete and rebar. British author Theodore Dalrymple describes modernist architecture as “inherently totalitarian… [it] delights to overwhelm and humiliate what went before it by its size and prepotency.” The seeds of modernism in Japan were planted before their defeat during World War II, however. Le Corbusier worked with two prominent Japanese architects during the 1930s, Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura. During this time, a synergy was found between Le Corbusier’s visions for flexible, open plan buildings filled with natural light and the traditional Japanese house, called Sukiya-zukuri. This synergy would be expanded upon in the later Metabolism movement, which sought to bring inspiration from organic, biological structures to modernist architecture during the 1960s.

In Domu, we find a manifestation of this dehumanizing monolith in the form of the Tsutsumi Housing Complex and it’s magpie avatar, Old Cho. For each of his victims, Cho claims a glittering prize, a personal token: a badge, a hat, a gun. Before being forced over the precipice of their hopelessness, literally and figuratively, a piece of their identity is stolen before being secreted away somewhere in the bowels of the building.

While it is unlikely that Otomo wrote Domu as an explicit attack on modernism in Japan, the influence of the displacement and anxiety it caused is clear in his work. In Domu, we see Otomo start to develop two of the principle themes that went on to make Akira a timeless classic: young people with exceptional, inherent power, and a dystopian vision of Neo-Tokyo as a failed totalitarianism, an endless landscape of monstrous and towering concrete. These themes went on to define an era of storytelling in manga and anime characterized by pervasively bleak visions of the future.

The loss of privacy and individualism caused by massive modernist social housing estates is also explored in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975), in which tenants of a self-contained tower block in London degenerate into primal tribes, warring over territory and resources while normal city life continues outside. In High Rise, the dehumanizing power of Brutalism leads people to lose their “civilized” behavior and let base urges drive their lives, while in Domu we get a greater sense of the despondency that comes from being a lifeless industrial worker in a lifeless industrial landscape. It is as though living in this monochromatic, function-centric environment leaves us with only two potential identities: the animal, or the machine.

Regardless of whether you read Domu for its gripping and pioneering storytelling, for what it tells us about the role played by modernist architecture in postwar Japan, or purely for its wonderful aesthetic, it is a work that easily stands on its own two legs, despite often being overlooked as some sort of practice run for the Akira epic. Rather than the abstract, existentialist sprawl that is the latter, in Domu we have a more concise and personal tale, with a sense of looming oppression that bleeds from every page. The bare honesty found in some of Cho’s victims shines a light on the real lives lived quietly the world over, their deep fatigue resonating in profound echoes. The next time your morning commute takes you past some austere, concrete tower block, remember: somewhere inside may be a young girl who blows things up with her mind.

Patrick Haddad is a freelance writer currently living in Berlin. He has worked as a teacher for 10 years in three different countries and also writes on tech, language, and education.

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5 thoughts on “Superpowers and Concrete Towers: Katsuhiro Otomo’s ‘Domu: A Child’s Dream’

  1. I often hear this argument, that modernist/brutalist architecture and planning in and of itself were the cause of the failure of various public housing projects in the US and Western Europe and I find it ridiculous. That’s not to say it’s blameless, but people who make this argument speak as though the aesthetics of the buildings themselves cause some mystical annihilation of the human spirit.

    When modernist projects failed it was more often due to the fact that governments saw public housing not as a way to reinvent communities, but as a way to cram the largest amount of poor people into the smallest area. That has nothing to do with one’s personal opinion on the appearance of the buildings; it is a failure of proper governance. With proper planning and leadership, modernist public housing can and has worked, to a point. Blighted ghettos existed long before brutalism and they still exist today.

    I apologize, but I consider myself someone who will defend most styles of architecture, no matter how unpopular and pedestrian. Maybe I’m just contrarian. I don’t agree with your take on modernism, but an interesting article nonetheless. Sorry again for the long post.

    (tldr: The fault is with society and government rather than aesthetics)

    • Hey thanks for your comment, very interesting and I basically completely agree. In the article I tried to write from the perspective, or at least my perceived perspective, of the author. That Brutalist architecture inspires such strong reactions is what I intended to explore, rather than to directly blame the aesthetic for social problems.

      I consider myself a fan of modernist architecture, and am lucky to live amongst some fantastic examples in East Berlin.
      Even as a fan though, it is difficult to ignore the relationship between the architectural style, and governments’ efforts to isolate and contain underprivileged populations. My aim was to explore that association as it is represented through art. The association may be misleading, or even deliberately manufactured, which is definitely worth exploring, but not really in the context of Otomo’s work.

      I do in general feel that aesthetics, especially with regards to public and living spaces, have an impact on people’s emotional states. However, this is basically impossible to properly quantify. I like sharp angles, modular shapes, and stark colour schemes, yet my neighbour might find the same thing oppressive or overbearing. It’s very subjective, and so ripe for artistic license.

      I would hope that the human spirit is stronger than concrete, but if repeated attempts to annihilate it are all clad in the Brutalist style, it is forgivable for people to link one with the other. Especially in art.

      Anyway I’m rambling, but I appreciate your comments. I’ll try to find some literature that celebrates modernism so I can provide a counterpoint to this piece!

      • Sounds like that would be a good article. Probably slim pickings on pro-modernism source material though, at least in the time frame covered by this site. Thanks for the response, this article sounds better in context.

        • British architectural writer Owen Hatherley has written some great stuff on modernist/Brutalist architecture; I feel like his perspective is very close to yours, LFM.

  2. Pingback: Larry Hama’s ‘The Nth Man’: Ninja, Nostalgia, and World War III

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