ANIMUS, the debut graphic novel of illustrator and writer Antoine Revoy, took 22 months to finish. For my part as a reader, I can say I’ll be thinking about the story for twice as long.

ANIMUS is, on the outside, a supernatural mystery set in Kyoto, Japan. It follows two schoolchildren, a girl and a boy, who discover a mask-wearing spirit stuck in this world. By freeing the spirit, the pair may also crack the case of where 40 missing children went.

Children and a Supernatural Playground

ANIMUS starts with a story of child abduction. Finding answers to this crime is what occupies the bulk of the tale. The story follows Hisao Nagatani, a young boy who wants to be a star soccer player, and Sayuri Fukazawa, a studious and serious girl who just wants to get out of her braces. The important thing is that they’re friends and quite inseparable (despite Sayuri being much more mature).

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As mentioned, the plot of ANIMUS involves Hisao and Sayuri attempting to free a spirit from a neighborhood playground. This spirit introduces himself as Toothless, due to his snaggletooth grin. He hides most of his face behind the mask of a kitsune, a mischievous fox spirit of Japanese lore. Toothless tells Hisao and Sayuri that, long ago, he was taken from his home and buried alive. Only if they find his body and expose it to open air can his spirit move on. This is, understandably, quite the task for grade schoolers.

Yet there is a catch. The playground on which Toothless roams is no ordinary playground. The different pieces of equipment grant access to supernatural abilities. There’s statues that, if you stand on them, let you hear the thoughts of living things around you. And monkey bars that, if climbed, calm you down. There’s even a swing set that lets you enter a sleeper’s dream.

ANIMUS
Toothless explains the swing set to Hisao and Sayuri. Image courtesy of First Second.

But some of the equipment can produce dreadful consequences, as the characters discover the hard way. When the park endangers one of Hisao’s friends, the search for Toothless’ body becomes even more important. That’s because if the body is freed — so Toothless says — the curse on the friend will go away.

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The Drama Comes From Each Character’s Inability to Achieve Their Dreams

With a lead like that, it’s easy to think that ANIMUS will be a straightforward mystery with a touch of horror. Find Toothless’ body and release his spirit, and the main conflict is over. To some extent, this notion is true. However, the real power of ANIMUS is about each character realizing that they too are confined and unable to get what they want, just like Toothless.

For the adult characters of ANIMUS, it’s easy to see how they feel blocked form their dreams. Superintendent Koyasu wants to give the parents of the missing children answers, but he has none. Issey Matsugi, an incarcerated abductor and killer of children, is chained to the unknown fate of his last reported victim (who bears a strange resemblance to Toothless). One gets the sense that if the adults could have what they want, they could rest easy. Yet time has already run its course, and they wallow in their despair.

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Issey Matsugi confronts his demon. Image courtesy of First Second.

However, young Hisao and Sayuri are still wrapped up in their dreams. Hisao just wants to play soccer, spend time with Sayuri, and be a kid. Growing up and school have started to get in the way of this goal. For Sayuri, it’s the opposite. Revoy shows how much Sayuri dreams of growing up. It’s the trappings of her adolescence — an early bedtime and braces — that stand in her way.

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The story reaches a critical dramatic point for Hisao and Sayuri, during which only one of them can achieve what they really want by finding Toothless’ body. How this event plays out changes both of their lives forever.

The Art Style Emphasizes the Difference Between the Human and Inhuman Elements of the Story

I’ll admit that when I started reading ANIMUS, I looked at the panels from right to left. This is the order in which you read manga. From the art style alone, that’s what I thought I was reading. In other words, Revoy hit the art he was trying to emulate on the mark.

To quote Revoy’s website, “ANIMUS was drawn and inked by hand on Bristol paper, in the long tradition of Japanese manga, American comics, and European bandes dessinées.” The hallmark of the first and last styles are cartoony characters on near-photo-realistic backgrounds. Just look at your favorite manga or pages of Hergé’s THE ADVENTURES OF TIN-TIN, and the influence will become obvious.

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But why would an artist do that? To paraphrase Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, this technique is called “masking.” If the idea of a story is to present characters with whom readers will want to identify, then how a character is depicted will affect this phenomenon. If you draw a character too realistic, then the character can only be as the artist defines him or her. Yet if you make the character “cartoony,” then suddenly the reader gets to define their voice, their actions, and how they see the world. In other words, a reader can embody the character.

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Compare Sayuri and Hisao to the hustle and bustle of Saga Arashiyama. Image courtesy of First Second.

Therefore, when an artist contrasts cartoony characters against a realistic background, that puts special emphasis on identifying with the heroes and objectifying the background. It’s of special note, of course, that Toothless wears a realistic mask to cover his cartoony face. I am certain this is intentional — and Revoy leaves it to the reader to decide why.

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The mask of Toothless. Image courtesy of Antoine Revoy.

In the End, ANIMUS is a Story For Those Who Like to Think

One final thing I should mention about ANIMUS comes in the form of a warning. If you disliked the endings of INCEPTION or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, then you may dislike ANIMUS. The story does end — the character arcs do finish — but not in the way I thought they would. As a reader, I love when writers trick me. Yet some people may not like that.

At the heart of this potential frustration is the concept of a cipher, teased at by Revoy in his allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug.”  Just like the characters in that story have to crack an indecipherable code to find buried treasure, so must Hisao and Sayuri to uncover Toothless’ body. And yet once they do — much like finding the key to a code — it turns the entire story on its head.

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Upon finishing ANIMUS, I felt exactly how the code-breaker Legrand did in Poe’s short story. That is, if you swap the word “coincidence” for “ending”: 

ANIMUS

And yet the joy of such an experience — and the joy of ANIMUS too — is the follow-up line: “But, when I recovered from this stupor, there dawned upon me gradually a conviction which startled me even far more than the coincidence.”

This conviction? Nothing — and I mean nothing — is without meaning in ANIMUS. Every side anecdote — even every reaction from the characters — will make sense once you finish the story. And for my part, I can still say I don’t really understand what happened at the end. That doesn’t mean that the most obvious “gotcha” is inscrutable. But as for what it means — as for the effect on Hisao and Sayuri — I think that’s up for debate.

Final Thoughts on ANIMUS

So, metaphysical quandaries aside, how does ANIMUS hold up as entertainment? For one, the art is fantastic. Plain and simple. For the plot, it was compelling and kept me reading. But for the characters — and how well the plot presents their arcs — it’s a toss-up.

The crux of the drama is about Hisao and Sayuri making decisions on how to respond to finding Toothless’ body. And the decisions they make are surprising. Yet there isn’t much build-up to the intensity of that decision for either character. Hints, yes — but only if you’re looking. In other words, the emotional core of the characters is masked, and that is really the only weakness of the story.

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In a dream sequence, Hisao approaches his character’s climax. Image courtesy of First Second Books.

But maybe that was never the point. Revoy, states that he desired to “invite the reader to look at mundane things in a different way.” ANIMUS looks at the memories that tie us to certain places, objects, or events and how they can hold a strange bondage over their possessor.

ANIMUS
“There’s something sooo depressing about a lost glove,” says Sayuri. “It makes me think that somewhere, there’s become another glove that’s useless too.” Image courtesy of Antoine Levoy.

And that brings me back to the title: ANIMUS. In Latin, that word refers to the rational mind. Yet in English, it is a “malevolent ill will” that one can hold towards something. Humans can insert both meanings of animus into the animate and inanimate components of our environments.

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So if you like your fiction smart and full of questions, ANIMUS is definitely for you. ANIMUS comes out today — May 8, 2018. Get your copy now!

ANIMUS by Antoine Revoy
Art
Characterization
Plot
Summary
Antoine Revoy’s debut graphic novel tells a deep and intelligent tale for those willing to spend time with it. It is a faithful homage to both manga and bandes dessinées without losing the power those art styles have on their stories. Although the surprises that come at the end may be a little confusing, there’s no doubt that the author wanted his audience to think. This gives the story legs well beyond a first reading. Prepare yourself to think — and feel — for ANIMUS is not for the faint of heart.
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