Manga reviews, Halloween 2018 edition: Ajin, I Am a Hero, Uzumaki

Halloween means scary manga time at The 650-Cent Plague. As always, here are short reviews of two recent and one classic horror manga. Find the previous Halloween blogposts here: 2017, 2016, 2015.

Ajin – Demi-Human (亜人 / ajin, lit. “sub-human”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Tsuina Miura (story), Gamon Sakurai (art)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2015- (original run 2012- )
Number of volumes: 12 so far
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: 226
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/ajin-demi-human/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=75929 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-7704-8605-2

When high school student Kei is hit by a truck one day, he discovers that he is an immortal ‘ajin’ – one of 47 such beings known to exist worldwide. Ajin are not considered human, and Kei fears he will be experimented on if he gets caught. Now he is on the run from both the government and bounty hunters.

Ajin suffers from the same mistake that many mystery manga series make: somehow the creators think the basic premise (in this case, Kei’s immortality) isn’t interesting enough, so gradually more and more supernatural phenoma are revealed (here: the ajin’s petrifying voice, demonic figures with razor-sharp claws, and who knows what else in the following volumes). In this and some other ways, Ajin is a poor man’s Death Note with its ‘howcatchem’ plot structure and its eccentric detective character.

On the plus side, the art is pretty cool, particularly the motorcycle chase scenes. If I had read this manga when I was 14, I would probably have loved it, even though (or maybe precisely because) the publisher’s age recommendation is 16+.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: there’s nothing really shocking here, but it’s quite a chilling scene when Kei realises that he can heal his injuries by killing himself – whenever he dies, he is alive and healthy again shortly afterwards. This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Ajin: how on the one hand his friends, family and everyone else around him turn away from him when they find out he is ‘not human’, and how on the other hand he slowly embraces his newfound power so that he is indeed in danger of losing his humanity.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー / ai amu a hīrō)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kengo Hanazawa
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2012-2018 (original run 2009-2017)
Number of volumes: 22
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~230
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/i-am-a-hero/30897 (German publisher), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Am_a_Hero (Wikipedia)
ISBN: 978-3-551-79491-8

You might have already heard that this is a series about an average guy trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. This first volume, however, deals much more with protagonist Hideo himself than with flesh-eating undead. We get to know his daily routine, his lacklustre job as an assistant in a manga studio, his difficult relationship with his girlfriend Tekko, his futile attempts to get his own manga published, etc.

Hanazawa’s attention to detail is admirable. He uses a great many panels for the mundanest of Hideo’s activities, e.g. his lonely TV dinner after work. Each panel itself is meticulously drawn, sometimes obviously photoreferenced with reproduced lens distortions. Not only does this slow build-up make the eventual confrontation with the zombies more dramatic, it also allows Hanazawa early on to plant subtle hints about the coming zombie virus outbreak. But is he able keep up the suspenseful atmosphere over the course of 22 volumes? I don’t know yet, but at least vol. 1 is highly successful in this regard.

Another asset of I Am a Hero is its meta level. Hideo’s work at the manga studio, his dealings with magazine editors, co-workers and rival mangaka, and his ramblings about what makes a good manga all amount to a sometimes straightforward, sometimes satirical perspective on the manga industry.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: forget the zombies. Granted, the final scene in which a zombie crawls towards Hideo (and the picture surface) is impressive. But far more terrifying are Hideo’s hallucinations which are unrelated to the zombie apocalypse. This man simply has some severe mental issues. Thus when he is alone at home at night and starts seeing faces and arms outside his window and under his bed, it is so frightening because Hideo is such a realistic character. Some other reviews have descrived Hideo as “eccentric” or a “loser”, but he’s neither – he’s quite a normal person like you and me. So which is the scarier notion: getting attacked by fantasy creatures, which we know don’t exist in real life? Or losing your mind, which happens all the time to people in real life?

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Uzumaki – Spiral into Horror (うずまき / uzumaki, lit. “spiral” or “vortex”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Junji Itō
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2013-2014 (original run 1998-1999)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: 201
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/uzumaki/33037 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=6086 (Baka-Updates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-79271-6

The classic horror manga for this year’s review comes from one of the master mangaka of horror, Junji Itō.

The town of Kurōzu is haunted by spirals. In the first chapter, the inhabitant Mr. Saito develops an obsession with all kinds of spirals, collects kimonos with spiral prints, seashells, pottery with spiral designs… but that isn’t enough for him, he wants to become a spiral, and in the end he dies after twisting his body in a spiral shape inside a barrel. In the second chapter, his widow develops a phobia against spirals. In the third chapter, a girl at the local high school is slowly swallowed up by a vortex growing on her forehead (perhaps the most famous image of this manga), etc. etc.

It’s impressive how many variations of the spiral theme Itō comes up with. The episodes are only loosely connected through the high school couple of Kirie (a classmate of the girl from chapter 3) and Shuichi (son of the Saitos), though apparently in later volumes (see e.g. Jason Thompson’s review), an overarching plot emerges. Thus the stories in this first volume have a kind of Tales From The Crypt feeling to them. Their ‘twist’ endings are never funny, but somehow still darkly humorous. A great deal of this gloomy atmosphere is conveyed through Itō’s fine linework with which he subtly varies his characters’ facial expressions.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when Mrs. Saito, already in hospital due to her fear of spirals, realises she has spirals on her fingertips – her normal papillary ridges – and wants to get rid of them.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

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Manga reviews, Halloween 2017 edition: Scary Lessons, Doubt, Naru Taru

Halloween is around the corner again, and that means reviews of recent and classic horror manga here at The 650-Cent Plague. Today’s three titles show once more how diverse this genre is, and that there are manifold (maybe even medium-specific?) ways for comics to elicit fear from their readers.

Scary Lessons (絶叫学級 / zekkyō gakkyū, lit. “Screaming Lessons”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Emi Ishikawa
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2009-2017 (original run 2008-2015)
Number of volumes: 20
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/scary-lessons/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=35025 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-86719-846-2

A horror manga for the shōjo demographic, can this possibly work? Well, it sure did scare the bejesus out of me – this is definitely the most frightening manga of the ones I’ve reviewed so far. Each chapter is a self-contained episode with a different cast of characters, only loosely held together by a framing narrative with a Crypt-Keeper-like narrator. All stories mostly take place at school (hence the “Lessons” part of the title) and have middle-school girl protagonists who are concerned with the usual things: boys, clothes, mobile phones, puppies, classmates… Each protagonist wants something, but when she gets it, it goes terribly wrong. In the first episode, for instance, a girl desperately wants a handheld gaming console, finds an abandoned one on the street and keeps it, but it turns out to be cursed and the game on it seems to affect people in the real world, even causing their death.

While death and violence do occur in this manga, they aren’t depicted that explicitly. In another episode, a girl is hit in the face by glass shards, but only her body from the chin down is shown in that panel. Still, I’m not sure if this manga is suitable reading material for readers of the same age as the middle school protagonists.

Another similarity to EC horror comics is the moralising and the gleeful twist ending in most episodes: our heroines eventually become aware of their vices and the mistakes they’ve made and resolve to behave better in the future. But often it’s already too late and they have to pay for what they’ve done.

Due to their self-contained nature, the individual stories are fast-paced and lack subtlety, but otherwise this first volume is a finely crafted manga, though I’m not sure if the suspense can be kept up for the remaining 19 (!) volumes.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: at the end of the fourth episode, when our young protagonist goes home and thinks she’s safe, only to find the killer is already waiting for her there.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Doubt
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshiki Tonogai
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Square Enix)
Years: 2010-2011 (original run 2007-2009)
Number of volumes: 4
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~200
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/doubt/18200 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=18068 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-754431

Protagonist Yū is a high school student who plays a mobile game called “Rabbit Doubt” which is based on “Mafia” a.k.a. “Werewolf” a.k.a. “Murder in Palermo”. In the beginning of the manga, he meets his five fellow players face to face for the first time and becomes friends with them. Then, however, the game turns into deadly reality when they are abducted and one of them murdered.

The plot shifts into more of an escape room / Fermat’s Room kind of setting when the kids explore their prison and are confronted with puzzles such as locked doors and corresponding keys, all the while suspecting that one of them is in fact the abductor rather than a victim. Like with Death Note and other similar manga, the author unfortunately doesn’t have much faith in the initially simple but intriguing premise (in this case, the “Mafia” game) and keeps adding more and more elements, characters and game rules in an attempt to stretch out the story.

Although Doubt (and its sequel, Judge) has found a place in some ‘best horror manga‘ lists, it has more of a mystery / detective thriller vibe to it because Tonogai takes great care to present all facts and details of the setting in great clarity to the readers so that they can guess along with the characters who the killer is. Which is a shame, because the first 50 pages set quite a different, subtle and atmospheric mood, which is then abandoned in favor of a still suspenseful but more ‘economic’ storytelling.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when a guy believed to be dead suddenly comes alive again.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Naru Taru (なるたる / narutaru, English title: Shadow Star)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mohiro Kitō
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2001-2006 (original run 1998-2003)
Number of volumes: 12
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~215
Price per volume: out of print (cover price € 5)
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=2394
ISBN: 3-89885-148-6

While swimming during her summer vacation, eleven-year-old Shiina finds a cuddly little alien on the bottom of the sea. The alien, Hoshimaru, can’t talk but has supernatural powers such as flying. An E.T.-like friendship begins. But then Shiina meets other children who also have alien companions, some of which are using their powers for sinister purposes.

Naru Taru has a reputation for starting harmlessly and then turning dark, deconstructing various shōnen manga tropes along the way and thwarting readers’ expectations. Some label it a horror manga, but I’ve just finished vol. 2 and at this point it’s more supernatural thriller than horror, although it’s hard to say which direction the story will take. From what I’ve read about the series, things are about to get darker still. Chances are that I won’t find out anytime soon, because the later volumes in particular are hard to find at reasonable prices.

Apart from this genre-wise ambiguous story, what makes this manga stand out is Mohiro Kitō’s art. As in his previous manga, Wings of Vendémiaire, there are many weird design ideas, but the true charm lies in how he depicts his characters and objects: from all angles, employing a real 360° ‘camera’, not shying away from daring foreshortenings.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when another girl, Akira, quietly slits her wrists with a razor, it’s creepier than all the supernatural fighty-fighty before.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Manga reviews, Halloween 2016 edition: Shi Ki, Detective Ritual, Parasyte

Continuing the ‘tradition’ from last year, here are some more reviews of relatively recent creepy manga:

Shi Ki (屍鬼 / shiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Fuyumi Ono (original story), Ryū Fujisaki (manga adaptation)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2013-2015 (original run 2007-2011)
Number of volumes: 11
Volumes reviewed: 1-4

Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/shi-ki/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3770481163

In a remote Japanese village, a mysterious epidemic breaks out. One by one, several villagers become anaemic and then die. The local doctor, Ozaki, resolves to find out the cause of the supposed disease.

What starts promisingly as a suspenseful medical thriller soon (in vol. 3 at the latest) turns into a generic vampire story if there ever was one. It turns out that the family who recently moved into a castle-like mansion near the village are vampires who suck the blood of the villagers and turn them into vampires too. Part of vol. 4 is even told from a villager-turned-vampire’s perspective and leaves no doubt about what they are.

That being said, this manga has some things going for it: on the one hand, it manages to keep up some of the suspense even after the vampires have been clearly established as the cause of the deaths. Plus, the art style is truly distinctive – characters are elongated and twisted, faces become fine-lined caricatures, stark contrasts are employed and inverted again. In some instances Fujisaki relies too much on photo-referencing though, resulting in overly flat compositions.

In any case I don’t think I’ll read the remaining 7 volumes anytime soon.

Scariest moment in vol. 4: the little vampire girl with the puppet.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Detective Ritual (探偵儀式 / tantei gishiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Ryūsui Seiryōin (writer), Eiji Ōtsuka (storyboard), Chizu Hashii (artist)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa Shoten)
Years: 2011-2012 (original run 2004-2009)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-0134-3

Detective Ritual is more of a mystery than a horror manga, but it’s sufficiently creepy to be included in this Halloween-themed review post. Set in the near future or an alternate present, the story is about two rivaling detective organisations aiding the police in murder investigations, one government-sponsored and the other a group of precocious teenagers. The former, however, becomes the target of mass murder themselves…

The artwork is competent but unremarkable (except for the eccentric character designs) – the biggest draw of this manga is its irreverent attitude towards the detective genre: time and again, the initial, overly convoluted explanations that the detectives offer as solutions to the murder cases turn out to be wrong. There’s also a nice metafictional sub(?)-plot about a former detective who has become a writer of mystery novels.

This is certainly a manga that stands out by virtue of its weirdness, but it’s hard to really like it.

Scariest moment: the first of the eponymous ‘detective rituals’, a gruesome mass decapitation which is re-visited several times.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Parasyte – Kiseijuu (寄生獣 / kiseijū)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hitoshi Iwaaki
Publisher: Panini Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2016- (original run 1988-1995)
Number of volumes: 10
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: 278
Price per volume: € 8.99
Website: http://www.paninishop.de/parasyte (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-893-5

Parasyte is a horror manga classic, but its publication in German began only this year, probably in order to exploit a renewed interest in the property that has been sparked by the recent anime adaptation.

In the beginning of this story, worm-like space aliens fall on earth and crawl inside the heads of sleeping, unsuspecting people to take over their bodies. While the infested humans still look like before, the aliens are able to transform their heads into claws and fangs with which they prey and feast on other humans. When one of the aliens tries to take over teenaged Shinichi’s body, though, the infestation goes wrong: instead of settling in Shinichi’s brain, the alien is only able to take over his right arm. From now on, Shinichi and the intelligent, talking alien in his arm have to learn to get along, and ultimately work together to fight the other, less friendly aliens.

Despite all the gore and horror there’s also a lot of humour in this manga, and in addition to that Iwaaki even manages to insert some environmentalist messages. The artwork has a bit of an 80s feel to it, but some of the transformation sequences are downright trippy.

Scariest moment: that famous scene in chapter 1 where an alien-infested man’s head splits open, turns into a huge mouth and bites a woman’s head off.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Manga reviews, Halloween edition: Limit, Sidonia, Kirihito

I don’t like horror comics. But to get into the Halloween spirit, here are some short reviews of more or less recent mystery/thriller manga:

panel detail from Limit by Keiko SuenobuLimit (リミット / Rimitto)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Keiko Suenobu
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2012-2013 (original run 2009-2011)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/limit/
ISBN: 9783-7704-7875-0

Contrary to popular belief, Japan isn’t actually overpopulated. The Japanese population is just very unevenly distributed: outside of the crowded metropolitan areas, there are vast wildernesses. This fact is what makes the story of Limit credible. On its way to a summer camp, a bus with schoolchildren crashes in a forest. Only a handful of them survives the crash, and now they have to endure until help arrives. Which takes days.

In this Lord of the Flies scenario, the greatest challenge for the schoolchildren is not to survive in the wilderness, but to get along with each other. One of the girls in particular who was always bullied in school before now sees the opportunity to take revenge. Through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the bus accident, all of the survivors are well characterised, making for a suspenseful read.

Scariest moment in vol. 3: when they find the dead body of one the girls. Somehow I hadn’t seen this coming.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel detail from Knights of Sidonia by Tsutomu NiheiKnights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2010-today (original run 2009-2015)
Number of volumes: 12 so far (14 in Japan)
Volumes reviewed: 1-12

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/knights-of-sidonia/
ISBN: 9783-7704-8556-7

Knights of Sidonia, which I’ve mentioned before here, is a weird mix of genres: mecha sci-fi action, harem slapstick comedy… and also space horror and body horror.  It takes some time to get used to this, particularly if you’re familiar with Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier, more homogeneous manga, but now, as the series approaches its end, it’s beginning to make sense.

The story revolves around humans in mechas and spaceships fighting against an alien race called gauna. At first, both sides look very different: humans with their angular high-tech machinery on the one hand, the biomorphic gauna on the other. But the lines become blurred when humans build mecha/gauna hybrids and the shapeshifting gauna start imitating mecha pilots.

Scariest moment in vol. 12: when a gauna engulfs an entire mecha – apparently without killing the pilot…

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

panel from Kirihito by Osamu TezukaKirihito (きりひと讃歌 / Kirihito sanka)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2009-2010 (original run 1970-1971)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: ~270
Price per volume: € 16.90
Website: http://www.carlsen.de/serie/kirihito/22759
ISBN: 978-3-551-79180-1

This one is a bit older, but it has only relatively recently been published in English (2006) and German (2009). Kirihito is a medical thriller about a mysterious disease that turns people into dog-like creatures. A young doctor, the eponymous Kirihito, is sent to a remote village where this disease has broken out in order to investigate and find a cure – or so he thinks. He soon learns the hard way that the disease is infectious indeed.

The pacing is off, the story has its issues (e.g. the problematic portrayal of women) and drags on for too long (even though this is only the first of three volumes) – but the art is vastly superior to that of most living mangaka. Although you could argue that his cartoonish style would be more suitable for a humorous story, the sheer amount of Tezuka’s daring design ideas is astonishing.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: towards the end of the volume when Izumi, Kirihito’s fiancée, finds out that her own parents are not quite free from blame for Kirihito’s disappearance.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○