As a kid I was obsessed with self-awareness. I tried to understand the relationship between myself as a being that thought/felt/acted, and a being that observed myself thinking/feeling/acting. I wanted better self-control, so I looked for clarification in the religious and philosophical traditions from both East and West.
It’s many years later and I have absolutely no answers. But I can tell you this hallucinatory manga, Ultra Heaven by Keiichi Koike, brings a lot of those concepts to bear in a visual way that’s frustratingly inexplicable.
On the outset Ultra Heaven appears to be a comic about a world where drugs are completely legal. Bartenders concoct complex cocktails unique to each customer to provide them the hallucinatory experience they’re looking for. Commercials on TV advertise the latest potions. Psychedelic experiences are as casual as shaking hands. It’d be enough to make Daren the Lion commit suicide.
Ultra Heaven mangaka Keiichi Koike renders these personalized drug trips masterfully. Panels orgiastically dance across multiple splash pages. You’ll think you know what I’m talking about when you read the first major trip, which occurs approximately fifty pages into the story. That one’s tame. It’s before the logic of the story begins to bleed. Long before the narrative completely hemorrhages.
So at first you’re tricked into thinking Ultra Heaven is a story about a junkie, this guy who even medically-certified drug dealers turn away, and his perpetual quest to remain chemically distracted from life. Then the plot incorporates a social movement in which people try to stretch their consciousness through meditation and technology rather than chemical dependency. The idea is to be in control of your highs, to attain power over yourself. Bliss is an achievement, not a commercial product.
Overlap is inevitable, so when these experimental meditation exercises meet our drug-addled protagonist, the “run-of-the-mill” psychedelic depiction of his trips becomes increasingly symbolic, psychological and religious. As Koike slathers on more layers of logic and plot points that may or may not actually be really occurring, one’s reading experience turns from frenzied into transcendent.
The arresting visual rhythms of Ultra Heaven are its dominant force. The story is still connected, but the meaning of all those connections are anyone’s guess. Every few pages seem to be their own little whorling galaxy in a godless multiverse. They make dimethyltryptamine look like baby food.
Koike’s art style has a definite Euro comics influence to it. When nude, stippled human figures float in the ether, they do so with the grace of a Moebius sketch. Inky bodies of liquid ejaculate across the page with the fractal deftness of Juan Jose Ryp. I could go on, but the “assumed influences” shtick gets tired real quick. I’d prefer to hear from Keiichi Koike himself.
But I probably won’t, because despite being published in Japan as early as 2002, Ultra Heaven is only three volumes long and still ongoing, and given the niche nature of its appeal on top of its erratic publication schedule, it’s difficult to imagine a North American company taking a shot on it, especially since it’s been fan-translated in its entirety. I’m on the hunt for Japanese or French print editions for my library.