Saturday 2 October 2021

5 Horror Manga Recommendations That Aren't Junji Ito

It's spooky season again, so that means horror, specifically, horror manga. Japanese comics have a long history of horror stories, but the mangaka Junji Ito has become synonymous with the genre. He's an indisputable master at the craft, no doubt, I even spotlighted 10 recommendations of his work, but there are many other horror manga to choose from. Here's a list of 5 to choose from, that aren't from Junji Ito.

1) The Drifting Classroom 1972-1974

One of the most famous of all horror manga, created by arguably the godfather of all horror manga, Kazuo Umezu. The plot concerns sixth-grader Sho Takamatsu, leaving for school after a nasty argument with his mother. Upon arriving, a massive earthquake strikes, but Sho's entire school is apparently transported into another dimension. 

A sense of utter hopelessness engulfs Sho and his classmates (along with the reader) upon seeing how desolate and bleak this wasteland really is. Worse still, there are evil things lurking out there - carnivorous, insect-like monsters drawing closer.

At first, the students look to their teachers and the school faculty, but paranoia and fear eat away at the adults too. They're soon all killed off, leaving the children to fend for themselves. But Umezu has no problem in killing off kids. Some are butchered by monsters, while others are overcome with grief, committing suicide in hopes of seeing their parents again in heaven.

Stranger still, Sho develops a psychic link with his mother across worlds, trying desperately to get back to her. Sho leads the survivors in a quest to discover the hideous truth about the wasteland they inhabit, and, against all hope, try and find a way back to their normal lives.

A classic horror manga, The Drifting Classroom is often considered Umezu's magnum opus. With good reason too, since it's not just horror, but a science-fiction drama with political messages thrown in. Most notably, it, along with all of Umezu's works, had a big impact on Junji Ito, who read this manga as a kid.

2) Stalker Woman - 1993

Hiroshi Mori is a young college student, living on his own in the urban jungle of Tokyo. He's not the greatest guy in the world, but is fairly typical of most of us. He has his faults, but isn't a bad person either. He's got friends, and is crushing hard for a girl he likes.

But Hiroshi's average life changes in a chance encounter with a strange woman - tall, gaunt, and with a mane of long, black hair. Women being tall often comes with negative stereotypes in Japan, since they're not viewed as ideally feminine. She's trying to enter the apartment of a man who'd recently moved out. When Hiroshi informs her that the man had left, he becomes the new object of his obsession.

There's no charm or finesse on her part. She simply begins entering his apartment and obsessing over his life, not even attempting to ingratiate herself. Of course, this lack of social grace comes across as incredibly creepy, and it only gets worse from there. The creepy woman attacks Hiroshi's crush, friends, and even sets his apartment on fire.

At first, this is a clear case of an obsessive stalker, but slowly, it's revealed that this woman might be something far more sinister. Japan is filled with horrific urban legends, one of the most prominent being the slit-mouthed woman, who mutilates passersby. Urban legends are mentioned throughout the manga, but then it's hinted that you, the reader, might be witnessing the birth of a new one. Who, or what, is this Stalker Woman, and what will happen to Hiroshi?

Created by Minetaro Mochizuki in 1993, this comic helped popularize the term "stalker" in Japan and still makes for a creepy read.

3) Caterpillar - 2009

Based on the 1929 Edogawa Ranpo story, Caterpillar has no ghosts, monsters, or serial killers, but it's easily the most disturbing entry on this list. Adapted into manga by the talented Suehrio Maruo, whose most notable work is the very controversial Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. His version of Caterpillar is no less unsettling.

Not that he had to change much, since Ranpo's story was already nightmarish. Similar to the American novel Johnny Got His Gun (published in 1939, ten years after Caterpillar), the manga and short story follow a similar setup and plot. Lieutenant Sunaga, an Imperial Japanese Army officer, is horrifically wounded in battle, his arms, legs, and face are blown off by an enemy shell. He's no longer a man, just a torso, a helpless, squirming caterpillar.

The original story never specifies the war, but the manga explicitly states he was wounded in the Siberian Expedition (1918-1922), an unglamorous war for Japan. Tokiko, like every good Japanese wife, is expected to wait on him hand and foot, tending to his every need and whim, even though he can only communicate through gestures and scrawled writing from a pen in his mouth.

She's expected to care for her husband’s every need, including sex. That was one of the few areas that wasn't damaged, and it's one of the only things that makes him feel remotely human. One of the major differences is that there is more of an erotic nature to the manga, fully embracing the ero guro nansenu movement of 1920s Japan, which ironically, Ranpo help kick off.

In addition to the outright body horror, there is also a bleak sadness that permeates the manga. We see flashbacks of their adopted child who dies, and while Tokiko is mourning, Sunaga, doesn't seem particularly bothered. After all, it wasn't his biological son. There is the constant theme of female bondage throughout both versions, which culminates in a deep-seated resentment toward her caterpillar husband which culminates in tragedy.

There’s a lot going on in Caterpillar, satirizing the latent misogyny within Japanese society to the nationalistic militarism of Japan’s past, all amplified in gory, skin-crawling detail thanks to Suehiro Maruo’s artwork. Caterpillar and Johnny Got His Gun are two of the most frightening stories I’ve ever read, disturbing me to my core. The thought of your own body becoming a prison, trapping your mind in an eternity of endless torment, with no way to escape, is far more terrifying than any ghost story or slasher villain.

4) Eko Eko Azarak 1975-1979

After that depressing journey, let's turn to something a little lighter. Eko Eko Azarak is a 1970s horror manga that alternates between camp and visceral brutality. Created by Shinichi Koga, Eko Eko Azarak takes its name from the “witch’s chant.” Misa Kuroi is a new student, who also happens to be a witch, adept in black magic. The chapters are all very episodic which usually consist of a formula. 

Most stories begin with Misa researching a new form of black magic. Then, there's a subplot that involves one of her classmates either pissing her off or getting involved with the magical element for usually selfish reasons. The climax always sees Misa killing them in absurd, gory ways, and almost every chapter ends with her walking off chanting "Eko Eko Azarak." 

There is a lot of morality lessons and ironic twists reminiscent of Tales From The Crypt that make up the plots. For example, a thuggish bully is eager to beat a rival in a fistfight but lacks the skill. Misa curses him with a pierced heart, turning him into the undead, who scares the opponent to death – technically winning the duel. Another involves Misa conducting a black mass to curse a hated teacher, who ends up coughing up his organs right in front of class.

As mentioned, Eko Eko Azarak borders on absurdism, as no one seems to call the authorities to investigate these horrific crimes, all of which involve Misa Kuroi - whose name translates to Misa Black, as in black magic. I mean, how many curses and monsters do these classmates have to see before they learn not to screw with her? Still, it's ridiculous fun, steeped in iconic 70s horror.

5) Seeds of Anxiety 2004-2005

When it comes to the paranormal, I've always felt that the less you explain, the scarier it is. Lovecraft was right when he said, "The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." This type of random, unexplained, and irrational horror is what Seeds of Anxiety - Fuan no Tane - excels at.

There is no overarching plot, no recurring characters, just short, episodic horror stories that sometimes last for just a single page. But in that short amount of time, the visuals and writing set up just enough to make the payoff truly frightening. It's hard to describe "plots," because they rely on images you have to see to believe.

The best way I can describe it is this. Imagine yourself taking a shower and you close your eyes to shampoo your hair. Suddenly, a nameless dread creeps into your mind - 'what if something is standing beside me when I open my eyes?'

Seeds of Anxiety preys upon that illogical fear and conjures up your worst, most illogical nightmare into reality. The most unnerving part – and best, in my opinion – is that there’s never an explanation as to what you just saw, no matter how freakish, cloaking these horrors in an air of impenetrable mystery.

There is a similar manga, PTSD Radio, also made by the talented mangaka, Masaaki Nakayama. Both feature the same great artwork but PTSD Radio has a slightly more overarching plot. Both are fantastic, creepy reads that will make you never want to shut your eyes ever again.