When Lois Duncan passed away in 2016, fans and critics alike fondly remembered her as the author of I Know What You Did Last Summer, the first great psychological thriller for teens. Duncan’s story took a tried-and-true plot and retooled it for younger readers, focusing on a quartet of teens who commit and conceal a crime, only to be stalked by an anonymous avenger. While the plot was pure potboiler, Duncan’s characterizations were remarkably realistic, convincingly depicting the confusion, uncertainty, and rashness of the teenage mind under extreme duress.
Until Your Bones Rot explores similar terrain as I Know What You Did Last Summer. Bones’ teen protagonists — Shintaro, Akira, Haruko, Ryu, and Tsubaki — are bound by a gruesome crime they committed when they were eleven years old. Artist Yae Utsumi doesn’t immediately reveal what, exactly, they did, though he plants tantalizing clues throughout volume one: a fleeting glimpse of a nighttime ritual, a nightmarish vision of a bloodied face. The plot is set in motion by an anonymous phone call threatening to expose the group unless they accede to the caller’s demands. Though the five initially work together to protect their secret, fault lines soon develop within the group, particularly between Akira — the group’s alpha male — and Shintaro, the odd man out.
Utsumi handles the set-up with finesse, but his tone is less assured. Some passages feel like they’ve been ripped from Love Hina, with bikini-clad girls fawning over the nebbishy Shintaro; other passages read more like MPD Psycho, with characters doing disgusting things to dead bodies; and still other passages play out like a Very Special Episode of The OC in which one character silently copes with an abusive boyfriend. None of these scenes feel like they belong to the same story; about the only common thread that binds them is Utsumi’s fanservice, which gratuitously eroticizes a scene of sexual assault.
It’s a pity that the first volume is so uneven, as Utsumi makes a game attempt to create believable characters. Tsubaki and Shintaro, in particular, behave like real teenagers whose emotional and sexual attraction to one another is so overwhelming that they don’t know how to have a normal conversation or behave like friends; their one-on-one interactions suggest that both were deeply scarred by their participation in the murder, but lack the words — or the maturity — to say how it effected them, instead turning to each other for physical comfort. That’s a level of psychological nuance that Lois Duncan herself might have appreciated, even if Utsumi takes a few narrative shortcuts to establish the dynamic between Tsubaki and Shintaro.
And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Until Your Bones Rot so frustrating: Utsumi clearly understands the teenage mind, but can’t decide if he’s writing a finely observed psychological thriller or a junior-league Saw. The push-pull of these two different storytelling modes robs the most gory scenes of their horror and the most dramatic scenes of their poignancy, yielding a muddled stew of blood, boobs, and tears. Someone should make him read I Know What You Did Last Summer for a few pointers on how to walk the line between Grand Guignol and Afterschool Special more convincingly.
UNTIL YOUR BONES ROT, VOL. 1 • STORY AND ART BY YAE UTSUMI • TRANSLATION BY URSULA KU • KODANSHA COMICS • RATED 16+ (SEX, PARTIAL NUDITY, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE)