Dementia 21. Shintaro Kago (Fantagraphics)

This book is at one time hilarious, gross, horrifying, witty and thoughtful. It could be read as both an ode to old people and a scathing portrait of old age. Maybe it was created to ward off a deep-seated fear of the author. It can be definitely used to write a paper about representation of the elderly in Japanese manga, contextualizing it within that country’s culture and socioeconomic problems. Or just read it at face value.  

The first experience I had of Kago’s work, as with many Western readers, was of his early short pieces available through scanlation sites. They were pretty disturbing. Despite being quite familiar with Suehiro Maruo’s glorious ero-guro oeuvre, the exquisite body horror output by Junji Ito, and a myriad of “weird shit” by Makoto Aida, Takeshi Nemoto, Junko Mizuno, Imiri Sakabashira, Akino Kondoh, and Daisuke Ichiba, Kago’s stories were always a little more difficult to stomach. In his first efforts, Kago’s drawing style was somewhat less elegant than that of some of his peers, but never reaching the rude doodling quality of others (Nemoto, Ichiba, Sakabashira). It was almost there solely to do its representation job. But slowly he became ever more detailed and even technical in some of the details.  

And if taboo-crossing is the bread and butter of much of this sort of work, Kago always went to sexual, body, and horror extreme territories that had no comforts brought over from literary sources or the aesthetics of fetishism. Cronenberg always cushions his horror stories with clearly driven characters, most of which quite charismatic even though not sympathetic. Not Kago. His characters are usually loners, offish, almost android-like.  

Despite this, or because of this, and his skills in masterfully keeping the pace of a mounting narrative rhythm, and up the ante of whatever premise he presented, one cannot put his stories down, like a short video of something horrible that will happen and we need to see. 

Shintaro Kago - Dementia 21, 01

Moreover, with time he developed incredible compositional skills, which, allied to his increasingly unbridled imagination to create human-machine hybrids, put him quickly into the map of remarkable image-makers. His Industrial Revolution and World War volume (put out in English by the Italian UDWFG is probably – so far – the crowning achievement of that.  

So, it was really a surprise to find this new series, that will be put out by Fantagraphics. Somewhat domesticated, at least it may become a way to introduce Kago’s work to a larger audience to some of his thematic concerns and image-making abilities, while still staying well within safe boundaries.  

Dementia 21 is a series of short stories (16 pages long) starring a young woman who works hard to become the best “home health aide” she can be. We follow Yukie Sakai’s struggles as a newcomer to this job, we learn the reasons why she works as hard as she does, her family troubles, her rivalry within the company, and so on, to the extent that it may help in molding her into what one would call a “round” character. But that’s not the main point of the collection. Each episode is mostly unrelated to one another. They can be seen as “cases” that she solves, different clients, situations and places where she has to show her skills in taking care of her frail, elderly patients.  

From possessed dentures to geriatric tokusatsu tropes, from Ballardian futuristic individual elderly living quarters to superpowered dementia-afflicted characters, Dementia 21 explores all sorts of situations, mixing the absurd with horror, the realistic with the whimsical, and always to comedic effect.  

But apart from all this, Dementia 21 is also a scathing commentary of the problematic relationship of society in general and the elderly population. To put it simply, Japan has a blatant aging problem, which taxes family life, but also politics, economics, and culture. And every episode shows Yukie dealing not only with the old people themselves, and their feeding, clothing, bathing, and health needs but also with their horrible family members, who either don’t care or act their revenge or are only interested in their inheritance. Sometimes there are absolutely silly stories, such as the national test old people have to take so they’re able to be considered “needy” enough to have Government support, but that mirrors many of the social pressures of most Japanese people throughout their lives – in schools, universities, companies, and life in general.  

Shintaro Kago - Dementia 21, 02

One could imagine that Kago is, himself, afraid of what will happen in his real life: wrinkles, arthritis, forgetfulness, lack of energy, difficulty in tasting good food, diminishing of sexual drive and, of course, dementia. We can even go as far as wonder if these stories don’t reveal the dark face of ageism, even hatred or phobias for old people (in a time where Western society is fighting so many forms of discrimination, it still seems that old people-bashing is considered fine and funny, right, boomer?). It’s not entirely impossible that the author is acting out those fears – there’s one story with an ageing mangaka who acts out his juvenile fantasies, trapping Yukie in a mise en abîme about the toxic culture of comics. Is Dementia 21 an antidote or just letting itself go? 

Whatever the case, the varied tonality of the stories, and the many emotions they make us go through, will allow us to pose these questions and, perhaps, find a multitude of answers.

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