What is it about horror manga that makes it so effective?
No really, I’m asking. As a lifelong horror fan, I can enjoy most forms of frights the medium has to offer. I enjoy spooky stories and creepypasta; I don’t think twice before going to see horror movies in theaters; I smile through haunted houses; I can even walk across my room in the dark without being scared a hand is going to grab my ankle from under the bed!
But manga gets to me in a real way; a serious skin-crawling, spine-shivering way. Maybe it’s the chiaroscuro linework that renders texture with such horrible, loving detail. Maybe it’s how often the books seem glad to cross any boundary of cruelty we’d expect such stories to respect. Maybe the horror manga industry is built on a pact with the devil, and their books offer mankind its nearest contact with hell before death.
Who knows? Still, I’m incredibly insecure, so I’ve gathered a list to go along with my confession. In no particular order, here are 11 of the most mind-breaking manga ever printed.
You show me someone can read them and still think I’m being unreasonable, and I’ll show you a goddamn liar.
Parasyte (寄生獣 セイの格率; Kiseijuu)
Published in Kodansha’s Afternoon magazine from 1988 to 1995, Hitoshi Iwaaki’s classic manga continues to terrify today, having been adapted into an anime just 2 years back. The story is a classic tale of paranoia, as Earth is being invaded by parasitic worms that crawl into people’s ears and noses, making a home of their brain. Anybody could be turned already, their mind wiped clean by the parasites, and there’d be no way to tell.
Until the infected go all The Thing on you, and eat your head off.
So that’s a pretty clear indicator someone’s been taken over. When one worm tries to assimilate Shinji Izumi, an unassuming high-school student, it is thwarted by Shinji’s headphones and has to go in through his arm. Unable to make it to Shinji’s brain, the parasite finds it can’t erase its host’s mind, and the two are forced to share the body.
The series follows Shinji and his new companion – his left or right hand depending on the translation you’re reading – as the two attempt to navigate their unprecedented situation. While there’s more humor in this book than in some of the others on this list, rest assured there’s more than enough guts, blood, and general grotesquerie to appease even the most hardcore gorehound. Heads explode, bodies are shredded, and all of it looks gooey and gross.
Aftermath Radio (後遺症ラジオ; Kouishou Rajio)
This ongoing series by Masaaki Nakayama’s latest collection of ghost stories has been running since 2014. A collection of seemingly disparate horror stories at first, each of these short tales soon establish that they are indeed not only part of the same world, but part of the same story. As patterns emerge, Masaaki’s unnerving vignettes – some barely three pages long – come together to reveal a grander mythology involving the mysterious origins and violent grudges of a spirit known only as the God of Hair.
It’s an apt name, too, as hair is a major focus of many of Aftermath Radio’s stories. In the first story, a woman cuts her granddaughter’s hair, assuring the child that it must be done. Has always been done. And the child weeps. Things continue to get worse from then on, as the series explores ghosts made of hair, hair obsessed ghosts, and just general creepy Japanese hair shit all around. On top of all that, people are haunted by visions of hairlessness, seeing themselves as bald in reflections out of the conrners of their eyes. If that sounds mild, just look at the banner image at the top of the article and try to say you wouldn’t shit yourself seeing that grinning at you from the mirror.
Left Hand of God, Right Hand of the Devil (神の左手、悪魔の右手; Kami no Hidarite, Akuma no Migite)
Remember Courage the Cowardly Dog? About the faithful dog who tried to keep his family safe from increasingly strange occurrences? Well, this is that, but ten times more fucked up, and with a 7 year old instead of a dog. Essentially, Kazuo Umezo seems to have written the entire series in an attempt to inflict as much trauma on a small fictional child as his imagination could muster.
And boy did he succeed.
The series follows Sou, a child with the ability to foresee supernatural events, though mostly these reveal themselves as frightening dreams and awful premonitions. Published from 1986 to 1989, Kazuo Umezo’s bloodsoaked series told only 5 stories in its 77 chapter run, but nevertheless managed to stuff in a impressive variety of terrible imagery. For example,here’s a pair of rusty scissors bursting out through a young girl’s eyeballs from inside her head.
That is the second page of the series! Of the series! Page one is the girl sleeping peacefully, and then this! Gotta hand it to him, Umezo’s an eager sadist if we ever met one.
Parlor Woman (座敷女; Zashiki Onna)
Published in 1993, Zashiki Onna lacks the overt supernatural elements of other entries on this list, instead finding terror in the plausibility of its story, which follows college student Hiroshi Mori after a tall, mysterious woman begins to stalk him. Written at a time before stalking was seen as a legitimate criminal concern, Mochizuki Minetaro’s story illustrated the menace of the act with chilling efficacy. As the woman invades Hiroshi’s life through more and more unhinged tactics, the reader sees the depth of danger behind actions that could be dismissed as obnoxious violations of privacy.
Twisted (イビツ; Ibitsu)
Kazuki is taking out the trash when he sees a gangly girl in a ragged Lolita costume sitting by the garbage. She asks him if he has a sister, and he tells her he does. Very quickly he learns that was a mistake when he overhears two girls talking about a new urban legend of the ‘Lolita Girl.’ A girl dressed in a Lolita costume, the legend goes, will ask a guy if he has a sister. If he answers yes, the girl will try to become his sister, and eventually give him a twisted death.
Much like the last entry, Haruka Ryou’s 2009 manga tells the story of a stalker, but with none of the grounded, slow-cook tension of that tale. Ibitsu begins at strange, and immediately swerves into deranged. When the girl forces herself into Kazuki’s apartment to wash her doll, for example, she cleans it in his bathroom sink, yet splashes around a liquid that is decidedly NOT soap water.
Things only escalate from here: people are killed, corpses are defiled, and dogs are made into soup. And then things escalate some more.
Seeds of Anxiety (不安の種; Fuan No Tane)
Published in Champion Red between 2004 and 2005, calling Seeds of Anxiety a collection of ghost stories would be selling it short. With the sort of vignettes he would later use to weave a larger narrative in Aftermath Radio, Masaaki Nakayama builds each chapter from a few short stories centered around a theme, such as school, stalking, or uninvited guests.
What makes these so effective is that there is never any explanation for anything happening. More than ghost stories – or really stories in general – these are scenes without plot, without action. Most often, Nakayama illustrates a single situation: somebody sees something they oughtn’t have, something they wish they hadn’t.
Much of the time, you’ll wish you hadn’t either.
Magical Girl Apocalypse (魔法少女・オブ・ジ・エンド; Mahō Shōjo of the End)
Japan’s magical girl genre is the domain of all things bubbly, bright, and colorful. A brief scan down the images google returns when you search ‘mahou shoujo’ gives you an idea of the general aesthetic of the genre.
Now imagine that this is the face of your apocalypse.
This is the conceit of Kentaro Sato’s hyperviolent Magical Girl Apocalypse, an ongoing manga printed in Weekly Shonen Champion since 2012. Things begin when Kii Kogami looks out his classroom window and witnesses a small girl dressed up in a mahou shoujo costume explode a teacher’s head by bonking him with her umbrella. Kii is sure he’s just seeing things, so he goes to wash his face in the bathroom – that’ll clear his mind. Except when he returns to his class, he finds the girl’s burst in through the window and is killing EVERYBODY.
As the series continues, different kinds of magical girls arrive, each sewing their own unique brand of carnage. What ties them all together is that the magical girls are nearly invincible, with so much power as to be absurd, and offer no explanation for their actions, able only to mutter the word ‘magical’ as they carry out their slaughter.
It honestly may be the most nihilistic apocalypse ever concocted. Seriously, of all the awful alien invasions, all the unspeakable Lovecraftian doomsdays, all the nuclear winters we could face, is there anything that says “There is no god” as loudly and clearly as the end of mankind coming at the hands of goddamn magical girls?
One of the more gorgeous books on this list, Masasumi Kakizaki’s 2010 manga Hideout is not only a brutal tale of marital discord – the sort you only ever see in the most pessimistic of noirs – but is also a healthy reminder that nothing good ever happens in caves. Ever.
The story focuses on Kirishima Seiichi, a man who plans to kill his wife while on their island vacation. When he fails in his attempt and she flees into a cave, he follows in pursuit – but it isn’t long before he realizes that something is chasing him as well.
Something that’s much better at this hunt the Kirishima.
It’s not a spoiler to say this something is much better at the hunt that Kirishima, and much hungrier for human flesh. The latter is presumable, and the former is revealed immediately, with the book opening on Kirishima tied up underground, bruised and bloody. The story is told in flashbacks catching us up to this situation, and the path there is as unpleasant as the destination. Between the claustrophobic setting, the depressing backstory, and the beautifully textured art detailing all the things you’d wish were left obscure, Hideout delivers the kind of horror experience that begs to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Voices in the Dark (闇の声; Yami No Koe)
This is it. This is the book that broke me.
In this 2002 collection of short stories by Junji Ito, there’s a story titled “Glyceride” about a girl trapped in a greasy house with her greasy father and a cruel, greasy brother. I began reading it a few years ago, and still haven’t finished. Junji Ito is a brilliant artist, and the story goes in such a disgusting direction that I refused to continue it because I did not want to see Ito’s “punchline” for the story. I even tried reading it again while writing this article, and once again could not bring myself to turn the page past a certain point.
The rest of the stories are more traditional ghost stories, feeling like the sort of tale you might share around a campfire. In fact, they are mostly eerie enough that they’d probably be just as effective in that context. But it’s Junji Ito’s art that elevates this collection into something truly unsettling; the kind of horror you can’t just laugh away over some marshmallows.
Dark Beast Anamorphosis (アナモルフォシスの冥獣; Anamorphosis No Meijuu)
Ah, Shintaro Kago – the only artist who something something… I’m sorry, it’s difficult to write about someone when their name summons loud screaming (and [EPILEPSY WARNING] FlyLo) in your mind over adjectives and reasoned thought.
If you haven’t heard of him, think twice before you Google. This master of body-horror stands a tier above maybe anyone else currently in the industry for not only his sickeningly detailed artwork, but for his singularly unique and brazen imagination.
There’s no small trace of R. Crumb in this man’s work, where outrageous acts of transgression are not only depicted, but are placed in a world where it’s all accepted without a bat of an eye. They evoke such a visceral reaction that they allow the reader to understand the arguments against free speech – should something like this even be legal to print?
Kago’s Dark Beast Anamorphosis is a book split between two modes: one follows a group of strangers is invited to stay on a haunted set for 48 hours after an evil spirit is summoned, and the other consists of selected short stories highlighting the author’s unbound imagination. In one story, a woman is told by doctors they forgot a scalpel inside her during surgery. Also a cellphone. The next day, a kid runs up to her saying he’s forgotten his homework, and pulls it out of her stomach. People begin treating her stomach as storage to put things they want to forget about, and she eventually shoves herself into her own guts to forget her own bad memories.
This takes up about 8 of the book’s 207 pages. You can extrapolate the rest.
I Am A Hero (アイアムアヒーロー, I AM A HERO)
Japan’s answer to The Walking Dead is Kengo Hanazawa’s I Am A Hero. Published in Big Comic Spirits since 2009, this ongoing series follows Hideo Suzuki, a down on his luck and kinda cretinous mangaka, as he navigates the new reality of a zombie apocalypse, meeting people, making allies and enemies alike.
What makes the series so disturbing is that I Am A Hero depicts a kind of zombie that I had never seen. Whereas Western zombies are just animated corpses – mindless drones trying to shamble what’s left of their body -Hanazawa’s zombies are almost
‘Regular’ zombies move like people; if they have legs they walk, if not then they drag. Regardless, they’re still recognizably human in that we can see ourselves in them if we imagine our bodies were to start to just rot and decay while we continued to move about.
But Hanazawa’s zombies move like they’ve never before occupied a human body. They skitter and bend like contortionists, but inevitably cause awful damage to their vessels since most people are not contortionists, and our bodies don’t go that way. As the series continues, the zombies continue to melt into each other, some appearing like amalgams of limbs and orifices. There’s a sense there’s something bigger going on, but the comic has yet to reveal that if it’s true.