‘Darwin’s Incident’ ponders right to life in unique setting

©Shun Umezawa/Kodansha
The cover of the first volume of “Darwin Jihen” (“Darwin’s Incident”)

Darwin Jihen (Darwin’s Incident) By Shun Umezawa(Kodansha)

The right to live as a human being is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution of Japan. I am keenly aware, however, as we can see from the current war in Ukraine, that this basic right can be easily taken away at any time.

If people have the right to life, what about other animals? What if those animals acquired intelligence superior to that of human beings? “Darwin Jihen” (“Darwin’s Incident”) is a controversial work that tackles this difficult theme head-on. In March this year, it won the Manga Taisho (Cartoon Grand Prize) 2022, which was voted on by avid manga readers.

Charlie was born through genetic technology, with a human biologist as his father and a genius chimpanzee as his mother. Called a “humanzee,” he is raised by human foster parents in the U.S. state of Missouri and begins high school at the age of 15. His facial features resemble those of a chimpanzee, but he is more intelligent than the average human, and his physical abilities are far greater.

He’s treated as “the odd one out” in the classroom, and his only friend is an outspoken, eccentric girl named Lucy.

Charlie’s birth was linked to a radical terrorist organization that opposes discrimination against all species. The organization is bent on making Charlie a symbol of animal liberation, and works behind the scenes to make him their leader. However, Charlie believes that “each and every animal is uniquely alone,” rejects violence and tries to choose his own destiny.

“Darwin’s Incident” takes place in the United States, and the characters are drawn with photographic realism. Charlie is the only one illustrated with a cute, manga-like appearance. This gap is at the heart of the manga, and it succeeds in making this odd-looking man a hero. Charlie’s wry, philosophical lines are also very appealing.

The story, however, is serious and grave. Charlie has no legal human rights. Characters cry out against discrimination and call for animal rights and environmental protection, but they eventually prioritize the convenience of human beings. Their contradictions become fully visible as they fight over Charlie.

For what purpose was Charlie created? Is it possible for him, who is legally only a “thing,” to win citizenship? The theme of this manga may be described as “the right to life,” but this work’s awareness of that issue goes far beyond mere entertainment. I feel the author’s desire to tell a story that no one has ever encountered before.

I believe this work is quite likely to be dramatized on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Up through the third volume, my verdict on this manga was “entertaining but a little too dark,” but having now read the newly published fourth volume, which has another startling development, my opinion is soaring sky-high.