This past week I started the manga series Judge by Yoshiki Tonogai. The series is a drama, horror, and psychological thriller. It is the sequel to the series Doubt, which was written and illustrated by Yoshiki Tonogai as well. Though it is a sequel series, as far as I can tell Judge is not narratively connected to Doubt. Each volume was published in North America by Yen Press in August and November 2013 respectively. The series will total six volumes long, with the fifth coming out this October.
The story centres around nine people who are kidnapped and imprisoned in an abandoned courthouse by an unknown group. Each has been chosen because they all bear the guilt of the seven deadly sins, and they must offer up as sacrifice of one of their own number every twelve hours as judgment for their sins. In the end, only four of the nine can survive.
It had been a while since I started a new manga series, so the change of pace was something I had to get used to when I started the first volume. Unlike other comic books, I find that manga uses a lot more pages to tell less information — it feels padded. As a result, you may find yourself reading up to four pages of content, but all that happens is somebody walks down a hallway. As a result, while the page count appears high, it doesn’t take very long to read.
This may seem a small thing to focus on, but it hindered my ability to get into the story during volume one. Instead of using the beginning of the story for buildup and more character development, it all felt a little too dragged on for me. It reached the point where I was actually more bored with it than interested in seeing what would happen next.
This problem primarily stemmed from the premise being plastered all over the book, yet it taking its time actually establishing it within the narrative. The story would have benefited from a “chapter two switcheroo,” having the main character — Hiro — first wake up in the courthouse, confused about where he is, and then go into a his backstory a little.
Towards the end of the first volume is when the story really starts to get into the meat of their predicament, and this is where the story got more interesting. Before twelve hours is up each character is supposed to vote on who they believe should be sacrificed, and it is the process of making this impending decision that drives the drama home. Though each character may not be as bad as each sin implies, they are all unreliable and hard to trust, making the environment ripe for betrayal.
This reached a fever pitch for me near the end of volume one when I realized that Hiro’s plan to help everyone to survive would not work because all it would take is one person deviate from it to guarantee the death of another. The volume wisely ended without resolving the newly realized dilemma, and the story securely had me hooked.
The characters themselves are interesting as well, but so far they are not much to write home about. I find their potential more compelling than how they’ve actually been presented so far in both volumes. I understand why you would keep backstory and character development to a minimum in a story like this, however. If you knew too much about these characters early on then it would kill most of the tension, which relies on the reader being paranoid about who the protagonist can trust.
At the same time, I’d have been more pleased with the characters if they seemed a little more creative. Each seems to embody a familiar archetype that can be found in a lot of manga and anime. Hiro, for example, is hopelessly the brave, naïve optimistic protagonist that I feel I’ve seen countless times before. I’m hoping this will lead the story exploiting the reader’s expectations by subverting these characters, which they’ve actually teased with Hiro a little, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.
An aesthetic choice I particularly like about the series is the use of grotesque animal masks assigned to each character. The characters were only stuck wearing them at first, but they are pictured together on every cover with the masks on, which makes the books stand out to me. It is a small detail, but one I find myself appreciating every time I look.
It is important to note if you are going through the series that the cover of each volume shows every character who has died thus far — i.e. before the start of the book you’d happen to be holding — so don’t look ahead if you don’t want to get anything spoiled.
While it hasn’t been a mind-blowing reading experience thus far, it has been a worthy return to reading manga and I look forward to continuing. I find it especially appealing because the series is only six volumes in length, so it isn’t too huge of a commitment to get in to. If you like more nail-biting, psychological stories in your manga, Judge is a good choice.