Room 801: Litchi Hikari Club

Warning: Litchi Hikari Club is dark. Very dark. Blinfolded black cat down a mineshaft dark. Readers of a more nervous disposition are warned that this manga is bloody, violent, and downright disturbing.

Ah, yes. Hallowe'en. A time for ghoulish stories of dark possibilities. And perhaps the best purveyors of the most grotesque and disturbing elements of the human psyche in the late 19th and early 20th Century were the Grand Guignol, an extreme French theatre group, pushing the limits of theatre in gorily spectacular ways. Why am I talking about these dark artistes? Well...over in Tokyo, in the early 1980s, a separate theatre group set up the Tokyo Grand Guignol; whilst existing for a few scant years, they carried on the (blood-spattered) spirit of their French forebears. Their third play, first performed in the depths of winter, 1985, is perhaps the most famous; a dark explosion of adolescent power-hunger, violence, and slickly bloody erotic-grotesque (ero-guro) shonen-ai. Entitled Litchi Hikari Club, it's subsequently been recreated in manga format by Usumaru Furuya, the genius behind equally dark and transgressive manga Genkaku Picasso. It's time to raise the curtain on this dark masterpiece for this Hallowe'en. Mind the blood.

We begin in darkness, with a twitch of a curtain, before spotlights cut across the panels, accompanied with gratuitous German. Figures in darkness, flashlights shone in the reader's eyes. It's as though we're being hunted ourselves, trapped in an unfamiliar location. Silhouetted industrial buildings, a blindingly white moon echoed by the spotlights of torches-a running figure draws the reader's eye. Finally the unfortunate is cornered, the hands of a puppeteer moving his troops into place via the chessboard shown-it's an oddly dehumanised selection of images, with faces covered, shadowed or entirely absent. Furuya's style is that of light and shadow-of black and white and grey-Zera, the head of the titular Litchi Hikari Club is introduced in spotlight, his henchmen gathered around their captive. It's a stark image-a fetal figure helpless against the apparatus of power. More German; it's easy, and indeed deliberately evoking the fascistic undertones of this group. Zera is finally revealed in a stunning full-length panel, enthroned and commanding, a literal and metaphorical chess master-even here, however, he is somehow depersonalised, statuesque, his glasses blocking his expression.

Finally, the club, and their commander are slowly unmasked, and here Furuya's artistic style particularly shines-it would be easy to make Zera's club a gang of faceless mooks, but every member is identifiable, some via facial injuries (a typical trapping of the ero-guro genre), others via hairstyle-it's also quickly notable how devoted the club is to its leader, offering murder and violence against the hapless intruder who has seen...something-something deliberately kept hidden from the reader. What becomes increasingly clear over the next few pages is that the Club are mad, bad and dangerous to know, with its members introduced via their increasingly disturbing and violent suggestions for the intruder's fate. Having blinded him, the lieutenant of Zera, the utterly psychotic Jaibo is introduced, dragging a woman who's eventually revealed as their history teacher. Jaibo, alongside Zera, seems to best reflect the archetypal ero-guro bishounen (practically a poster-boy for the sub-genre), and is, in short, stunning-androgynous, soft-featured, almost feminine. Yet, it's clear than beneath the beautiful exterior is a sick, cruel mind, with his introduction cementing this. In a darkly disturbing scene, Zera comments upon the transgressive Roman Emperor Elagabalus, regarding him as perhaps the ultimate example of beauty, when compared to the stripped form of a woman, and here the ultimate idea of the Litchi Hikari Club appears to be revealed-to be beautiful, forever. Jaibo promptly butchers the teacher, suggesting that even their internal organs are more beautiful than normal peoples'.

Club dismissed, a blood-soaked Jaibo is left alone with Zera, who calls him beautiful, feeding him a litchi fruit in a decidedly erotic scene, that mixes tenderness with Zera's mad machinations . Finally, a robot is revealed, lying prone upon a table. It's the activation of this machine, as well as a suggestion of Zera's chess master mind, that begin the second chapter, and once again, as they toast the completion of their machine, and the beginning of their burgeoning plans of dominance, that the erotic and the potently religion are compared, with Zera announcing that he has mixed the litchi wine with his own blood-this Christ-like imagery is compounded by his picking out of a traitor in their midst. Between them, Zera and Jaibo promptly break the plot up, robbing Tamiya of his henchman, before once more sharing a moment that flickers between political and sexual. Once again, Zera notes the difference between his beloved Club and the very concept of adulthood, before connecting machine, beauty and the litchi fruit itself, by providing the machine with the fruit of "eternal beauty" as its fuel source. Once again, religious imagery, the idea of God breathing life into Adam, is brought to the fore, but corrupted, Litchi brought to "life" via the Number of the Beast, 666, which is only increased by Zera describing it both as the "Devil of Destruction or a Light of Hope"-a mechanical Lucifer.  His mission? To bring the nefarious Club girls. 

The third chapter begins cleverly, with an imitation of early computer graphics from Litchi's perspective, before, in a darkly humorous section, the early attempts of Litchi to bring the Hikari Club girls are shown, first bringing them a girl statue, then an older woman and a long-haired man. Clearly a change of tack is needed-Litchi must be taught what beauty is. Meanwhile, in another burst of symbolic imagery, a chess match between Kaneda and Tamiya becomes steeped in metaphor as Zera commands Kaneda's moves, pieces both human and on the board turned against Tamiya echoing the cold war against former and current Litchi Hikari Club leader. As Litchi is taught what beauty is, the true extent of Zera and Jaibo's relationship is revealed, with the naked duo hidden in post-coital shadow-it's an shockingly effective juxtaposition, the beautiful Jaibo and the brutish Litchi.

Yet, having finally seemingly understood beauty, in a wonderfully poetic  and surprisingly reflective section, Litchi returns with a worthy prize at last. Such is the apparent beauty of this girl that her sleeping face is awarded an entire page; but why has Litchi brought them this girl? How? It seems Dentaku, programming the machine, has fooled it into believing it is human.

We begin the fourth chapter with a little backstory, with Tamiya and friends forming the Hikari Club, before Zera's plan begins its next stage, beginning with installing the still comatose girl upon the throne Zera usually occupies; here, there's a surprising crack in the fascistic mask, with the boys collectively acting like normal, slightly awkward teenage boys, unsure of what to do in the presence of a pretty girl before they snap back to "Zera's rules". Tamiya is promptly found smuggling food to the other three girls captured by Litchi, and, as Nico and Tamiya argue upon the right thing to do, another flashback takes place, with the introduction of a younger Zera, who the fledgling Hikari club attempt to welcome into their ranks. Back in the present, Tamiya and another of the original members, Dafu, discuss releasing the other girls, with Tamiya finally taking a stand, and attempting to take back his club; despite Dafu's original worry that this is "against the rules", he eventually agrees to help Tamiya. Dafu, however, has other things on his mind, and is promptly caught groping the girl. Here, Furuya returns to the mock trial of the unfortunate intruder in his imagery-a club set against its traitorous member, with Tamiya forced to execute the hapless Dafu, or face the death of his sister. Here, there is a clear echo of a "check", Tamiya forced to sacrifice one or the other. Here, Zera takes an almost sickening pleasure in commanding Tamiya, and, despite letting him go, a truly disturbing sight awaits the hapless former commander of the Litchi Club.

In the wake of this explosion of violence, the girl finally wakes, accompanied only by Litchi. The manga then changes direction, bringing in a decidedly occult tang to the proceedings, with a fortune teller telling a younger Zera that he "will either rule the world at 30, or die at 14" with the girl in the throne key in his plans. Having woken up, the girl introduces herself to Litchi as Kanon , and soon has the machine wrapped around her little finger, beguiling it with her beauty, both physical and in the music she plays to the robot. Compared to the shocking violence, the scenes between girl and machine have a tenderness and are almost sweet, with the machine learning the concept of "fun". However, Zera's paranoia is growing, with his wondering who will be the next betrayer, despite the stability of the club, suggesting a man fearful of his pieces (he even labels his remaining subordinates with chess pieces) putting him into checkmate, before spilling the pieces over, and lashing out.

Once again, Jaibo and Zera indulge their baser desires for each other, discussing the fallibility of humans as they make love in front of Kanon's throne, but they are seen by Nico.

Once again, Kanon and Litchi share a moment of tenderness, Furuya contrasting the purity of the relationship between machine and girl with the brittle, and increasingly fractured one between Zera and the club, with the latter going into nigh hysterics at the sight of the black king from the club's chess-set being smashed-clearly, as the "Black King" of the club, Zera realises that the prophecy of the may well spell his doom. The traitorous Kaneda, the last remaining member of the original Hikari club, is allegedly behind the act, and is executed in grotesque fashion; a penitent Litchi is found by Kanon playing the organ, introducing the machine to the idea of sorrow and sadness, and tells Litchi that he must not kill people. Furuya begins to draw together the tools of Zera's inevitable downfall, with the robot beginning to question Zera's orders, Tamiya resolving to take revenge, and even Nico beginning to question his role in the club, driven by jealousy. Tailing Tamiya, Nico eventually tracks him to the field of litchi which power the machine, and the first part of the original Litchi club leader's revenge is put into action, with the field set on fire in spectacular fashion. Nico and Tamiya are seemingly killed by the flames, with the action cutting away suddenly from their fight in the inferno, only to return to them a few pages later, with Zera's paranoia daubing both of them with the brush of "traitor". Here, a truly disturbing line from the remaining Litchi club members sums up the parallels that the Litchi Club have to the Nazi, and other fascist parties; "We know, we understand, Nico...but we can't go against Zera"-they are sympathetic, but they've become little more but cogs in Zera's apparatus of terror and murder. As Zera commands Litchi to murder the duo, practically gabbling nothing but the machine, club and plant name, Kanon's kindness comes back with devastating effects, the machine going into meltdown as its philosophical and emotional struggle fight over its circuitry.

Finally, Zera's madness comes to a truly warped conclusion-the girl is the key, keys are made of iron, and thus they will turn the girl into iron, who will never age or decay. Furuya increasingly draws Zera as a sweat-dripping lunatic, his face distorted, whilst Kanon remains poised and elegant. Even the Litchi club begin to look confused as their leader rants and raves, resolving to kill the imprisoned girl "beautifully". Litchi and Kanon, with time ticking away, resolve to help Tamiya and Nico, tending to their wounds. Even as Nico dies, Tamiya attempts to tell the boy that he knows that he wasn't to blame, before Tamiya begins to help Kanon make her escape; however, in attempting to climb to the other escapees, Litchi breaks the periscope they were climbing up. Torn between escape and the machine, Kanon jumps back down, accepting her fate, and even asking if Litchi would mind if she became a machine; here, there is a surprising amount of humour, and the imagery clearly alludes to Beauty and the Beast, with dance transforming the machine into a beautiful man. With the dawn, however, comes the final moves, and Zera's gambit.

Finally, it seems, that Kanon's luck has run out, with Zera noting that she was behind the freeing of Nico and Tamiya, with Litchi refusing to give her up. It seems, however, that Zera had anticipated this, with the machine taken control of. Kanon finally talks to Zera, mocking him, and describing him as less human than the machine, with Zera finally becoming tired of "living girls", and having Litchi seemingly drown her in a coffin of roses. Dentaku, controlling the machine, finally cracks, and smashes the remote; distraught with remorse, Litchi dispatches three members of the club in brutal and rather explicit fashion, before stalling inches from killing Zera. Initially gloating, Zera finds himself face to face with the badly injured Tamiya, and, bit by bit, the true traitor and sadistic mastermind, as well as the extent of his insanity is revealed, as he dispatches Tamiya. Through blood, he is revealed. It is, of course, Jaibo, who gloats, before revealing exactly why  he did it-he's sick of the club, and sick of the obsession that Zera has with Kanon. Unseen by either of them, Kanon is not only alive, but has a litchi fruit which she feeds the machine, which promptly awakes and, even as Jaibo professes his love for Zera, smashes in his skull, in perhaps the most grotesque image of the entire work

Litchi seems surprised that Kanon is alive, whilst Zera surveys the utter mess of his former club, before, clearly slipping in sanity, Zera attempts to dance with the girl, only to have the machine rip his arms off, and exploding. Zera, seemingly triumphant, is then dispatched in sickening fashion, with  Nico smashing his fist through his former leader's stomach.  Dying, Zera realises that, underneath his beautiful skin, he is just as base and disgusting as everyone else. Alone, Kanon plays a requiem for the dead group, the first lines repeated before making her exit, alone in a spotlight. House lights up. Applause.

Litchi Hikari Club, is, quite obviously, a theatrical work; a true anthem to the stage where it was born. Everything about the events in it are overblown; the blood and guts and gore are excessive to the point of parody and, there is even a sense of most of the club's character being (beautifully executed) masks (indeed, some of their faces are often fixed in one mask-like expression), reduced to a single few tropes-this is not necessarily a bad thing, as each member is well created, and their staginess and artificiality only adds to the idea of watching a play. Above them are the main figures-Jaibo, Tamiya, Zera, Kanon,  and Litchi. In the first three, there can be seen a clear theatrical archetype, whilst the last two are perhaps the best realised characters of the entire short series.

Jaibo is the Machiavellian villain, an Iago in all but name, cunning and manipulative and sadistic for no discernible reason. He is beautiful, intelligent, and yet, rotten to the core, murdering and doing unspeakable things for no other reason but to have Zera to himself. There are key allusions throughout Litchi Hikari Club to the work of divisive japanese author Yukio Mishima, and nowhere are these allusions stronger than in the parralel that can be drawn between Jaibo and several of Mishima's beautiful but disturbed antagonists, most notably Noboru, from The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, a cruel boy who tortures cats and shares a dark and overtly sexual bond with his mother, and the similarly cruel Toru of his final novel, The Decay of the Angel. Jaibo can be thought of as a poster boy for the entire ero-guro genre-to him, beauty is fleeting, and young beauty especially so-but even death in some forms can be beautiful. It is thus, somewhat amusingly, interesting that Furuya gives him the most grotesque, least beautiful death of the entire club. Tamiya in contrast in the tragic hero, cast out into the ranks of the club he used to run-one could easily compare him to the Shakespearean figure of Hamlet, in his failing attempts to win back his kingdom; like many tragic heroes, he is caught up in machinations that he cannot, and in fact, doesn't understand. Finally, there is Zera himself-his lust for power, and mental unraveling as he loses his grip upon it and his sanity, drive the work, and comparisons can be made to figures like Richard III or Macbeth-the latter play in particular, steeped in blood and dark prophecy can be seen to parallel the fate of Zera and the Litchi Hikari Club.

In comparison to the tragedy of the Club itself is the lighter romance and comedy of the relationship between Litchi and Kanon. Both inhabit a far more familiar world, a less theatrical, more realistic world than the club that mill around them; they are both multifaceted, showing both intelligence and resourcefulness, together with a wider array of skills than any single member of the club. In short, Litchi and Kanon are three dimensional in a story largely inhabited by two dimensional villains. Thematically, in places, one could easily compare it to Beauty and the Beast, or the later King Kong, both of which place a cultured, intelligent girl in the lair of a beast that she slowly but surely tames and humanises-it is, almost certainly, this idea of the machine becoming more human, more noble than the people who created it, that underpins the true drama of Litchi Hikari Club. As Zera aims to be perfect, becoming more than human, Litchi in turn almost learns to be human, to make mistakes, to understand the beauty that eventually evades and undoes the club. However, the clearest allusion is to Shelley's Frankenstein- the club create the monster, much as Victor does, cast it away in place of prettier baubles, but the monster itself still attempts to make friends, to learn. Finally, there is the parallel of the monster and machine killing its master; and here is the sharpest divide between the works-Zera, unlike Doctor Frankenstein, must be stopped; in killing Zera, it is implied, through the clear parallels to Hitler, and other fascistic dictators, Litchi halts his plans before they even begin. Frankenstein ends on the darkest of notes, monster seemingly bent on self destruction-Litchi Hikari Club ends on the lighest-the heroine is saved, the cruel and disturbed club is dead, and Zera with them.

In short, Litchi Hikari Club is a work that seems to, rather bloodily, take a leisurely stroll through the entire horror genre, from the dark torture-fixated works of directors like Eli Roth, through the tongue-in-cheek blood splatter of Wes Craven and the like, taking a detour through the pyschosexual work of Cronenberg and Geiger, and even popping briefly into gothic romance. Stabbed through its heart is a rather sharp reminder of what happens, both historically and in literary terms, of what happens when evil people are unchecked. It's a beautifully executed work, and through it, one of the most infamous horror creators, the Paris Grand Guignol, and their Japanese imitators and successors take to a blood-stained stage to take a final bow. If you read one work from this subgenre, make it this, dear reader. Encore!


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