It’s a beautiful day outside and — oh look, there’s a man eating a woman’s corpse.
I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up the first volume of Reki Kawahara’s latest manga THE ISOLATOR, but I had zero regrets after reading it. Kawahara is the author of SWORD ART ONLINE and ACCEL WORLD, both of which are science fiction adventures. THE ISOLATOR is no different; it’s set in the present day and follows Minoru Utsugi, a high school student who develops a strange power after he’s hit by a mysterious black orb from the sky.
Unfortunately, Utsugi is not the most compelling hero to follow. He’s a teenager who takes teen angst to a whole new level. When we first meet him, he’s on his daily run, a routine he’s kept up for five years seemingly as a way to literally run away from his past (specifically an incident involving a teacher). I was intrigued, wanting to know what happened that affected him so greatly, but his constant whining for solitude got annoying fairly quickly. This “hurting hero” trope is not an original concept. You have Ichigo from BLEACH, Kouji from MAZINGER Z, Batman, and—well, you get the idea. The difference between these heroes and Utsugi, though, is that these guys actively try to help people as a means of making up for their guilt or past actions. Utsugi, however, doesn’t want to do anything. He just wants the world to forget about him and live in complete solitude. Even by the end of the volume, he still has no desire to help anyone despite witnessing how dangerous the orbs can be. While I wanted to know what happened to him in the past, his constant complaining overshadowed any interest I had in him as a hero. No wonder this is called THE ISOLATOR.
Thankfully, the story’s tone really makes up for Utsugi’s teen angst. I’ve always been a fan of grim plotlines, and THE ISOLATOR delivers that within the very first chapter. Section 001 of the volume is relatively tame, even with its minor action scene. The artwork is bright, with lots of white and light grey coloring, and most of the chapter takes place out in the sun. The end, however, introduces a villain who’s sitting in a dark room and chomping on the remains of a female corpse. We get to see him bite into a severed hand, as well as a lovely shot of him sitting next to her half-eaten body, ribs exposed and all. Anyone who knows me knows that I love horror, so this tiny glimpse of gore really got my attention. The villain, Biter, seemed like a terrifying foe, especially when the silhouette of his head transforms into that of a monster. We never learn if he’s the main antagonist or just one bad guy in a line of many, but his introduction set the mood for the volume. At that point, I couldn’t wait to see how the rest of the book would play out.
Sadly, Biter should’ve stayed in the dark. Though his cannibalistic habits initially make he seem like a worthy villain, once we get a real glimpse of him, all fear goes right out the window. The silhouette that we see at the end of the first section makes it seem like his whole head morphs, but his mouth is actually the only thing that transforms. He’s supposed to have the jaws of a shark, but I didn’t see this at all. He looked like a strange cross between a duck and crocodile during some scenes, while others made him look like a Doberman. His power is also pretty useless once we get to see him in action. Sure, he’s scary when he’s eating people in a dark room, but his biting abilities are useless against Utsugi (whose power is a protective shield), and he has no other skills. At least BATMAN’s Killer Croc has immense strength and can hold his own during a fight. Biter may have strong jaws, but he seemed a little weak during the volume’s battle scene. Of course, this is the first volume in the series, so there’s still hope that we’ll see a greater foe or that Biter will get stronger.
Speaking of the battle scene, the real fun in the volume comes when we meet Yumiko. She doesn’t just enter Utsugi’s life through a random encounter. No, she comes sliding in and knocks Biter in his duck shark jaws right before he can attack our angsty hero. The entire battle is between her and the shark man, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction. The only other female we meet in the volume is Tomomi Minowa, one of Utsugi’s classmates who only cries or gets herself into danger, so Yumiko was a breath of fresh air. She’s a strong character who can hold her own during a fight, demonstrating knowledge and skills in combat. She’s also very levelheaded with an immense desire to use her power for good. Her ability to use her teleportation power is almost professional, as if she’s a soldier for some kind of higher organization. And she knows a lot about the orbs, has an advanced weapon, and is actively hunting down people like Biter. She’s the hero I want Utsugi to become, and I’m far more interested in learning more about her. Her desire to help others and stop people like Biter leaves a lot to the imagination. Can she do more than teleport? Is she really a soldier? If she is, why? How did she become one? Why is she so set on saving the world? Compared to Yumiko, Utsugi is a rather dull character. Hopefully a little bit of her personality rubs off on him as they interact more.
The storyline of THE ISOLATOR Vol. 1 is fascinating, and the shifts in tone really kept me engaged. Utsugi is not the greatest hero, nor is he the most appealing, but if I have to follow him in order to learn more about Yumiko, I’ll happily do so. I highly recommend this manga if you’re looking for a new science fiction story with a strong female character. Who knows? Maybe Yumiko is the real hero and Utsugi is just a sidekick. One can hope!