Horror manga has a following in North America thanks in large part to Junji Ito's Uzumaki. The whole Pulp anthology looked like something different. Even thumbing through, without sitting down to read an issue, it looked like a collection of markedly atypical works. There were hard boiled series like Buronson and Ryoichi Ikigami's Strain, the recently talked about Black & White (Tekkon Kinkreet), and Naoki Yamamoto's frequently sexual Dance Till Tomorrow. Then, you got to Uzumaki. You saw human/snails breeding in a rabbit hutch or pregnant women using hand drills to bore into hospital patients. With that unrestrained capacity for imagination and the medium’s ability to bore down on the most awful moments of terror, Pulp became immediately recognizable as a home for the amazingly unusual. Unfortunately, Pulp came to and end, but, when the series was first collected into graphic novels, manga fans and North American comic fans who were not necessarily drawn to manga in general began to take note of the ability of manga in general and Junji Ito specifically, to present uniquely disturbing imagery. Then Viz released Ito's follow-up, Gyo, and the reception became dependant on the reader’s appreciation for bewilderment. The two volume series, scheduled to be re-released on Oct 16, 2007 and Jan 15, 2008, is everything but traditional horror. It starts like Uzumaki in that it featured a break from traditional hauntings. In Uzumaki, it was a town plagued by a shape. Spirals were causing madness and death. This time, it's a young couple haunted by stench. From his first work, starring the immortal, teenage girl Tomie, Ito has toyed with the fragility of the human mind. A sharp crack in the right spot, and tightly guarded composure gives way to madness, often homicidal madness. In this case, Kaori can't deal with strong odors. As she becomes convinced that the stench has permeated her surroundings, her arguments with and berating of boyfriend Tadashi become the kind of emotionally abusive relationship that is trying to watch. From that basis, Gyo launches into a brand of horror/horror comedy found in movies like Slither. There is an intention to be frightening, but there is also an intention to cross the line between breaking mundane experience for horror and breaking that natural for comedy. To use a Jaws metaphor, a shark in seen on page one. Scuba diving near a World War II wreck while vacationing on Okinawa, Tadashi is chased out of the water by a shark. Figuratively, THE shark of Gyo turns up at the in one of the last frames of the first chapter. Kaori is losing her mind, ready to pull out her hair rather than deal with the stink. Leaving the shower, she is overcome and faints. Tadashi hears a rustle, and chases it, finding the insidious cause of the stink: a fish with four legs as been scurrying through the beach bungalow. From there, Ito takes Gyo down a Gremlins route that is slap stick and at the same time threatening. Tadashi is not terribly impressed with the discovery of a walking fish. He briefly wonders to himself whether it is an member of a previously undiscovered species, but then tapes a plastic bag around the stinky find, and proceeds to drop a rock on the bag. Unfortunately, Kaori is still shrieking about the stench not dissipating, and sure enough, the cat...make that the fish comes back. The inflated bag, with the fish inside hops into the room and begins chasing the couple. Even more unfortunately, this particular fish is a vanguard for an invasion of four legged sea life. A beach full of swimmers are in cavorting, when a sunbather suddenly becomes alert and yells "shark!" Everyone rushes out of the water and with the shark following in pursuit. As they reach the beach, the shark’s body begins lifting out of the water, and soon the predator is, itself running up the sand. Ito has a gift for evoking madness, especially the moment where what should be the realm of the irrational begins happening. As laughable as running fish are, Ito captures people as they are stricken by a world being turned upside down. As frequently as the work challenges the reader to react with a "what were you thinking?!?" sentiment, it establishes itself as an insane scenario in which it is impossible not to be disconcerted with what is being depicted. By the time volume one completes, the secret of the reeking, walking fish is revealed. Then volume 2 hits, and it's either audacious or dumbfounding. To reduce it, the stench conquers the world, obliterating all we hold dear. From madness and irritation, Gyo became a horror comedy. From a horror comedy, it became an absurdist, avant-garde expression of apocalyptic horror. The irony of Tadashi is that as non-curious and disinterested as the character is where matters of this invasion threat are concerned, he has a romantic dedication to the unpleasant, then more than unpleasant Kaori. After the smell and the fish have transformed the Japanese landscape in a grotesque hell, Tadashi's wanderings take him to "The Death Stench Circus," and it starts to look like Ito sailed away from horror manga expectations, landed on a new continent and then lit the ship on fire. There's plenty of horror manga that do not play it safe, but few go to "The Death Stench Circus." Volume 2 of Gyo is not so much pretentious as it is on its own plane. Uzumaki was a decidedly cracked work, but many fans of it are going to wish that Ito wrapped up a condensed Gyo in one volume or expanded to trace back to situate its conclusion concrete territory. Ultimately, it looks like Ito chose to run with a vision rather than entertain the reader, and because of that, the work can be thought of as captivating or infuriating depending on expectations.
David Kalat's J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond presents a convincing case that The Ring popularized an artistic movement in which cinematic auteurs were using the "dead wet girl" ghost story (kaidan if you want to be more proper) as a framework for their vision. In Mail, Hosui Yamazaki transposes that model to manga. He looks to the film horror of those crawling, long haired vengeful dead, and then maps the effects and the mannerisms to manga. J-Horror/"Dead Wet Girls"/Kaidan movies are an example of the type of visual arrangement that is not an obvious fit for manga. Look at car chases. The principle of velocity that makes a chase exciting is not easily accomplished in the manga/comics medium. Creators have recaptured the effect; Akihiro Ito (Geobreeders) and Kenichi Sonoda (Gunsmith Cats) to name two. As might be the case with working a car chase into a manga, Yamazaki side steps the direct strengths of the native medium to leverage what worked in another medium. There's a host of models and traditions for horror manga. From gothic to gag, alone, Kazuo Umezu established a number of frequently re-used templates. Not only does Yamazaki reach for the same blurs, suddenly appearing apparitions and character reactions as the live action, he eschews the easy route for doing so. Mail is surprisingly unreeling on shadows or darkness. Despite the challenges, Mail accomplishes its goal. It does evoke the same chilling effect as a good live action "dead wet girl" film. The binding factor in the series of stories is a familiar element to manga, as well as other horror anthologies. Detective Akiba is an active framing device. He hosts the short tales, the way an EC Comics' Crypt Keeper or Old Witch might. He crops up early to introduce the episode's haunting, either offering exposition to the endangered subject or to the reader. And, he also represents the solution to the problem at hand. In this latter capacity he represents the outwardly disordered but hyper-attuned investigator. As the haunting of the day reaches its climax, Akiba is ready to close the case. Already armed with a near conclusive lead-in in his investigator, he's effectively just watching for the threat to come out of its hiding spot, before he can send the restless dead to the next world courtesy of a bullet from his prepared exorcism-pistol. Mysteries, especially serial mysteries, from all media have long had heroes like Akiba, but his particular demeanor calls to mind manga's great problem solvers. When Akiba picks up an assistant, the nod to Osamu Tezuka's maverick doctor Black Jack seems apparent; and, editor Carl Horn's end notes reinforce the suspicion. A given story might follow an older convention (haunted dolls) or something becoming a new convention (haunted cell phones). Yamazaki is not baroque in his plot construction. Twists are rare and when there is a "you were dead for two minutes", the revelation does not land with a resonating whip crack. Nor are the morals or lessons poignant. Yet, the amazing quality about Mail is that you know when to expect the fright, and, generally, what to expect, and still, the results are devastating . What's really frightening about the book, and what makes walking alone in the dark difficult after reading a volume or two is the external sense of an inevitable "of course" to the hauntings. Of course after a hit and run accident, the crushed victim's doll is going to appear on your door step, and reach out with an imploring child's hand. Of course after an elevator accident, the disembodied legs of the victim will appear when you're alone in the elevator. Of course your cell phone is going to mysteriously receive pictures of a hung woman. Even if Akiba implies that all of this is part of what happens in the world, with the way that Yamazaki captures the victims' expressions, the threat becomes parable. In the moments in which the spirit manifests and approaches the victim, the reaction has the gritted teeth dread that someone might in the instant before a car crash. In place of being stopped in traffic on a wet road, with an oncoming car behind you moving too fast to avoid a collision, its' a ghost that wants you to cut your own throat. Aside from the effectiveness of the individual stories, and their ability to suggest the reality of a haunted world, the first story of the third volume might be one of the scariest works of horror manga to be translated into English. It recounts events in which a blind boy finds the aftermath of a heinous crime. Yamazaki walks you through how the child relates to the world and senses the environment around him. By the time that the critical moment arrives, you've become attuned to his tactile world and you're ready to share in his horrific discovery.
If you want to sample why fans of horror manga are passionate about the tradition, check out Kanako Inuki's Presents. CMX's release of the title is a gift to fans of off-beat horror. There's an impression that as children, these horror manga masters sat at the back of their classroom, rolled their eyes and deconstructed the absurdity around them. Even if the stories themselves feature vicious retribution, rather than a vicious itch for revenge, the attitude at work seems to be one of bemusement. Especially in the case of Inuki, urban myths and Twilight Zone irony are spun into the blood and guts equivalent of observational humor. As Kurumi sees it, if you receive a birthday present, that box doesn't just hold a wrapped gift, it holds an increment of age. Each year, it's the act of opening the gift that makes us older. She attests to this because of her own experiences. One year, her classmates decided to punish the girl who they felt was too cute for her own good by, on mass, neglecting to acknowledge her birthday. The same day, her parents overlooked the occasion. Since then, Kurumi has been an perpetual child, spirit of giving... turning up at opportune moments to bestow a karmically weighted present. Sometimes it is simply the truth. On rare occasions, it's a boon. More often, it's something to make the received jealous of Sisyphus's fate. To say that the punishment is not in keeping with the crime is often an understatement. There are some very sweet moments to appreciate the important elements of human relationships, and there are some cases that suggest that one's personal action should be re-thought. Mostly, Inuki will leave you in awe of the brutality with which she mauls the not-so-innocent victim. An older sister tortures her younger sibling, especially by giving her traumatic gifts: spoiled food, cockroaches, snakes and centipedes. Kurumi punishes this girl by giving her a box, which opens up to reveal a fleshy mass full of eyes. These eyes blink open, and oozing of faces spring out, and swallow the evil sister. Nasty, but even if the eyes were grotesquely rendered, it was expected. Then there are the cases where Inuki rolls up her sleeves and produces the kind of scenes that will provoke you to sit up and utter and expletive or two. A girl cheats at a round robin present swap, so Kurumi arranges for another gift exchange. This time the girl winds up with a box ,and inside there's a car crash (sounds odd, but Inuki makes it work). The cheating girl does a swipe with a different box held by Kurumi. Though Kurumi cautions the girl that she's cheating, the girl opens the box, and this time the contents are death by house fire. Finally Kurumi offers her an alternative box, and inside, there's something entirely disgusting: a diseased set of intestines. The narrative cuts to a hospital room for a painful death scene. Depending on temperament and sense of irreverence, one has to laugh out loud, gasp, or both. The combination of macabre punishment and the ability to turn the mundane, venial sin into the violation of a grave taboo, (abuse of freebies and promotional give-always is a personal favorite) establishes Presents as that kind of sharp, brutal social critique that makes horror manga so compelling. If you're a fan of the horror manga pantheon (Kazuo Umezu, Junji Ito, Hideshi Hino), Presents is a must for your library. Otherwise, there are some cautions concerning the series.. To the chagrin of us enthusiasts, there are people who don't like Inuki's work. There are people who REALLY don't like Inuki's work. Dark Horse previously commenced Kanako Inuki's School Zone before putting the series aside after three volumes. The "Queen of Horror Manga"'s work enthusiastically captures the unhinged panic of addled children, but, unfortunately for horror manga fans, it looks like many readers passed over the work, not knowing what to make of it. The first concern is one of packaging. By North American standards, the work doesn't fit properly into an age category. The release of Presents is prominently marked with an explicit content warning, and it does feature acts such as disembowelment by hedge trimmers. Yet, the approach rides on the thrill of juvenile naughtiness. An adult can appreciate it, but it does still feel like some one showing you the road kill they just picked up. The second concern is Inuki's nightmare trademark style. Her characters have a doll like appearance, dominated by round, globular faces. This offers huge palettes with which contorted expressions can be sculpted. When one of Inuki's character gasps, screams or breaks out in an evil rash, Inuki's caricatures can broadcast it like few other stylizations can. It's sublimely creepy, but like a scary doll sitting on a shelf, some observers would rather just not look at it.
Oct. 19, 2007, 6:57 a.m. CST
In a race with no one. This stuff is not my cup of tea. And apparently, I'm not alone there.
Oct. 19, 2007, 7:24 a.m. CST
The Anime column is usually my chance to score an easy first as I've done so on several occasions. But like you, I have little or no interest in the subject itself, although my younger brother likes it. Does that count?
Oct. 19, 2007, 7:45 a.m. CST
Oct. 19, 2007, 8:24 a.m. CST
Yeah, Fist of the North Star creator Yoshiyuki Okamura aka Buronson chose his pen name, and grew his mustache, as a tribute to Charles Bronson.
Oct. 19, 2007, 9:32 a.m. CST
Oct. 19, 2007, 11:12 a.m. CST
I'm not all up on my Japanese ghosts so I could be off a bit, but I believe the "classic" (as in an iconic figure around since back in the Samurai days) Japanese ghost that adults tell their kids to freak them out is indeed the "dead wet girl." Typically they were found outside near wells (where they were killed/drowned when alive), they had no feet, but left wet footprints and had long hair that covered their face. In contrast to the Ring character, when their hair was pulled back it usually revealed a blank face, missing eyes, nose and/or mouth. One of the other classic ghost icons is the fire/spirit ball which would be seen floating around in the dark.
Oct. 19, 2007, 11:56 a.m. CST
Thanks for the interesting perspective veritasses. Are you describing the ohaguro-bettari? Kalat points to Yotsuya Kaidan, the kabuki play which was adapted into an early Japanese horror movie, (and the recent anime Ayakashi), as the inspiration for the modern "J-Horror" movement.
Oct. 19, 2007, 3:55 p.m. CST
I only have passing knowledge based on whatever I've seen so I couldn't really say this with any authority. The word "kaidan" in general though means "ghost story" or "scary story" and in the summer months (which for some reason is the period the Japanese seem to associate with scaring people as opposed to our Halloween which is a single day in the Fall) all the TV stations in Japan would have kaidan specials ranging from variety shows, documentaries, dramas, TV movies and anime all having some sort of ghost/supernatural/horror theme. By far the most popular "character" you'd see is the "dead wet girl" or some close variation of it (a woman with no feet, leaving wet footprints, wearing a white kimono/yukata and long black hair covering the face). All the DWG stories were about vengeance and there are no equivalent adult male characters that I'm aware of or at the very least which share the same level of popularity (which could be why most if not all of the creepy characters in J-Horror are all female or kids). Back when I was there it wouldn't be unusual to see girls pulling their long hair in front of their faces, shining a flashlight from below and saying "Urameshiya" (which is a word that seems to be associated with the character but I have no idea what it means) to scare their younger siblings. If I had to guess, I'd say that the DWG is based on the Yotsuya Kaidan as it's a very famous story (like Sleepy Hollow or Dracula etc is over here). And since the DWG character is the basic, standard, iconic horror/character that's been scaring little Japanese kids for generations, I'd say Kalat is dead on (excuse the pun) in his assertion. The resemblance of the character from Ringu with the "standard" DWG is too great to be mere coincidence. Now that I think about it, the faceless DWG I refer to in my previous post might be a combination of the DWG and another famous character "Nopperabo" which was a faceless scary something or other (ghost?) that I remember seeing. I've never heard of the ohaguro-bettari but my exposure to kaidan is rather limited.