“17-Sai” (“17 Years Old”) is dreadful – in the classic “fills you with dread” sense. It could be my general ignorance of the genre, but it is one of the most affecting, gut-wrenching manga I have ever read. Hiroki is your average aimless Japanese teen, until he falls under the tutelage of juvenile delinquent Miyamoto, whose “cool” ways and rumored connection to the Yakuza hold plenty of appeal for Hiroki’s budding Henry-Hill type. Hiroki gets progressively more involved in Miyamoto’s schemes – until he gets bullied into kidnapping a seventeen year old girl right off the street.
Based on a novel by Fujii Seiji and manga-ified by Kamata Youji, (who’s clearly studied Naoki Urasawa’s work), “17-Sai” is informed by the shocking real life case of Junko Furuta in the late 80’s. Furuta, a schoolgirl who’d just turned 17, was abducted and gruesomely tortured for 44 days by a gang of juveniles before her eventual death, (a death for which she repeatedly pleaded during that month and a half in hell.) In that time, she was raped over 500 times by a revolving-door cast of derelicts. Almost 100 “people” (if they can be called that) knew about the abducted girl’s whereabouts. They either looked the other way, or participated. The rapes weren’t even the worst part, but I don’t feel like typing the rest of the things that were done to the girl, and frankly, I don’t invite you to research Junko Furuta’s case further. What’s the point? If you have anything resembling a soul it will just make you despair for our so-called humanity.
“17-Sai” considerably tones down the events into something that is about as PG-13 as this material can possibly get without actively insulting the family of the victim. Here is the rare Japanese graphic novel that avoids being graphic. It does not use nudity, outside of one stark, decidedly un-sexy panel; the violence mostly happens between gangsters during gang fights, and is no worse than the average episode of “Bleach.” In fact, “17-Sai” concentrates on what happens AWAY from the horrible room. It is defined by what it doesn’t show. (Which might be worse; no picture hell can match the hell of the human imagination.)
“17-Sai” is horrifying, but it is not a horror manga; there is nothing supernatural about it.
It is not a “thriller” – it is not meant to thrill, only sadden and outrage, which it achieves very effectively.
It isn’t a police procedural, because the police “procedures” detailed in it are laughably worthless.
It is not “eroguro” : no gore, no weird sex.
It is not journalism, and it is not “The Wire,” although it zooms out to make almost everyone complicit in the nightmarish scenario: from crowd-joining teenagers, to bureaucratic policemen, to “mind-our-own-business” neighbors, to the shitty parents who pretend not to see as their children sink into delinquency.
And… It is not reality. (SPOILER) “17-Sai” offers a rescue, survival, justice, proper punishment, and a sort of happy ending: all the things the real world couldn’t provide. I can’t decide if that’s a cop-out or a needed salve for the Japanese psyche, but I sure welcomed it.
RATING: It’s no MASTERPIECE!!! and I hesitate to say it is COOL! but it is one of the most effective, depressing manga I have ever read.