Impenetrable Sacred Domain

In a world as myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous

Welcome to Refugium, a shrine dedicated to the manga The Top Secret (called Himitsu - Top Secret in Japan) by Reiko Shimizu. Refugium is, more specifically, a tribute to the series’ pilot chapter from 1999, a oneshot published two years before serialization start. The site thus devotes a substantial part of its attention to this very specific part of the series, but also aims to make for a suitable introduction to the series as a whole, notably by offering an in-depth examination of its themes. To be precise, page 1, 2, 4 and the first part of page 5 pertain to the pilot, whereas the remaining content takes the pilot as a starting point to look at the series and beyond.

Data: Series The Top Secret is a psychological science fiction thriller of 12 volumes that was first serialized in the shoujo manga magazine Melody from 2001 to 2012. Its prequel, Himitsu - Season 0, started serialization in 2013 and is, at the time of writing this (2022), still ongoing. An anime adaptation of 26 episodes by Madhouse, Top Secret - The Revelation, first aired in 2008; a live action film, The Top Secret - Murder in Mind, followed in 2016.

I lack familiarity with these adaptations, but observe that the anime ended well before the manga’s conclusion, and seems to be a liberal adaptation: The first chapter takes place during episodes 2–3, the subsequent case during episodes 12–13. Judging from reviews, the film seems to draw inspiration from many elements across the series while having little in common in terms of characterization. In any case, fans of the series advise to skip both adaptations. (Frankly speaking, no work of Shimizu’s would be the same without her unmistakable delicate yet difficult-to-translate art, especially in this series, where the beautiful and the grotesque go hand in hand.)

Alas, The Top Secret has never been published in English or German (though an inofficial translation exists in English), and, as of 2022, the French publication by Tonkam (now part of Delcourt) has been out of print for a while. The Italian publication by Hanami Collection is still available though, and the original Japanese publication can be acquired in eBook format. Please consider supporting Shimizu by purchasing her works.

Define: Oneshot, Pilot Chapter In the world of manga, oneshot refers to the format of standalone stories, usually around 15–60 pages in length. They are typically submitted as contest entries and are an instrument to test the waters with, whether it’s an unknown mangaka getting their name out there, or a story concept gauging reader interest. In that function, they serve as pilot chapters. Positive reception of one such pilot can greenlight a full series. In many cases, the series is rebooted, making the pilot a first draft. In others, the pilot becomes the first chapter of the new series. In the case of the latter, details in the pilot may be adjusted or overwritten with the second chapter.

Oneshots can also be found in a mangaka’s published volumes (as specials featuring older works, or as short side stories featuring one of their series) and in anthologies (comprised of stories by various mangaka). Note that in the West, the term “oneshot” is occasionally also used to refer to standalone volumes, as manga are nearly exclusively serialized as volumes here, skipping the periodical chapter-by-chapter publication in magazines that is standard practice in Japan.

The Top Secret’s first chapter is a case of a pilot taking the place of the first chapter, though the decision comes with less severe consequences than in other cases: Two years lie between the conception of the pilot and the second chapter, five years between the events of their stories, the setting shifts from the USA to Japan, and the series’ actual cast is not introduced until the second chapter. The pilot, albeit somewhat removed from the rest of the series, makes for an excellent introduction to the series’ premise and themes, but, true to Shimizu’s masterful skill in short stories, is perhaps even more poignant as a self-contained tale. Within the scope of 62 pages, Shimizu presents a story so enthralling that I held my breath reading it, thoroughly engrossed in its mystery, technology and the ethical issues raised by the latter. Despite the steady progression of the depicted investigation, the sensational media coverage that accompanies it, and all the thoughts and revelations brought forth by the new technology, the underlying story is surprisingly quiet — which makes its climax all the more astounding: Forgoing words, its mesmerizing sequence of images flooded me with emotions and shook me up. In contrast to the sensational and explicit elements on the surface, the core of the story is ultimately conveyed in a manner much like that climax: quietly — implicitly, subtly —, and without need for words. It is very fitting for a series that revolves around taboos, that is to say, things not talked about, things not to be talked about, and things left unspoken.

The pilot’s (deliberately) abrupt conclusion left me with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and melancholia as my heart bled for its solitary protagonist. It is one of the most fascinating and polished narratives I have encountered in manga, not to mention oneshots, and I knew right away that I would not find any rest until I had digested and archived my thoughts on what I had just read in writing. Refugium was thus born out of necessity.

Suffice to say, there are full spoilers for the pilot chapter all across the site. Disclaimer: This is a work of sci-fi, which means its mechanics draw from scientific knowledge. I assure you that I do not know anything about neuroscience. Any facts that may wildly differ from reality are derived from the work itself.

The site’s content is based on the French publication by Tonkam (2008–2015; now part of Delcourt) and the English translations provided by Dragon Voice.

The site is intended to be viewed at a minimum resolution of 1280x720.

If Refugium can bring you a fraction of the joy that The Top Secret brings to me, that would make me very happy. If there are any thoughts you’d like to share, I’d be delighted about any feedback in my guestbook. Thanks a lot for your visit!

March 2022

listed at: Emotion · last update: April 2022