The Subtle Horror of Japanese Comics

The Enigma of Amigara Fault, Gyo volume 2 by Junji Ito, published by Viz, 2004.

I’m a horror fan, and I didn’t realize it.

Although I’m a wide reader genre-wise, horror and suspense were one of those genres I never really got into. Gore was gross, but not shocking. Jump scares just pissed me off. Silent Hill and its ilk were fun to watch, less fun to play when the inevitable chase happened. Lake Placid isn’t horrifying, it’s hilarious. I just didn’t get scared! So it was a surprise to me when I started going through lists of what comics I’ve read and seeing all the ones I was listing had ‘horror’ listed as the genre. Okay, I expect it from some of them, like the episodic school horror hosted by a ghost girl with no lower body. But then I found another, and another. This wasn’t just stuff I’d picked up for a few chapters and put down. This was stuff I’d loved. But I wasn’t a horror fan, so … what was going on here?

When I think about horror I was exposed to, the mainstream stuff that permeates the collective pop culture, I think of monsters. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. The scary clown of IT. Zombies. The weird monster that eats a guy’s balls in Piers Anthony’s Tarot (seriously, this was in a Bible Belt high school library?) In all of the popular cases I could think of, the source of the horror was always a thing—an outsider. An alien, inhuman, unknowable thing that you could see, that made a direct physical threat to the protagonist. A monster who, if it had subtleties, often lost them among the shaky camera work and thirty-second trailers. Horror was monsters that violently killed you in a spray of movie blood … but that was it.

Of course, manga has its share of monsters. I’d glazed over Attack on Titan [fighting against giant man-eating humanoid monsters] and Tokyo Ghoul [boy becomes half-ghoul and has to eat people to survive] with the same passive “not for me” I gave to most American horror. I’d picked up but lost interest in Apocalypse no Toride because its zombies just couldn’t grab me. At the same time, though, I was devouring things like Pet Shop of Horrors, Mermaid Saga, and 3×3 Eyes. But it couldn’t be horror, because it wasn’t scaring me. Unless you were reading a popup book, it wasn’t like a manga could do a jump scare. Even the things it could do, scattering its pages with blood and gore, it often didn’t. Instead of a blood-drenched room, manga preferred to give us the edge of a puddle, a severed hand, and the terrified eyes of the person who found it.

Mermaid Saga volume 2, page 76, by Rumiko Takahashi, translated by Matt Thorn, published by Viz.
Mermaid Saga volume 2, page 76, by Rumiko Takahashi, translated by Matt Thorn, published by Viz

What, instead, I was finding was stories where the monsters themselves were incidental, a mirror that reflected the flaws of its characters. They were the chorus of a Greek tragedy narrating the doom of its hero. Whether they lived or died was not dependent on a shotgun or conveniently placed cliff, but on whether they faced their weakness or was controlled by it. Sometimes, the monsters weren’t even there at all, bringing in the supernatural with bizarreness, Wonderland-esque settings where the safety of normal logic failed. Whether the monsters were real or not, though, it was always personal. The horror manga I was blazing through was a slow-burn between a character and their inner demons. I always knew why this particular monster looked the way it did, and why it was going after that particular character.

Creepy things in mirrors, Sekai Oni by Uru Okabe, published by Ura Sunday Comics, 2012.
Sekai Oni by Uru Okabe, published by Ura Sunday Comics, 2012

It isn’t like American horror doesn’t actually do this. Stephen King’s Carrie has a “monster” that’s just an abused high school girl who finally lashes out in a supernatural fashion. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the “monster” is the same man it haunts. But our wider pop culture narratives don’t focus on the fact that Victor Frankenstein defied the laws of nature. Frankenstein is a green man with bolts in his neck, rising to the cackles of a mad scientist going “It’s alive!!” Why is the monster what we focus on? Why do we ignore why it’s targeting Dr. Frankenstein?

I think the answer lies in one of the differences in culture between America and Japan. From the time we dumped a bunch of tea into a harbor, America’s never been big on subtleties. Our symbols are bold, larger than life and mean just what they say they mean. There is no subtext to Captain America punching out a Nazi, no hidden reflection—it’s just punching people that need to be punched. Meanwhile, Japan lives on its subtleties. It’s a culture that has many shifts in nomenclature depending on who you are and who the person you’re speaking to is. It’s a language that has very polite ways of saying very rude things. Their horror lays on not the mass of eyeballs and ooze slithering across the floor, but on the small voice that calls for its “oniichan.”

Creepy babies, Pet Shop of Horrors Volume 1 by Matsuri Akino, translated by Tomoharu Iwo, published by Tokyopop Manga, 2003.
Pet Shop of Horrors Volume 1 by Matsuri Akino, translated by Tomoharu Iwo, published by Tokyopop Manga, 2003

Or, perhaps, it’s because Japan is a country on the losing end of a war, who saw the most destructive weapons ever used and effects that lingered on for years. Japan doesn’t need alien, unknowable creatures. They already understand that the biggest monster is humanity. In contrast, the USA, a country built on systemic tribalism that has never been forced to self-reflect so deeply, is only capable of seeing the monsters in others.

Tia Kalla

Tia Kalla

Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.

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