Understanding Hideo Yamamoto

Of all the manga artists I have ever read, Hideo Yamamoto is the most eccentric if not perverse author, who is capable of touching me on a personal level with his magnum opus Homunculus. This prompts me to read about him intensively in a whole week hopefully to grasp what he’s up to.

Hideo Yamamoto started out as a manga artist in 1989, and during the past 30 years, he has created more than ten works. Presumably, by analyzing them, we may come close to understanding his main interests and his possible project in the manga world.

Okama Report: transvestism and gender bending

As early as his twenties, Hideo Yamamoto grew an interest in sexual deviances. His debut is reportedly SHEEP (1989, serialized in Weekly Young Sunday by Shogakukan), but it’s someone else who wrote the story. Not until Okama Report (1989-91, Weekly Young Sunday) did Yamamoto work as the original creator, and from this seinen, we could see how transvestism and gender bending intrigued him. The main character, Shinya Okama, was dressed as a girl by his playful college friends during a party. He later takes up this practice and adopts a drag persona called Catherine. The problem is that he falls in love with Catherine to such an extent that he jerks off looking at himself in the mirror. It could be inferred from this very blunt depiction that Yamamoto has a tendency to reject the usual and discuss topics that are off-limits. He’s unafraid to cross the sexual boundaries. Although Okama Report received a backlash from the LGBT community for its stereotypical and inaccurate depictions of LGBT people, it’s likely that Yamamoto himself is open to non-conforming and versatile sexual behaviors. Probably because of this wild and extreme manner, he’s not widely recognized. 

Okama Report Hideo Yamamoto

Maybe during the making of Okama Report, Hideo Yamamoto often visited cross-dressing gay bars because his manga making process involves a practice similar to “method acting” in which he inhabits the role of the characters. When creating Voyeur, he enrolled in a detective school, and when creating Homunculus, he tried living as a homeless man in Nishi-Shinjuku. This, once again, proves how much this earthly world means to Yamamoto. He’s possibly an atheist who doesn’t believe in the afterlife; and he’s just too realistic to stuff his manga with monsters or aliens. Only in this world may all those craziest forms of living exist, which is why Hideo Yamamoto always goes beneath the surface of daily lives to bring into focus how impulses and desires drive our actions. He ambitiously dissects the human psyche and take our mental and physical capacity to its extremes to see how much can we suffer pain and trauma (Ichi The Killer), how far can we sustain body modification (Homunculus), and how vengeful and cruel can we become (Voyeurs, Inc. and Enjokousai Bokumetsu Undou). 

Okama Report is the only work by Hideo Yamamoto that has a certain sense of humour, which can still be found in Voyeurs, Inc. but not in his subsequent works. His drawing and narrative style in Okama Report is also relatively shoujo and different from that in Ichi The Killer or Homunculus.

Yamamoto’s interest in sexual deviances can also be found in Voyeurs, Inc., a manga depicting voyeurism, and in Enjokousai Bokumetsu Undou (illustrated by Koshiba Tetsuya), on compensated dating and violence. All of these works were serialized in Weekly Young Sunday from 1989 to 1997. 

Voyeurs, Inc. Hideo Yamamoto

Ichi The Killer: violence and sadomasochism

In Voyeurs, Inc. and Enjokousai Bokumetsu Undou, Hideo Yamamoto creates an extreme scenario where libidos drive people to death, whereas in Ichi The Killer (1998-2001, Weekly Young Sunday) Yamamoto projects how far people can go with sadism and masochism.

Outwardly, Ichi, or Shiroishi Hajime, is a typical diligent and kind young man, but on the inside, he’s an explosive sadist who at the same time suffers from PTSD and personality disorder. He can only be aroused by scars and bruises, and only ejaculates when inflicting pain on others. Kakihara Masao, on the other hand, is a masochist whose sexual gratification comes from being tied up, punched, pinched, whipped, kicked, or otherwise, tortured, which is why the yakuza, despite their violence, are afraid of this boss.

Ichi The Killer Hideo Yamamoto

Hideo Yamamoto seems to smirk at those practicing sadomasochism when he lets the masochist Kakihara face off the ultimate sadist Ichi. It turns out that once confronting death, even a masochist like Kakihara has to run for his own life. Accordingly, Yamamoto went on to explain the mechanism of masochism as the correlation between desperation and hope. There are actually much more in Ichi The Killer, something related to imagination and desire, but how Yamamoto elaborates on it is currently incomprehensible to me. 

With Ichi The Killer, Hideo Yamamoto proved that monsters are by no means alienated from our own world. Just like Johan Liebert in Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, Ichi was a victim of long-term school bullying and then of a manipulation that turned him into a killing machine. A monster is therefore born out of violence and insanity, and thus, they are always sticking around since violence and insanity have never ceased to exist in our world.

Ichi The Killer also marked the changes in Yamamoto’s drawing and characterization. The background is more detailed and serious. The characters no longer have the big shojo eyes as in Okama Report or Voyeurs, Inc.; maybe there’s no room left for cuteness in such a savage society. They are well-designed and unique as well, from Ichi to Kakihara, Jii-san, Kaneko, and the twins. Underlying this prolific set of characters is a hierarchy of power in which the twins Jirou and Saburou serve as a stepping stone to show how insane and violent Kakihara can be. Moreover, in Ichi The Killer, Hideo Yamamoto grasps a firmer control of the camera shots and angles. This is the foundation for Yamamoto to develop his successive masterpiece Homunculus.

Homunculus: body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria

An obvious characteristic that makes today’s manga different from comics is its cinematic technique: incorporating different perspectives and visual effects to tell a story in hundreds, even thousands of pages. This technique was developed by Osamu Tezuka. The result is that manga has fewer words than comics.

“If an American comic book might use a single panel with word balloons and narration to show how Superman once rescued Lois Lane in the past, the Japanese version might use ten pages and no words.” 

“The cinematic style enables manga artists to develop their storylines and characters with more complexity and psychological and emotional depth. Like good film directors, they can focus reader attention on the minutiae of daily life – on scenes of leaves falling from a tree, or steam rising from a bowl of hot noodles, or even the pregnant pauses in a conversation – and evokes associations and memories that are deeply moving. 

(Schodt, 1996)

This cinematic technique is skillfully adopted by Hideo Yamamoto in Homunculus (2003-2011, Big Comic Spirits) when the very first pages contain merely still lifes of the cityscape, with very few or no words at all. Both the background and the characters look more realistic than in Yamamoto’s previous works.

Homunculus Hideo Yamamoto

Homunculus touches me on a personal level because I myself also have body image issues. The reason why Manabu Ito is obsessed with trepanation is that he always longs for knowing about his own trauma, which is a complex resulting from gender dysmorphic disorder and his troubled relationship with an authoritarian and demanding father. Susumu Nakoshi, on the other hand, had a longstanding struggle with lookism and body dysmorphic disorder during his adolescence, which drove him to undergo cosmetic surgery and deliberately cut off his traumatic memory to start a new life. However, he couldn’t move on from the past and find his present life unsavory due to its lack of sincerity. He’s just too idealistic to embrace the imperfection of himself and of the surroundings, so he feels alienated from life and desires to return to the embryo to start everything from scratch again.

Both Ito and Nakoshi’s problems boil down to the fact that nobody sees them as how they see themselves on the inside, and only those with the sixth sense are by any chance capable of doing it. The question posed here refers to the fundamental problem of epistemology: the other-minds problem, saying that each person’s sensations are in a sense private and hence we can never understand other people’s feelings. The tragic ending of Susumu Nakoshi implies Yamamoto’s pessimistic view on the human condition, and that a utopian world where people are completely equal and real only occurs in a crazy man’s mind.

Body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria are the two important themes in Homunculus. However, the 2021’s live-action film adaptation gets rid of them and oversimplifies the main characters’ mental problems. This is a disappointment to me, even though the casts adequately fulfill my fantasies. 

homunculus live action

In Homunculus, the main character Susumu Nakoshi with his ability to look through physical forms and see people’s homunculus is reminiscent of Ko in Voyeurs, who states that his voyeurism allows him to see people’s true nature. Yamamoto’s subsequent work, Hikari-man (2014-2010, Big Comic Spirits) is about electrically sensitivity of human bodies, and Adam and Eve (2015-2016, illustrated by Ryoichi Ikegami, Big Comic Superior), has the five human senses as an inspiration for the story plot. This has shown that human biological and psychological capacity has always been a recurring theme throughout Yamamoto’s career. Perhaps the reason why he always takes things to extremes with the projected deviants is because he wants to reconsider the human condition and force us to either go for our desires at all costs or embrace our worldly selves.

Positioning Hideo Yamamoto

Though his works revolve around sex and violence, Hideo Yamamoto is different from Kentaro Miura or Hiroya Oku in that the settings of his manga are always here and now, and the characters are literally humans, albeit insane or horrendous. His manga are solely based in contemporary Japanese urbanscape, but Yamamoto zeros in on the underworld of yakuza, voyeurs, compensated dating (enjo-kōsai) or cross-dressing communities to show us that it doesn’t need a fantasy world to attest how brutal and absurd humans can be. Nonetheless, unlike Naoki Urasawa, whose approach is macroscopic, Hideo Yamamoto deals with his subject matter from a microscopic perspective.

Hideo Yamamoto is more of a Dostoevsky than a Tolstoy in the world of manga. Possibly a reader of Sigmund Freud or Lacan. An atheist, a pessimist, and an idealist whose sexuality is fluid and wild. He’s one of a kind, and definitely one of a few authors who are still able to astonish us in the existing extravaganza of graphic novels.

1 Comment

  1. Great analysis, after seeing the extremely weak adaptation of Homunculus — which was one of my favorite manga series — on Netflix recently I’m also diving into Yamamoto Hideo’s past works, and it’s amazing how good they are and how they share similarities. Definitely one of the best artists in the medium.

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