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: ● ● ● ○ ○

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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: ● ● ● ○ ○