Three Weird Manga
While we were recording what was then our most recent episode of the Horror Pod Class, in which we discussed Black Christmas and subtext, Tyler and I chatted, as we always do, about what we had been reading and watching of late. As it happened, what I had been reading most recently were a couple of weird horror manga.
Being largely unfamiliar with the form, Tyler asked me to elucidate a bit, and it occurred to me, as I thought back on it, that this might be a good opportunity to bring a discussion of some weird horror manga to Signal Horizon, especially since three excellent—and very different—examples were all published in 2019.
First, though, my bona fides: I don’t actually know a lot about manga, or horror manga, or weird horror manga, myself. A few years back, I started reading the works of Junji Ito, at the recommendation of some people I trusted in the weird fiction community. I became hooked and, in short order, had read everything of his that was available in translation.
Once I had run out of new Ito stories to read, I did what I do: followed the trail back to those creators who he listed as inspirations. Hence, I read pretty widely, though not exhaustively, in the oeuvres of classic horror mangaka like Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino.
For the most part, however, that has been the extent of my exploration. So, as I talk about the titles I’m about to embark upon, I won’t be discussing them in regards to their importance to manga as a form, or their relationship to the tradition of weird fiction in their native country.
Rather, I’ll be approaching them as what I am: an appreciative amateur coming from the tradition of western, largely anglophone weird fiction.
Last year, Gou Tanabe’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound & Other Stories—translated by Zack Davisson—was nominated for an Eisner award. This year saw the release of a much more ambitious project—a two volume set (also translated by Davisson) adapting Lovecraft’s novel-length At the Mountains of Madness.
The results are nothing short of triumphant. Not only is Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness probably the best adaptation of the source material we could ever get—let alone have ever gotten—it might actually be better than the original.
On the podcast, I compared Tanabe’s baroque art to the work of Ayami Kojima on some of the latter Castlevania installments, and I think it’s an apt enough analogy for newcomers, even if comparing one artist’s work to another is always unnecessarily reductive.
As I write about the other manga I’m here to discuss, I’ll talk about several different art styles, which may be one of the things that is most surprising to someone who has only a cursory knowledge of anime and manga traditions—there’s a lot more variety here than you might expect.
Tanabe’s art is rich and detailed, the linework often so heavy and dark that it actually weighs down the page, creating gravity that pulls the eye. In At the Mountains of Madness, his work is also dazzlingly cinematic in all the best possible ways.
Panel compositions and, especially, two-page spreads are deployed expertly to create a sense of movement and scope that keeps the text—which was written to ape scientific accuracy and so can otherwise read, at times, like an excruciatingly-detailed travelogue—moving with the ease of a wide-angle camera.
The frame-by-frame pan out followed by the “title drop” that opens the first volume, in particular, is some of the most impressive sequential storytelling I’ve ever seen.
No matter how many times I flip through it, I can “see” the title card come up as though I was watching a film, but no film would ever be able to conjure the scale that Tanabe’s art manages, nor would any film with a budget large enough to convey what this work does ever be allowed such fealty to the old-fashioned source material.
No Longer Human by Junji Ito
I started with Gou Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness because it is probably the most accessible of the three titles that I’m here to discuss for someone who is already familiar with weird fiction but is a newcomer to manga—in no small part because it is a remarkably faithful adaptation of a classic western weird tale.
But Junji Ito was my introduction to this corner of the manga world, and he remains the mangaka whose work I have read the most voraciously. I pick up each new Ito volume as soon as it becomes available, and at this point I have practically an entire bookshelf devoted to the hardcovers of his work that Viz has been putting out.
This year saw the release of two such volumes. Smashed, which was released back in April, is a fairly representative collection of Ito’s unique brand of weird ghost stories. It has a few of my favorites, including “Bloodsucking Darknesss,” one of the first Ito stories I ever read, and it has some capital-W Weird moments, as in the title story.
But it’s not necessarily the best entry point for new readers to Ito’s work. For that, I might recommend Uzumaki, which probably remains his masterwork, and one of the ones most accessible to aficionados of weird fiction.
But I’m not really here to talk about Smashed right now anyway—I’m actually here to talk about the other volume that Viz released in 2019, Ito’s adaptation of Osamu Dazai’s 1948 novel No Longer Human.
Like Tanabe’s At the Mountains of Madness, this is an example of a mangaka adapting a prose work that is already regarded as a classic. In this case, though, I’ve never read the original. Had, indeed, never heard of it until I learned about Ito’s adaptation.
Considered Dazai’s suicide note, the novel—at least in its adapted form—is a story about misery, and about the ways that our own misery causes us to inflict misery on others. It charts the life of a womanizing artist—a painter and mangaka—who struggles with feelings of alienation and depression, which he masks by acting the clown.
His life is a series of addictions—booze and women and drugs—and tragedies. Unlike pretty much all of the rest of Ito’s work, this is not a supernatural—or even paranormal—tale.
Yet, it is deeply weird, in the way that only the human psyche can be deeply weird. And it gives Ito plenty of room to exert his masterful style, which consists of incredibly intricate linework that is, at times, reminiscent of scratchboard art or classic woodblock prints—telling a shocking, spooky, and poignant tale of human pain given almost supernatural scope, with translation by Jocelyne Allen.
While it may be more Kafka than Lovecraft, it’s a powerful and affecting and strange story, and one that makes a compelling case that all stories are ghost stories, when you get right down to it.
The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
Weird fiction is, for the most part, a genre that thrives in the short form. There are a few acknowledged long-form masterpieces of the genre—the Tanabe title I led with is an adaptation of one of those—but they are few and far between in comparison to short stories.
I would argue that Junji Ito’s Uzumaki deserves consideration as a long-form masterpiece of weird fiction, along with titles like The House on the Borderland, Malpertuis, The Fisherman, et al. But I would also argue that The Drifting Classroom deserves that distinction, as well.
While the other two titles I chose to highlight this year are new adaptations of old classics, this is a new release of a title that is already a classic on its own merits.
Originally published between 1972 and 1974, The Drifting Classroom is being reissued by Viz in a deluxe hardcover edition for the first time in English, with a translation by Sheldon Drzka and a new English adaptation by none other than Signal Horizon favorite Molly Tanzer.
The story, which is kind of like Lost by way of Lord of the Flies by way of the aforementioned House on the Borderland, concerns a school that gets transported to another dimension—or maybe to the future. As a result, the protagonists are almost all elementary school-aged kids, and the fates that befall them are… grim, indeed.
If The Drifting Classroom had been released for the first time this year, the torment that it heaps upon its juvenile cast would still feel extreme. Considering that it was produced nearly fifty years ago, it is all the more astonishing.
Acting in contrast to the carnage that occurs is Umezu’s art style, which combines a cartoony expressiveness with detailed depictions of the strange new world and its often terrible inhabitants. This year, only the first volume of the new deluxe edition of The Drifting Classroom was released, but the second (and I believe concluding) volume is due out early in 2020.
What I have given here is a necessarily cursory overview of the phenomena of weird horror manga in general—and even of these three titles in particular. But if I’ve whetted your appetite, hopefully I’ve given you a place to start exploring for yourself.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.