With the title Oldboy, most today might think of Spike lee’s latest joint. Fewer still might know Lee’s film is a remake of the Korean film Oldboy that took the Grand Jury prize at Cannes in 2004. Fewer still know of the story’s origins in Japanese manga. Oldboy the manga is about Shinichi Goto, a man imprisoned for 10 years in secrecy. After his uneventful release, he goes in search of the person who imprisoned him, seeking revenge for those years with nothing but ramen and a television in that cold, dank cell.
Originally published in a weekly seinen magazine form 1996 to 1998, Oldboy is as pulpy as the paper it was printed on. It’s a terse thriller of Goto trying to unshackle himself from the puppet strings of his malevolent benefactor, with film noir tropes as black and blunt as possible. Multiple femme fatales, smoking, crime syndicates, and more go to form the the ultimate conglomerate of film noir. Goto himself is battered around as if by fate, a big theme in film noir: he falls from an semi-empowered detective type to a silent protagonist accepting whatever blows life gives him. But this is the film noir of the 50s, where crime and punishment gets more brutal and sadistic, and women more exploitative. There isn’t much violence at all in Oldboy. But there’s the occasional ritualistic stroking of the male power fantasy, either with the male gaze unto unnecessary nudity of voluptuous female bodies or some of the more ridiculous actions Goto must take to uncover hints to his enemy’s identity.
The story itself is not a game of cat and mouse a la Deathnote, but rather a game of shocking revelations upon revelations, enough to make a soap opera roll its proverbial eyes. Written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi, the artwork and the story fall into a set of rhythms that manga can become predictable. In conversations, one out of five panels will show Goto’s silent sweaty face in a reaction shot. Characters never eat, but rather imbibe enough alcohol to drown a whale. There’s never any rest, but rather the story rushes on to the next climactic revelation.
Working at a frenetic pace and only 8 volumes long, the manga is a quick read. Given its pulpy nature, it’s only fitting that Dark Horse Comics is the American distributor. It really is pulp fiction at its best and worst: quick, cheap, and dirty, but thrilling nonetheless.