WRITTEN by KELLY FERNANDEZ, KHARISSA KENNER AND HAL SCHRIEVE
Happy Halloween! The world is full of existential dread, and nothing encapsulates that better than Japanese horror manga! Themes of oppressive evil, inescapable death, and environmental devastation caused by inexplicable dark spirits and the consequences of human error abound. Very on topic and relevant; very spooky. For teenagers who like American horror comics or movies, or saw The Grudge and want to explore material in a similar vein, there’s no better place to start than these titles.
Uzumaki, possibly the most internationally famous Japanese horror manga, takes place in a small rural town where its people are being taken over by a strange curse that creates paranoia and an obsession with spiral patterns. The story plays with a traditional horror trope in Japanese manga: the idea of there being no escape from the spreading evil. Themes of post war and alienation are evident; the town is wiped off the map as the insanity grows. Uzumaki’s surreal, disturbing, and detailed images provoke shock. Meanwhile, the plot itself builds a slow, deliberate suspense to keep readers on edge.
Mizuki’s Kitaro features a powerful ghost/monster boy who uses his abilities for good. He protects humans from monsters, spirits and other non Japanese creatures such as Dracula. Kitaro is intended for a younger audience, but serves as an introduction to spooky monster tales, cutesy horror, and Japanese folklore (the English edition includes a monster glossary). The manga features some light body horror –Kitaro’s father is an eyeball–and some detailed, ghastly imagery. There is some slapstick violence that would appeal to those who love cartoony, classic manga.
Umezu’s psychological horror The Drifting Classroom involves a small-town elementary school that is transported into a desert-like dimension where there is no food, water or civilization. The series contains many story arcs. The main character, a young student, survives each terrifying incident to tell the story to others; there are themes of postwar social destruction in the apocalyptic setting. Umezu incorporates extremely violent and bloody imagery, disturbing visuals (ex. Black doll eyes and wide screaming mouths) to make for a heart-pounding horror manga.
School Zone centers around a school that is haunted by 13 ghosts. The main character, a young boy, is possessed by a single benevolent ghost who charges him with putting the other ghosts to rest to free the school from its curse. Inuki’s grotesque and detailed visuals are cute, yet are still effective for shock value. The manga takes on themes of cruelty and bullying among adolescents; plot arcs are full of vengeful spirits, violent deaths, and psychological horror.
Tomoya Takashima’s Yamishibai is an anime horror anthology stylistically based on traditional Japanese street theater. In every episode, a mysterious old man tells a scary story to the neighborhood children. Yamishibai’s slow paced stories are inspired by urban legends, myth and yokai (spirit monsters/paranormal entities). The main character within the old man’s story is often traumatized, dies, or their fate is completely unknown. The creepy soundtrack builds suspense and adds fear to the frightening images and jump scares.
Bryce, Mio and Jason Davis (2010). Overview of Manga Genres in T. Johnson-Woods (ed.), Manga: An Anthology. New York, NY: Consortium Publishing, pp. 34-55.
Bush, L.C (2001). “Manga” in Asian Horror Encyclopedia. San Jose, CA: Writer’s Club Press. Pp. 117-120.
Lu, A. (2002). Horror Japanese-style. Film Comment, 38(1), 38. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu/docview/1703127?accountid=13379&rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo
Martin, D. (2009). Japan’s Blair Witch: Restraint, Maturity, and Generic Canons in the British Critical Reception of Ring. Cinema Journal, Volume 48(3), 35-51. University of Texas Press. Retrieved from https://muse-jhu-edu.queens.ezproxy.cuny.edu/article/265922
Thompson, J. (2010). The History of Horror Manga in Manga: A Complete Guide. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.