This shrine was a heavy birth. What I had considered the bulk of its content (all the parts directly related to the pilot) was written in September 2018, eight months after my first encounter with the story, and followed by one first draft of the header (Kevin’s profile forming an arc with Reed’s shredding of the photograph). Despite a clear vision for the elements the header should contain, and the mood to be conveyed, the struggle to execute it and to fill the empty space seemed unending, if not insoluble. In a way, I could empathize with Kevin, as I preferred for my thoughts and feelings to remain shut away rather than than to become tangible in a shape that did not match my vision, lest its beauty and my love be stained.
Over the course of the three and a half years that followed, the header would slowly, gradually take more shape, until it was, in a one-week creative marathon, finally finished in February 2022 along with all of the site’s design and code. The equally long and equally hard battle with the two pages on the themes of the series as a whole (5 and 6) — initially estimated to make up 10–20 % of the site, but ultimately amounting to 50 % of it — was fought out over the course of the next month, and found its conclusion by the end of the month at long last. The shrine was thus released in March 2022 — my birth month. I couldn’t ask for a better present for myself.
A full documentation of the shrine’s creation process can be found at Song Cradle, the network’s repository.
Refugium is a literary German word for “refuge” — a place to retreat to, a safe haven, an oasis, sanctuary. What Kevin holds sacred are the freedoms to think and feel, and therefore the private space inside the mind, as well as his mother and the feelings he harbours for her. They are what he wishes to protect, and, as spaces of retreat, they are what give him comfort.
In The Top Secret as a whole, shelter, in a broader sense, comes in many — at times questionable — forms: drugs, sleep, denial, obsession, substitution, memory, but also oblivion. Most of the time, however, shelter is found in other people. In the bustle of everyday life and under the weight of their own past, burdens and hunger, humans need refuges to keep going. The series’ kindness lies in the fact that it does not begrudge them that solace, nor does it categorically condemn them for escaping into unhealthy things. This goes for persons that serve as shelters as much as any of the substances and states listed above. The crimes that are committed may be wrong, but how someone ended up the way they did, and what had kept them alive until that point, is always acknowledged as part of their story — a story that is theirs alone, no one else’s.
In that way, neither shelters nor the technology behind the MRI scanner are inherently good or bad, but double-sided auxiliaries whose impact and consequences depend on one’s own judgement.
There is an ironic double-sided quality in the choice for the shrine’s title as well. The Latin verb refugere that it is derived from can mean to seek or take refuge, to escape from something and thus to save oneself, yes. On the other side of that consequence is the act of getting away from something, however you want to name it depending on the context: to break away, run away, flee; to flinch, fear; to draw back, retreat, withdraw; to avoid, evade, elude; to depart from one’s course, to walk out — to pass from view. At the end of the story, Kevin’s judgement leads him to turn his back to (one of) his refuge(s) so as to preserve its sanctity. The action that he feels compelled to take, however— What expression would you use to qualify it?
The two final pages of the story have left a deep impression on me, and I find my mind returning to them often. They are to me akin to certain moods and sentiments that occasionally resurface on the shore of memory, the way a melody or verse may drift in and out of consciousness like a wave. The site’s header stitches them together along with another, and combines many elements that I strongly associate with the pilot: the scattering pieces of a photograph being drastically torn; the haunting waves of the silent sea; the rose-tinted vision born from affection; the presence of the media; rain (albeit only in colour and text); the elusive golden shimmer of memory, bygone days, and the precious; and Kevin’s melancholia that envelops all of it.
Multiple elements of the site’s design evoke the impression of print media, newspapers in particular, while others emulate code, as I wanted to stress the coexistence and conflict between the traditional (the world up to that point) and the digital (the new age of technology). The navigation in particular is inspired by and supposed to represent both, employing a monospace typeface (Source Code Pro) characteristic of code editors while mimicking the way code is displayed in these editors, as well as the table of contents in magazines.
One breakthrough moment (April 2021) in the creation of the header is the addition of Kevin’s mother as she appears in his mind’s eye, possibly from when she was younger, a vision represented in the header by a photograph, which in turn is a keeper of memory. Her prominent presence on the left reinforces, coincidentally so, the causal and thematic link between Kevin and Reed’s decisions: Reed’s hands and the torn-up photograph of Macaulay now appear as Kevin’s hands as they tear up a metaphorical photograph. As an extension of this idea, all images on page 4 that capture Reed’s and Kevin’s gaze are also presented as photographs.
Another lucky coincidence occured in the final breakthrough (February 2022) as I tried to fill the empty spaces of the header for a more balanced composition. Though I had initially intended to use unspecific newspaper fragments, I opted for verses of a poem I associate with the pilot instead. As by a miracle, their placement reflects their respective content.
Log: Trivia Some trivia on my beginnings with the series, purely for amusement:
I did not get to The Top Secret until around January 2018, after I had exhausted the stash of Shimizu’s works in languages I can read. Having finished Moon Child just months before, which prompted me to order all of her artbooks right away, I was left with a gaping hole in my chest yearning for more of Shimizu’s brand of melancholia and vulnerability. There is something to be said about the pull of her longer works that, in spite of flaws, makes you crave for more of the same themes from the same imaginative mind so as to piece together a fuller picture.
I had put off looking into it despite prior awareness of its French publication (which I had come across while hunting down the out-of-print Princess Kaguya), reason being: The Top Secret seems to me an awfully cheesy title. My opinion on this hasn’t changed.
Going into it without any knowledge whatsoever, I fully expected Macaulay to be the series’ protagonist. I mean, if it isn’t a shoujo manga with a female lead, whoever is the first handsome face on the block must have the most important role, right? Wrong. As with the rest of the pilot, none of my experience allowed me to guess what would happen next. I surely did not expect for this handsome face to be more or less irrelevant as an individual, all the while commanding this much presence. The contrast between his mysterious introduction and his negligible part as an actor in the story’s mystery impressed me. The story’s abrupt ending hit me all the harder when I realized that it was never about the mystery itself.
It wasn’t until my second or third reading of the pilot (which followed very soon after I had emotionally digested it) that I realized that Kevin is in fact a young man, not a woman. I blame it on a certain trio from Sailor Moon, their hairstyle and the canonical gender confusion. (Lethe, in what world is Kevin a girl’s name?!) To say I wasn’t slightly bummed would be dishonest. Stories of adult sons and their relationship to their mother may be a rare sight, but a story that deals with the same feelings on top of the complex (female) bond between daughter and mother would be of even more value to me personally. I got over my disappointment quickly because the pilot remains a very fine piece of fiction either way. I would soon get what I wanted in the first chapter of All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga, which ends on a similarly abrupt and heart-wrenching note as The Top Secret’s pilot. Although the two stories are vastly different in style, you may find reading them back to back revelatory.
Credits A list of resources used in making this shrine.
Special thanks to all the kind friends who cheered me on over the years, be it in my dormant phases or in states of creative frenzy, and who always lent me an ear or extended a hand when I had questions or hit roadblocks in my attempts to give shape to my vision. Thanks in particular to
Elysa for her gentle support and expressed interest over the years, for readily repeating Photoshop explanations to me whenever I’ve forgotten her teachings, and going as far as creating PSD mock-ups for me to experiment with (2021);
Sophia for so kindly trial-reading paragraphs on law when I was despairing over writing obvious law basics for a non-law audience (2020), for indulging me on her birthday when I asked her how to write fake code, and for keeping the flame alive all these years;
Yuuka for her genius out-of-the-box input when presented with options for the header’s title font (basically “this, but italics”), her ever-present invisible hand (e.g. brushes, and URL rewrite, again), and her continued willingness to fill my mind with KNOWLEDGE, no matter how trivial the question; and, post-release, for sparing no effort to help me fix CSS above my level for hours on end while I was in full drama queen mode (SAVIOUR OF LAYOUTS, TRULY!);
Andrea for her noisy, enthusiastic chants, her never-ceasing insistence that I be true to my own tl;dr, her steady quiet honing of the craft that always brings forth the most (awe-)inspiring creations, and for sharing her resource-gathering process with me in detail, which lifted a lot of the heavy fog around it, made graphics creation so much less intimidating, and freed me from fear and insecurity; and for presenting me, on day one post-release no less, with a perfectly formatted and densely annotated nine-page document of spelling and grammar mistakes to be revised, along with high-level stylistic suggestions, followed up by a five-page analysis of my comma usage; and for consulting with Yuuka like a pro to get my layout fixed;
and, lastly, to Kate, whose manga-panel-loving heart beats in tune with mine, and who yelled all her love for this shrine when it was still in its skeletal state, purely in black and white (2018).
I am forever grateful that, although we do not live the same life, nor look at the same things, we are facing in the same direction — and ever willing to divert our gaze to follow one another’s. ❤
Linkage If you would like to link this shrine, feel free to use one of the following buttons and direct it to https://shimizu.six-chances.net/secret. Please do not direct link buttons.
The Top Secret A curated list of links related to The Top Secret that brought me joy.