Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review: Harmony, by Project Itoh


Published (in Japanese): 2008

Published (in English): July 2010

Finally got around to it: August 2011


“And the successor to that Catholic dogma? Believe it or not, it’s us, with our all-benevolent health-obsessed society. Bodies once received from God are, under the rules of a lifeist admedistrative society, public property. God doesn’t own us anymore, everyone does. Never before in history has ‘the importance of life’ been such a loaded term.”

Miach was right, of course.

And that was why we had to die.

Because our lives were being made too important.

Because everyone was too concerned about everyone else.

Of course, it wasn’t enough to simply die. We had to die in a way that made a mockery of the health regime we were supposed to uphold by law. At least, that was what we thought back then.


***


As a Brave New World-esque satire of the utopian/dystopian formula, Project Itoh’s Harmony treads disturbing waters through the approach of death being the instigating factor that can offer change for entire social trajectories. Not just death, in fact, but murder and suicide, specifically.

Taking place mostly in a Japan of the somewhat-near future, Harmony envisions a world that has at once sterilized and commodified itself. Following the Maelstrom—the much alluded to nuclear holocaust that nearly wiped out humanity—admedistrations have taken over, treating the health and welfare of citizens as tasks guided by perfectionism. However, all is not well in a medically infused wonderland. Three young women—Miach Mihie, Cian Reikado, and the protagonist, Tuan Kirie—decide, at Miach’s insistence, to challenge the admedistrations and the WatchMe technology that monitors their bodies and minds by committing suicide. They intend to starve themselves to take back their bodies—to own their physical and emotional selves in a way that the admedistrations have all but made impossible. Though the attempt is mostly a failure, it pushes Tuan down a contradictory path as a World Health Organization officer who delights in punishing her body through nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine, which can still be found and acquired in other nations. When Cian re-enters Tuan’s life and their suicide pact is recalled, events unfold that may threaten to not only topple their admedistration-focused society, but to transform the face of the world.

Employing an HTML mark-up style for memories, emotions, and internal questions, Itoh constructs Harmony as a potentially dishonest narrative—especially given then the book’s welcome yet disheartening conclusion. At first the HTML styling seems cumbersome, disrupting the book’s rhythm with point-form lists. By the book’s conclusion, the HTML styling serves a dual purpose: first, it enforces the pervasiveness of the admedistrations and the WatchMe programming; second, upon completion, it offers a possible alternate meaning to the entire novel, one predicated on the possibility that it has been less a mystery and more a cautionary retelling of events, to instil fear of “unhealthy” motivations in the minds of a technologically placated society. It’s a unique reversal of perspective that feels earned and not in any way meant to pull the rug out from beneath the feet of the readers.

The subject matter of Harmony seems especially prescient given our growing obsession with health, and more importantly, misdirected fear over what is and is not indicative of health. Starvation and gluttony are the parallels most employed in Harmony, perhaps as it is for Miach, Cian and Tuan, because they are two of the least visible ways in which these girls could, at such a young age, attempt to destroy their bodies. Itoh is also making a clear statement that these associative problems are legion, and their impact on children—especially young women—in the future will be as persuasive and deadly as it is today, given the force by which the culture in power seeks to reconcile its own bodily fears and misconceptions.

Harmony works as much as a commentary on current and future health and social practices as it does a story of friendship found, manipulated, and destroyed beyond any point of return. Perhaps most unnerving, given the story’s admedistrative totalitarianism, is knowing that Project Itoh finished this novel while in the hospital, dying of cancer. He passed away in 2009. Harmony is his final work.

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