Japanese anime and manga often bring to mind bouncy catgirls and saucer-eyed heroes on quests to save the world. For some people, it also brings to mind some of the most bone-chilling stories ever penned by human beings. If you're a fan of horror but you've never indulged in Japanese culture, you're depriving yourself of some of the most twisted tales available to fans of the occult.
There's never a bad time to single out fantastic works of horror, especially not while we're still in the afterglow of Halloween. Fans of The Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-on) are already aware of those films' Japanese pedigree and are thus familiar with some pretty intense psychological horror. Psychology, especially, is the root of horror manga: the best titles pull you in to the murk so thoroughly that the reader finds no shame in being spooked by a comic book—if they in fact remember that they're reading a comic book.
It's never easy to throw together a numerical list of Top Anythings, but here we go: The Top Five Horror Manga, from tamest to scariest.
5) HELL GIRL (Kenichi Kanemaki, Miyuki Eto): The story of the ghostly girl who subjects evil people to ironic tortures has been told across manga, anime and even a live-action series. The manga differs a little in presentation, but the basic premise remains: people who have been wronged can access a website at midnight and sell their souls to “Hell Girl” in order to exert punishment and get revenge.
These stories of wrong-doing and payback are mostly episodic. The protagonist, usually suffering at the hands of a jerk, is driven to throw away their souls to be sure their tormentors get their comeuppance. There is definitely a slight camp vibe to Hell Girl, but at the same time, it's an unsettling read. The antagonists are tortured in ironic, sometimes gristly ways (like the crooked veterinarian who is operated on by dogs and cats who don't understand his pleas), and it's even creepy to consider how eager the protagonists are to sell their souls, just as long as they get that tiny glimmer of satisfaction.
4) DEATH NOTE (Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata): Death Note is enormously popular and understandably so: it's an unprecedented thriller, a game of cat and mouse between humanity's most brilliant minds. But there is a horror element to it as well. Obata's creepy Shinigami designs have left their marks in our memories, but more than that, Death Note revolves around the deadliest murder weapon known through mankind's history. And it falls into the hands of a very smart but very petty boy who thinks nothing of human life.
From the outside, it's easy to shrug and dismiss something like the Death Note as a fantasy. It is, of course; there is no such thing as a notebook that kills when names are written down. But when you sit down over a beer and think about the parallels that do very much exist—nuclear bombs in the hands of human beings who are prone to sulks and fits—it doesn't go down well.
Without spoiling anything, Death Note is at its most grim when it presents, in very clear prose, the final two rules for using the Death Note.
3) DRAGON HEAD (Minetaro Mochizuki): When famous video game critic Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation reviewed Silent Hill Homecoming, he mentioned that Japanese horror tends to be more subtle and psychology-based than American offerings. Interestingly, while American horror movies tend to be more about gore and people meeting horrific ends, some Japanese works seem to be inspired by horror novels by authors like Stephen King. King is a master at throwing common people into seemingly hopeless situations crafted by shadowy circumstances, which is a main theme in Dragon Head.
Dragon Head features a major disaster that is never fully defined, but engulfs humanity in chaos. However, Dragon Head doesn't start with the big picture: it begins with schoolboy Teru Akoi searching desperately for escape from a train tunnel that collapsed after an earthquake. The airless heat and fear in the tomb are stifling and Akoi struggles to hold onto sanity while others around him slip. Fear can cause madness and even death, a fact King likes to visit often in his stories (particularly The Mist).
2) UZUMAKI (Junji Ito): Though psychological fear is employed more often in Japanese horror, it's not to say that horror manga shies away from disturbing and gory imagery. At the core of Uzumaki is some mysterious, malevolent force that causes residents of a small town to become obsessed with spirals to the point that they are willing to break their own bones and contort their bodies in impossible ways to become part of “perfection.” But as the main protagonists try to uncover the reasons for the obsession, there's no lack of cringe-worthy moments: centipedes slithering in ears, humans with eyes that bulge like chameleons', twisted madness on every corner. It's a tense read, since turning the page can reveal a normal person who's gone goblin-faced with nightmarish insanity for something completely unexplainable.
Ito's artwork is haunting, full of sagging slum houses and dark corners. Simple objects like the black lighthouse that stands like a sentinel over the cursed town leaves the reader unsettled.
1) THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM (Kazuo Umezu): It's often been said that if Osamu Tezuka can be considered the God of Manga, Kazuo Umezu should be considered the God of Horror Manga. The Drifting Classroom is one of his best-known works, and much like Uzumaki, it combines psychological horror with unapologetic gore to form a series that haunts dreams.
Sho, a sixth grade student who fights frequently with his mother, is transported along with his entire school building to a cold, dark wasteland where nothing seems to grow. Order quickly denigrates amongst the school staff and children. The children quickly divide and groups try to control one another, not unlike the Lord of the Flies. Much like Golding's novel, the kids begin to regress and embrace the darkness and sacrifice in hopes that the unseen terrors haunting them will leave them be. Kindergarten students fling themselves from the roof of the building, children are crucified and adults prey on the kids they once looked after. Another nod to Golding is the malevolent nature of the wasteland itself. The wasteland holds nothing but sand and rocks, but it exudes some kind of dark power that can't be seen or smelt, but devours the hearts and consciences of humans.