Satoshi Mizukami has been having a moment lately! He’s always had a cult following, but his recent work on the Planet With anime shows him at the height of his powers. For those looking for a reason to watch one of this summer’s best shows, Natasha has you covered. But for those already watching Planet With, and looking for more of Mizukami’s brand of off-kilter genre stories of adolescent apocalypse—where to go next?
I won’t lie, his early work The Lucifer and Biscuit Hammer has a special place in my heart. But it’s also rougher than his later work, and takes a volume or two to really come into its own. Mizukami’s other serialized epic is Sengoku Youko, a fantastical period piece with many lovable characters and shocking twists. But it has yet to make it to the English-speaking market, and besides the series takes even longer to warm up than Biscuit Hammer and is a sprawling seventeen volumes besides! A worthy read for fans of the artist, but more of an iteration than a significant evolution from his early output.
With this in mind, my recommendation would be to read Mizukami’s 2012 series, Spirit Circle. At six volumes, it’s more concise than either of Mizukami’s epics, while still being more fleshed out than shorter work like his one-volume Psycho Staff. Most importantly, though, I would argue it represents a significant maturation for him as an artist. Like Biscuit Hammer, it’s another story of adolescence in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It has some of Sengoku Youko’s epic scope, and love of perspective shifts that completely re-frame the story being told. But Spirit Circle manages to combine these aspects with perhaps the tightest focus of any Mizukami series. It’s a tale that spans from prehistory to the end of civilization, but grounds it completely in the story of two children and their relationship.
Or should I say, two children and their relationships: that’s right, Spirit Circle is a reincarnation story! Manga is no stranger to these, and comics such as Please Save My Earth and Immortal Rain (among others) have plumbed these grounds thoroughly. Like its predecessors in the genre, our heroes Fuuta and Kouko have baggage from the past that they need to resolve. But in comparison to how, say, Please Save My Earth flips between the past and the future, Spirit Circle is hardly content to settle with just one past life. No, Fuuta has lived seven lives spanning human history, and Kouko intends for him to relive each of them before she crushes his soul.
These lives form the bulk of the story, and each is diverse in its own way. Some are tragedies, subjecting the past selves of our cast to physical and spiritual harm. Others are absurd comedies, where the reader waits for the axe to fall and it never does. The best of these arcs could stand as their own short manga. But it’s the similarities that point at what exactly Mizukami is trying to do. Each of these stories genuinely feels like a life: a rambling series of events focalized through a single narrator (who is often unreliable!) that leads towards death. Sometimes Fuuta’s past self is granted a measure of catharsis. Other times it eludes him completely. The only constants are the unfairness of society, the limitations of the human body and our own mortality.
Spirit Circle’s ace in the hole is how Mizukami makes the reader feel the weight of every one of these lives. As Fuuta wakes from reliving each reincarnation, he falls into the behavior of his past selves. He remembers how it feels to be an old man, or the pain of losing an arm. His memories of the past spur him to tears. In a stroke of genius, the ghosts of past lives begin haunting the present, and Fuuta’s classmates blend interchangeably with their past and future selves. Like Osamu Tezuka’s “star system” of character designs and archetypes, Spirit Circle’s relatively tiny cast is developed further with each past life. Revealing unexpected depths, or reaffirming their own unchangeable natures, with each successive layer.
This is the meaning of adulthood, in the world of Spirit Circle: an unending chain of past sorrows and mistakes visited on children who’ve lived only a few short years. As the story approaches its climax, you can see Fuuta and Kouko buckle under the weight of multiple generations of unfulfilled dreams. But the message of Spirit Circle is hardly “grin and bear it.” Kouko and Fuuta’s great strength over the monsters of the past and future is their ability to put their past mistakes in context. To unify the weight of all their lives and escape from an endless cycle of solipsism and despair.
Spirit Circle lacks the action that propels Mizukami’s other work, and I found the ending to be surprisingly abrupt. But unless Planet With tops it somehow, it stands as the most distilled form of the artist’s pet themes, free of bloat or referential baggage. A story about endless recurrence, human cruelty and our own potential to change, that begins and ends in six volumes.