Story and Art by: Naomi Yamamoto
Original Publisher: Shogakukan (1999)
Length: 2 Volumes (22 Chapters)
Monsters, when used effectively, can be scary. Spirits, when used effectively, can be scary. Terrifying even. But what will always cement itself as the most frightening thing to exist in my opinion are cults. When you first hear about cults, they seem ridiculous. Who could be silly enough to follows such bizarre rules that are rarely productive/beneficial?
What makes cults so scary is their primary demographic; vulnerable individuals who are desperate for meaning to be placed into their lives. By preying on those who have nowhere else to turn, they open themselves up wholeheartedly to this new cause, and become an easy and effective tool to manipulate. It’s very hard to see that you’re in danger in these situations, as it’s often hidden behind charismatic leader, preaching energetically about the love and camaraderie they share. Ultimately, these people are asked to sacrifice reality itself, and replace it for a idealistic and grossly misguided plane of existence which often makes the world easier to live in.
Believers is a very frightening manga when it needs to be. Not that anything scary ever happens, but watching our characters suffer for the sake of an uncaring and manipulative source is both frustrating and heartbreaking. The manga is often graphic, but in the situations depicted so is its counterpart in reality. The premise of the piece is three members of the “Happy Smile” cult are placed on a deserted island for a purification program, attempting to reach a heightened state of existence. The members are to essential eat, sleep and meditate for their entire journey. What seems like a uplifting challenge for the members is altered drastically as their utopia begins conflicting with the realty.
Accuracy seemed to be Yamamoto’s aim his portrayals, and the characterisation of our protagonists does just that. Throughout the piece, the members of the cult remain frustratingly loyal to their cause, subjecting themselves to malnourishment, isolation and self mutilation in the hopes of “cleansing their souls”. They swear off of societal sins such as material possessions and lust in the hopes that they will reach the “promised land”, greeted by their charismatic leader. The characters are being manipulated to an extent where the reader sometimes questions whether the characterisation itself is bad, like the infuriating cast in a horror movie, always finding themselves in harms way. But Yamamoto’s depiction of a cult having total control over their members is extremely accurate. How else would they be able to get them to do these ridiculous and often harmful activities? If you were willing to strand yourself on an island for the better of your compatriots, than it doesn’t seem that strange, even when starving, that you would wait patiently to be given food only signed off of by the organisation. These points are the only times the reader sees interaction between the islanders and the organisation. Slowly, what seems like simple aloofness on the organisation’s part may in fact be financial and legal strife.
The idea that 3 human beings could purify themselves through the “Desert Island Program”, or any means is obviously absurd. Slowly, the members begin to reject aspects of their ideology, whether that’s through conscious actions or ‘filth’ seeping into their subconscious. Some members end up acting entirely for themselves, while others, too weak willed, only nod in disillusionment. The often episodic storytelling allows the characters to rear the ugliest of emotions in various situations, as their morale and sanity begin to falter. Despite the supposed aim of the manga (or at least in the minds of the protagonists) to live as heightened humans, this experience only brings out the most toxic, and the most inherently human actions.
Sex is a powerful symbolic tool in this piece. The biggest complaint many people have with this manga is its often graphic sex scenes, Yamamoto being known for his erotic. While I agree that unneeded sexuality can detract from characters/an entire piece, Believers is the perfect example of how sex can be portrayed as sex and not sexy. To put it simply, sex is graphic. If you attempt to depict the activity in any medium, it will be graphic. However, the way it’s shown in Believers is not sexy. Through the other themes it explores, it’s very clear Yamamoto intends to shine a realistic torch on all facets of these character’s journey. Murder, deceit, suffering and sex are never shied away from, which should be commended. So, from the get go, the reader should be aware that if characters are going to have sex, they ARE going to have sex. I understand that large portions of this manga are dedicated to it, and therefore its easy to think that it’s cheap fan service, but it is completely the opposite. When you read those scenes, it’s clear that they’re not designed for the reader. Their actions are for each other, and the author is just shining a light on the situation for the reader to see through.
Other than these scenes, the art in Believers was generally well done. In some scenes it felt like the hyper realistic art style that Yamamoto was going for was a bit to much for him, which marked multiple inconsistencies e.g. disappearing facial hair, sweating changing each panel, ect. The faces could also look quite swollen, which you may think would aid in identifying different characters, but the realistic portrayal also made it hard to differentiate between the two male leads. The ending was satisfyingly vague. There was no definitive end point, and Yamamoto gives readers the freedom to interpret the last few scenes in any way they want. What is very clear, however, is the psychological effects left by the cult, for good or bad, still linger like an infested wound.
Believers is a very good manga, both in terms of quality and residual feeling it leaves with the reader. Certain inconsistencies may prevent this manga from being considered “a great”, but this psychological drama is very underrated, and at only 22 chapters is definitely worth a read (even if only to see what the fuss is about).
Art – 7
Story – 8
Writing – 8
Overall – 7.5/10