With its covers screamingly dark, violent and bizarre, amidst the forest of pastel covers of the manga section of the book store where I work, Judge Vol. 1 immediately called my attention from the display case as though it had been jumping up and down and yelling at me.
Despite the unique art on the covers, there are a great deal of things in the content of the manga that could be seen as less than original.
The manga begins with a sort of a prologue, focusing on one of the characters amidst the nine characters who feature in the main story itself. It would be a comparison that is very nearly impossible to miss bringing up anyway, so I will bring it up now, if only to show how it does this part of the story in a better manner, at least, in its original - and that is the ultra-popular movie Saw.
I am talking about the first movie in what became one of the largest and most popular of movie series in modern times. Some of what I am alluding to may be indicative of other movies in the series, but I will be both sticking to my knowledge of this movie in particular while also being certain to stay clear of revealing any spoilers from the movie itself.
This manga has clear, very very very clear, moments in which it is patently obvious that it has been inspired by this movie as well as the cottage industry of similar movies. One of the ways that it, unfortunately, deviates from what I am just going to come out and say is its source material is that it relies on this sort of a prologue to open the general story up. Saw very wisely opened with both the audience and the characters thrown directly into the meat grinder that is the plot, but Judge starts off tepid, with a character interacting with his brother and his brother's girlfriend. Technically, it IS relevant to why it is that the character ends up in the situation that he does, but the first time that I tried reading this book, the slow beginning only accomplished slowing down the story before it could even begin, making me less interested in the rest of the story as a whole, and, as some manga is wont to do, the art and the writing at first managed to confuse me, until the characters managed to parrot out some damn dry exposition and stop with an O Henry type of ending. And that, my friends, is the prologue.
With this explanation of this particular character's back story shoved in like some grizzled farmer fisting open a bull's obstructed bowels, we open to the more interesting "meat" of the actual plot, with the character we were just introduced to entering into the cliched Saw opening - and don't pretend that you don't understand what I am referring to, because you DO. As soon as you realize that this donkey show is no different from many others that you may have seen before, this "novelty" quickly becomes just one more same old. And it does get worse.
The big selling point here, that is supposed to set it apart from the other Saw clones, is that each character is accused of being guilty of one of the Judeo-Christian seven deadly sins (the inclusion of anything smelling faintly of Western religious influence in something Japanese always leaves me scratching my head, but I'll eventually have to accept the fact that religion cross-pollinates wherever it may wish, not stopped by either cultural or geographic boundaries). These sins are indicated by the massive, somewhat successfully creepy animal heads that fall under what I would like to refer to as the creepy catch 22.
People who look at horror from a completely outside perspective think that they can show imagery that is just strange and with little context and it will automatically be disturbing or jarring. Take, for example, the staple of the "creepy clown":
Or the creepy child's doll:
And this is coming from the perception of someone who is frightened of porcelain dolls. Intensely frightened of regular dolls with adorable pink cheeks and perfect little frilly dresses. My first instinct when left in a room alone with such a chilling reminder that there surely is no god is to burn the building down in the hopes that it isn't fire retardant. At any rate, I find that when things are actually done with more subtlety, I tend to be more frightened than when you just toss, say, bizarre animal head pieces at me. In the movie version of *It*, it is when the clown is most "normal" and has to cajol children or horrified adults that he is at his most frightening. But that may just be me.
Sure, it's weird, disorientating, and I cannot deny that it was the novelty of the animal heads is what drew me to the cover itself, but the animal heads simply aren't as scary by themselves as the creators of this manga wanted them to be.
In fact, when you peel back the animal heads and the rather superficial differences between it and Saw, what we all have left is, in my opinion, a less interesting re-visioning of Saw in manga format, with a watered down story, no physical torture (and, let's be real here, what in the hell is Saw without the blood and screaming?) with different rules to the "game" and the dialogue flows in that blunt-head trauma way that the Japanese write in, with each character practically shouting their ambitions, inner damage and personality defects at each other's faces.
At times the story just drags on with panels of things not happening and certain things being stretched out very obviously. Halfway through the book, I found that I could see from a far distance what the pay off of everything was likely to be (hint: it does not involve the discovery of the inherent kindness and camaraderie that is within every human being) and I found that the only reason I trudged through such differing characterizations as Alpha Male Asshole with Super Stylized Hair, Loud Mouthed Bitch Who Looks Like Every Other Manga Female Ever and Autistic Freak is that is was quick to go through.
Oh, and also it ends on a dumb cliffhanger. So, fun. The art is also rather commonplace to manga, adding nothing more in that area to what I've already seen. The lack of oomph in the art only adds to my assertion that this manga, by whole, while not being awful, is common - nothing that I have not seen somewhere else before, and yes, certainly executed better in all of the ways possible in some other way. Being common and mediocre is, really, worse than being so godawful bad that it's hilarious - mediocrity does nothing for me, except a little bit of mystery regarding the "sins" of the nine characters.
A boring, yawning 3.5/10 - if it had borrowed so obviously less from Saw, then I may have had to give it a higher score. But it is a late-blooming copycat, so fuck it.