Yoshiki Tonogai (W/A)
Secret tells the story of six high school students who are the only survivors of a terrible bus accident that killed the rest of their classmates, their homeroom teacher, and the bus driver. In the worst counseling session ever conducted by a health professional, their teacher, Mitomo, reveals that three of the six surviving students are actually murderers. Predictably, the students react in horrified shock, disgust, fear, and anger. There is one student, Amano, who reacts with cool logic, while another, Kunikida, is the first to leave the group all together.
The students’ reactions are used to emphasize who they are as characters right off the bat. Amano proves to be the most rational out of all six. Addressing the situation calmly, he points out Mitomo’s lack of motive for lying, which means that he must be telling the truth. Then when another classmate is attacked in school, he’s the first to approach the situation from a lucid standpoint.
Kunikida, as we’re shown in flashbacks, has bite to match her bark. Her classmates find her scary or off-putting; however, she’s given little character development, as the book focuses specifically on three characters to set up its overall plot.
Shima reacts with fear, and we see through flashbacks that he was the outcast of his class and often bullied by other students. He leaves as well, scurrying away after Kunikida in fear of classmates he never truly considered friends. With three students gone, three are left in the classroom set up as the supposed “good guys.” They include Rika, a teenage idol, Odzu, the outgoing moral leader, and Izu the everyman.
Beginning in media res, the book reveals information about the accident through a series of character-specific point of view flashbacks. Odzu’s flashback is rather simple, ruling him out as one of the murderers and showcasing what an all around decent guy he is. His good nature in turn gave him a clichéd regret wherein he switches seats with another classmate—who of course had a crush on him—to help Amano with his car sickness; she dies during the accident. Odzu isn’t a bad guy, but that’s the point. This leaves him with rather stale characterization for the first book.
Rika is the next to have a solo chapter, and hers is much more fleshed-out and interesting. She’s an idol, an actress, and the accident has left her with several injuries and the inability to keep working. The irony is that Rika purposely went against her agency’s wishes and joined her class on their ill-fated field trip. Now she’s unable to work at all, whereas before she wanted to create some wonderful memories with her class before she was pulled away to work on a movie.
Rika’s regrets are more complex than Odzu’s standard fare, and her character motivations are more interesting than the bullied Shima. While she plays the cute idol for her classmates, behind the scenes she hides a selfish ugliness in her character, something that Kunikida calls her out on when Rika cries with happiness that she’s gotten fan letters even after the accident. Rika’s feelings are interesting, relatable, and understandable. Though she’s self-centered, there’s a sincerity to her that shines through creating an interesting duality to her character. On paper, she’s simply the cute but selfish actress, but there’s definitely something lurking beneath the surface. Whether she is one of the three murderers remains to be seen, but Rika ended up being the character I was most interested in.
The end of the first chapter does have an interesting twist for Izu’s character that by the end I wasn’t sure was real or if it was hinting at something else within the story. Unfortunately, that’s where Izu’s character ends. Though he reads as the protagonist of the story there’s nothing interesting about him outside of that opening twist. His everyman status reduces him to a blank space to project on, an absent observer who helps move the plot along at the proper moments.
Mitomo suffers from a similar problem as Izu. His character is basically the mysterious teacher with glasses who knows things. We see Mitomo protecting Rika from a horde of reporters, in the opening when he reveals he has evidence of three murderers amongst the survivors, and then in a counseling session with Rika that turns scary. Mitomo is framed as menacing yet his motivations for doing all this is to reveal three murderers. This should be an interesting enigma, but the lack of focus given to Mitomo as a singular character, along with the over emphasis on his stereotypical mysterious aspects, leaves him stagnant.
The final chapter reveals one of the murderers, but it’s not an especially shocking or interesting reveal. It wasn’t Izu, which did moderately surprise me, but given that Rika was really the only fully developed character of the book the reveal wasn’t particularly interesting either. Though Secret ends on a cliffhanger, it’s not a nail biting one. The overall plot plays out like a typical game of Clue, tiny tidbits of secrets—pun intended—slowly revealed, suspicion built up, creepy imagery in the form of rabbit masks, and well placed symbolic keychains, but nothing new.
The art doesn’t help these drawbacks either. The ink work is very fine, thin-lined with jerky strokes that create very square shapes. Tonogai’s artwork isn’t bad, but it’s nothing spectacular either. The backgrounds are bland, as are the characters, though I appreciate how each character had at least one identifying feature, such as a headband, clips, bandages, glasses—all except for Izu, our everyman. The rabbit masks are especially creepy, which is what drew me to the book itself as the cover is fantastically intriguing. It’s unfortunate that the bus flashback, the main scene of horror, is so plainly drawn.
I wanted more blood, more gore, and more usage of screen tones with harsher ink lines, to give the scenes an appropriately dark atmosphere that matched the characters’ horrified emotions.
That being said, Secret has loads of potential to be a great series. While the story is predictable, it’s not overly so. There were genuine moments of intrigue that piqued my interest and hit my thriller/horror buttons perfectly. I adore Rika, and ended up really liking Amano as a character even though he was secondary throughout the entire book. While Izu is a blank space, he’s not a blank space that I dislike. He needs to be colored in as a character, more revealed about his mysterious scene at the end of chapter one. But that comes with time, and I’m willing to be patient. Secret does build up enough mysteries to keep the reader interested. There’s nothing more annoying to me than a plot that is purposely vague for no real reason other than to entice the reader. Mysteries in a thriller should be organic, slowly dueling out bits and pieces of information, foreshadowing, and revelations with each chapter, not hoarding it all until the final moment of climax or never revealing anything at all about the mystery at all.
The pacing in Secret is the best part of the book, while the individual character chapters aren’t always winners, they do reveal appropriate amounts of information about the characters and the mystery itself to the reader. With more time, I could easily get over the lackluster artwork and be able to enjoy the story itself if the characters continue to develop as well as the plot does.
Secret plays out like a typical game of Clue, but underneath the clichés there are real moments of genuine intrigue that made me want to read more.