REVIEW: No. 5 Volume 2 Is Confusing and That’s Awesome

crop of the cover of no. 5 volume 2

From Taiyo Matsumoto, the award-winning creator of Ping Pong, Sunny, and Tekkonkinkreet, the second volume of his science fiction and fantasy epic No. 5 raises more questions than it answers.

(Spoilers for events in No. 5, volume 2 discussed below.)

No. 5, Volume 2

Taiyo Matsumoto
VIZ Media
October 19, 2021

cover of no. 5 volume 2 depicting no.5 and matryoshka in a winter landscape
No. 5 follows the members of the Peace Corps’ special Rainbow Brigade who, in a world without war, serve as the public relations department of the global military. In volume 1, the titular number 5 had suddenly snapped and killed his comrade number 9, before kidnapping a mysterious woman only known as Matryoshka and going on the run from the rest of the Rainbow Brigade. Volume 2 focuses on a battle between the mysterious magical pair of twins that make up number 4 and a man named Viktor, who finally succeeds in killing them despite their powerful magic. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the brigade think back on past events that led to the formation of their squad as it is now.

Matsumoto’s art is, as always, stunningly sensory, with elaborately detailed environments and fanciful, surrealist elements that make me want to draw myself. No. 5 is both looser and more fantastical than his later work (the comic was originally published in Japan from 2000 to 2005), and it feels like a story he was having fun drawing. There’s an… unexpected amount of Russian visual and textual elements in this story (from the onion-domed architecture to characters having names like Viktor and Nazarov and Matryoshka) and I am not sure why that is but I appreciate it.

panels from no 5 volume 2depicting a character noticing birdsong around him

I read a review of the first volume of No. 5 that complained it was too impossibly confusing to get into, which I thought wasn’t fair because I could follow the action in volume 1 without trouble. Volume 2 was significantly more difficult (possibly because I read volume 1 months ago and had forgotten a lot of factual details) and I had to read through it multiple times before I felt like I got a handle on what was happening. But I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

Number 4’s powers create hallucinations to confuse the men attacking them, so that whole sequence is depicting events that are not literally taking place. Likewise, when they die, Matsumoto is visually depicting how it feels for them to die sooner than they had hoped and at the hands of someone they hadn’t wanted to die from. It’s not literal and shouldn’t be read literally. It is a story about violence and the purpose of military power in peacetime, but it doesn’t require granular plot specifics for those ideas to come through. The story is primarily presented via an external point of view, which means the reader rarely knows what’s going on inside any character’s head at any given moment, making the story feel bigger than what’s captured on the page.

panels from opening sequence of no. 5 volume 2 depicting environments

Even without having a full understanding of what physical events are happening in each scene, the progression from action to action is paced well. There’s consistent forward momentum from panel to panel, and the shot choices feel almost cinematic. I would love to see No. 5 adapted to animation like Tekkonkinkreet or Ping Pong. Still, I have to wonder how many of its mysteries are being set up for future pay-offs in later volumes and how many will remain mysteries to the end.

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