Post War Trauma and Psychological Drama: The World of Japanese Horror

Does this look terrifying to you?

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There’s definitely something fascinating about a spiral shape, the way it draws you in, how it can play optical illusions on you, and how it’s been used in media as a way of hypnotizing people. Yet you wouldn’t think of using it as an antagonist in horror. In typical American horror, there’s a clear monster/ghost/serial killer to chase the hapless young hero (and a lot of gore and sexual violence tends to ensue).

Yet to Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, the mysterious yet not quite right appeal of the spiral shape was enough to make it into his horror masterpiece, Uzumaki (literally means spiral/vortex).

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(Source)

Imagine you’re living in an isolated town, and slowly, strange things start to happen that somehow all involve spirals. A man becomes so obsessed with spirals he tries to use his body to create the shapes. His wife develops a morbid fear of spirals that lead her to go nuts. A girl who moves into town in order to pursue a boy notices a scar on her forehead turns into a spiral shape. Slowly but surely it becomes apparent that the town is haunted by the spiral, but when the townspeople realize something is extremely wrong, it’s too late. It made for a creepy, creative thrill that I read in one night.

Junji Ito first broke into the manga scene with Tomie, a series about an evil protean entity who cannot die and is constantly being reborn and multiplying, who takes the form of a beautiful teenage girl who manipulates and tricks others. He would go on to create several short stories and have two other noteworthy works: Gyo and The Enigma of Amigara Fault.

Gyo begins with a rather ridiculous premise: schools of fish crawl out of the ocean on mechanical, insect-like legs, and are accompanied by a horrible smell. But soon it develops into a truly nightmarish story, when people and other land animals are infected by the smell (carried by a powerful germ transferred through bodily gases) and become the replacements for the mechanical legs.

In The Enigma of Amigara Fault, after a devastating earthquake, a new fault appears from the ground, sporting human shaped holes.

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(Yes, this was referenced in Steven Universe.)

People quickly discover that each hole is perfectly suited for each individual, and they feel compelled to enter the hole. They disappear for months at a time, and when they come out on the other side…well, they’re not quite the same.

What makes all three of these works chilling is that they take seemingly mundane, innocuous parts of life and morph them into something creatively horrifying. Ghosts and monsters and serial killers are scary enough, but what about a spiral that is seemingly everywhere that you can’t run away from? Now that strikes you on a psychological level.

Gyo has the extra horror of post WWII paranoia. In the manga, it was revealed that during WWII the protagonist’s grandfather helped conducted horrific experiments and created a toxic germ that could be used as a weapon. When the animals carrying the germ and emitting the gas would die or pass out, mechanical legs were created to carry them. Before they could be used on the front, they were lost at sea…and decades later, the disaster emerged. You can tell how horrifying that would be to a country nearly destroyed by war. The Enigma of Amigara Fault features a prefecture that was ravaged by a devastating earthquake. While I think that story has more nuances that resonates more with Japanese readers (in regards to things like conformity and finding your place in society), you can see how that would strike a particular unnerving cord to a country that is known for devastating earthquakes.

As you can tell, a lot of (good) Japanese horror is rooted in the country’s cultural fears. Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino is about a family destroyed by the Yakuza and WWII, based on the author’s own life (his grandfather was a Yakuza member and his own family fled Manchuria after Japan surrendered). Perfect Blue is about how the role of a (childlike but made to appeal to men) pop idol drives not one but two women mad when they dare to move on. And the original Godzilla is about the fear of a nuclear fallout. This is probably one reason why a lot of horror franchises that are originally Japanese don’t do as well when they become Americanized since a lot of what makes them truly scary is left out.

If you’re tired of American horror, I suggest you give Japanese horror a try. I strongly recommend reading Junji Ito’s work. He is extremely imaginative and effectively creepy, with absolutely gorgeous art. (He also wrote a genuinely cute and funny manga based on his life with two adopted cats, so you know he’s talented.) I don’t fully recommend Hideshi Hino because his work lacks subtlety and relies a bit too much on shock value and animal cruelty, but you should at least read his work Hell Baby because it’s a genuinely tragic, moving story about what it means to be human. There’s a litany of other horror (including Kazuo Umezuo, the original horror mangaka) that you can read up on. You can start HERE and HERE.

Feel free to share your experience with Japanese horror in the comments below!

The Major Reason the Anime and Manga Industries Are In Trouble

So if you’re an aficionado of Japanese media, you probably know that the anime industry is in danger of dying. The manga industry is not faring so well either. You can look up ‘anime industry dying’ or ‘why good anime is hard to make’ or ‘manga industry dying’ to get more info, but basically, while anime and manga for niche markets (mainly the otaku fandom) is doing fine, anime and manga for a broader audience is not.

To be honest, I think there are a lot of reasons for this. A lot of manga and anime series are extremely long (thus people can lose interest after awhile or be deterred entirely), can be very weird, and tend to be oversexualized (this is a serious problem that is affecting anime and manga badly, but that’s for another day). A clash of cultural values and customs don’t help at all.

But I think there’s another very huge issue as to why the anime and manga industries aren’t doing very well, at least overseas. The issue is that anime and manga and their merchandise are FUCKING EXPENSIVE.

Seriously, manga is pretty pricey, and given how LONG manga can go on for, people could end up forking hundreds of dollars to get the complete series (and sometimes people might not even get access to the complete series if the whole thing isn’t translated or if the English distributors go bankrupt). And anime? Oh, it’s worse. It can cost upwards of $30 to get a single disc DVD, and it can cost almost $100 to get a Blu Ray, not for the whole series, but for less than HALF of a series. I’m not joking. I wanted to get Attack on Titan on Blu Ray because I love the show so much and I want to show my support, but they broke up the first season into two separate Blu Ray boxsets and each one is ridiculously overpriced. I saw a Kill La Kill Blu Ray set of like the first five episodes with a few bonus features that cost like $90. $90! And don’t get me started on Sailor Moon!

It’s even worse if you want merch for it. A lot of merch is imported right from Japan, and as a result, can cost zillions of dollars. There’s some merch that’s actually really cool (like these articulated Sailor Moon figurines that have different faces and hand shapes and accessories) but if you want to get the complete collection, get ready to fork up to a thousand dollars! I feel like it would be better to just go to Japan and get stuff there!

And the thing is, a lot of fans of anime, manga, and the merch attached to it are high schoolers and college students. In other words, people who aren’t exactly rolling in money or have parents who are willing to buy their kids all the stuff they want all the time.

Since Western comics (save for standalone graphic novels or complete collections) are ridiculously hard for me to get into with all the constant retcons, changing writers and artists, and unfriendliness to newer readers who don’t know the context of what’s going on, I want to turn to manga as an alternative (especially since a lot of manga is really creative, and they can be a little easier to follow than their anime adaptations), but it’s hard when buying volumes cost me so much money. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

I don’t understand. Merch right from Japan that’s expensive, I understand, with the shipping costs and all that. (Though this means they should let American companies make licensed merch for them so that people can support the industry without spending too much money. They shouldn’t have to sell all their products right from Japan to be shipped overseas.) But, I’m sorry,  I am not spending nearly $100 for a box set of like five episodes and wait forever for the rest of the series to be released.

The point is, if the anime and manga industries want to survive, they need to make their products AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE, and widely AVAILABLE. At this rate, I’m not remotely surprised that the future of anime and manga might be solely online, whether Japan likes it or not. But if they want physical copies to survive, they need to make sure more people can actually buy it. I’m sure they can gain a lot more revenue to make more and better anime if lots of people go through stores, see an anime that looks interesting, and see that they can actually buy it without spending too much.

EDIT/UPDATE:

Wow, this post has been getting a lot of views! I may have been a little glib when I first wrote it. I’ve gotten a few comments and as it turns out, the issue is a bit more complex than that. The main problem is that creators are often treated horribly, having to work long and hard hours, and anime/manga are not as commercialized around the world like Marvel or DC. Lowering prices would make it harder to make a profit. You can check the comments for more details, but basically, anime and manga is seen as a novelty. I still think anime and manga need to be more affordable, accessible, and widely available, but there will also need to be some serious reforms in how anime and manga are commercialized, marketed, and made.