Turning Japanese: A Starter Guide to (Horror) Manga

In the United States, the "reign" of comics has come and gone. Even though these days comics are infiltrating pop culture and movies, reading them is still considered a very niche hobby/passion, one that is sometimes stereotyped or made fun of as "geeky". Imagine if that WASN'T the case; imagine that at bookstores it was completely normal for at least half the shelfspace to be taken up by graphic novels. Imagine going on the train and not being shocked by seeing an older lady or a business man reading comics. Imagine comics infiltrating advertising campaigns, from billboards to commercials. Basically, imagine comics had the same power in America as manga does in Japan.

Being in my twenties and growing up as a total social reject girl-nerd, I was the perfect target audience for manga when it started to become popular in the United States. As a lifelong comics reader, I never questioned the validity of manga and read it quite religiously through my teen years. However, I've come to find that manga doesn't seem as accessible to some people. At this point in time there is a definite overload of titles available… and I would guess that only about 40% of it is any good. There are plenty of fluffy "shoujo" titles (manga for girls), and strange, predictable series with boring plotlines. But amidst the shelves at your local Border's Books, if you're willing to elbow your way through piles of mall goths, there are many manga gems to be read. And manga has its own unique brand of art and storytelling, so it's not as if you're being "disloyal" to American comics.

Manga first became popular in Japan around World War II, mainly popularized by Astro Boy. Now it is an accepted part of life – I studied abroad in Japan and I could get manga ANYWHERE, from a cafe to a gas station. Manga-ka (that is, manga artists) are basically on the same tier as celebrities, and they are managed by studios that employ people just for inking, lettering, etc. It's a very efficient market, and one that has made the Japanese publishing industry about 3.6 billion dollars before 2007.

BECAUSE there is such a broad market for manga, there is something to be found for EVERYONE. From children's stories to "soap opera" types of manga to adults only (hentai), manga covers a broad spectrum of every sort of entertainment… for every taste. So in the coming weeks I will introduce you readers to "starter" manga for different genres.

This week I am going to tackle horror manga, which is currently one of my favourite genres and one that I feel really represents the differences between Japanese and American comics quite well. Asian horror is a lot more subtle: there are no cheap scare tactics or cliches. It is psychological and twisted, and relies more on creepy assumptions or bizarre imagery instead of blood and gore and shock factor.

Junji Ito – Uzumaki

One of the masters of the Japanese horror genre is Junji Ito. He is well known for his dark, richly textured artwork, and his ability to take a very simple story concept and turn it into something profoundly disturbing. Perhaps his most well known work in America is Tomie, which was adapted into a rather silly Japanese TV show that you can find on the shelves of most foreign sections of video stores. However, the work that I am obsessed with from him is Uzumaki, which is his disturbing three volume tale about a town that is afflicted and obsessed with spirals. The graphic novels consist of different "chapters", centered around one girl and her boyfriend, who keep finding themselves experiencing increasingly bizarre phenomena in their old fashioned Japanese town. Within the pages of Uzumaki you can expect to read stories about pregnant women who nurture their unborn children with human blood (like mosquitoes), people who turn into giant snails when it rains, and hurricanes tracking certain victims just to kill them. The way he weaves these tales, which eventually peak in a terrifying and psychological ending, are done with the skill of a morbid poet.

Although Uzumaki is my favourite of Junji Ito's works, I also recommend everything else he has done, from Tomie to Gyo (Which is about fish! With legs! That are coming to destroy you!).


Hitoshi Iwaaki – Parasyte

The best way to describe Parasyte is… well, Ben Templesmith's Wormwood meets zombie films with a dash of Alien invasion and some of Mystique's shape shifting abilities thrown in for good measure.

It's the story of an alien race that invades Earth: they're the parasites. They crawl inside people's brains and have the ability to change their facial features (see? Mystique!), and kill the host… reinventing their personality and injecting an insatiable urge for human flesh (zombies!). However, the parasites are not unintelligent, so it is hardly a lumbering zombie comic with pleas for "braaaains, braaaains". The main character is a young boy whose brain parasite is thwarted by his headphones, so instead it inhabits his hand. The two are independent of one another, and the boy makes it his personal goal to defeat the alien threat.

Parasyte is a sweeping epic, and a classic Japanese horror tale that needs to be read to truly appreciate Asian horror.


Junko Mizuno – Pure Trance

With art that seems too adorable to use in the stories that she illustrates, Junko Mizuno's work is like what would happen if the characters in American 80s cartoons became zombies. It's possible that Pure Trance isn't "classic" horror, but with things like cannibalism and horrifying future glimpses of bio-genetic engineering, she weaves a world that is just creepy enough. This manga is like what would happen if shoujo manga took too many drugs, it delves into overeating, pedophilia, S&M, sexy pop star ladies turned Rambo, and sex scenes involving girls getting it on with terrifying monsters.

If you'd pick up Pure Trance, you're in for quite a treat. It's an aesthetic pleasure, one that is disarmingly childish whilst being entirely eccentric and surreal. It's cyber punk meets Alice in Wonderland, with kickass female characters that defy the "wilting flower" image that most heroines in manga seem to embody.


Kazuo Umezu – Cat Eyed Boy & The Drifting Classroom

Cat Eyed Boy is an anthology of sorts, and isn't as dark or as morbid as the aforementioned manga. However, it still deserves a slot here, as it tackles Japanese folklore, which is chilling in its own right due to some very grotesque imagery. It is loosely an anthology in that it collects several different stories, however they all revolve around one centralized character – sometimes he is narrating, other times he is directly participating in the action. He is a half demon, half human character who brings trouble wherever he goes and serves as a way to act out retribution on humans who have "sinned" or who have participated in acts of evil.

Kazuo Umezu is also the mastermind behind the Drifting Classroom, which is a Lord of the Flies-esque tale that is a perfect example of how Asian horror is very psychological. The fact that it is based around a classroom of sixth graders who are transported to a desolate landscape makes it even more disturbing


Eiji Otsuka – MPD-Psycho

MPD-Psycho is a thriller and a crime manga that also offers morbid and sensual imagery of corpses – and many "WTF" moments. Basically, this manga is a terrifyingly beautiful look into the mind of serial killers, and has the art and twisted storyline to perfectly go along with this theme. The mind bending storyline follows an insane detective who has multiple personalities, and it is rife with torture scenes and grotesque drawings of corpses.

If you are going to pick up MPD-Psycho, I would suggest getting all of the graphic novels in one go, because this is a series you are not going to be able to put down until it comes to its eerie conclusion.



There are obviously many more awesome horror manga publications floating about out there, but I feel these are, at the moment, the most exemplary.

Next week I will be covering another genre of manga… but for now why don't you go get twisted with some genuinely terrifying Asian comics?


Molly McIsaac points her camera at everything, rides unicorns, and enjoys fictional characters with green hair. You can stalk her to your heart's content on Twitter, where she talks about her various misadventures.


  1. Parasyte sounds intersting. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Love Parasyte.  One of my favs.  Junji Ito’s Gyo is another fav horror manga.  Nobody does bio-horror like the Japanese.

  3. Those do sound interesting. I’ll have to keep an eye out for those. 😀

  4. MPD-Psycho rocks. This one is always on my recommended maga reading list.

  5. Drifting Classroom is also very good.  Alive and Parasyte are other titles to look out for.

  6. You forgot about Fuan no Tane. Excellent rapid fire horror stories.

  7. When I was 8 I remember my sister getting one of those manga magazines. You know like where they have eight stories in one? (Like Shojen Jump) Parasyte was one of those stories and it scared me so much as a kid. Little hesitant to try it out again.

    Uzumaki is also very disturbing. It is basically looking at nightmares.

  8. I really need to read Parasite and MPD Psycho.  Might I also suggest Berserk? It is a perfect blend of horror and fantasy. It’s what got me into manga.

  9. Holy fuckshit I love MPD-Psycho! I really want to read Otsuka’s other series, Kurosaki Corpse Delivery Service.

  10. Uzumaki was my introduction to horror manga after hearing Tony Moore cite it as an inspiration for his work on Ghost Rider about a year ago (remember the story about the undead trucker?) and indeed it has a creepy, unnerving quality that’s completely absent from other horror comics I’ve read. I liked Gyo, as well, but not quite as much as Usumaki. Thanks for the other recs, I’ll have to check ’em out around Halloween time!

  11. Thank you so much for this series of articles Molly! I’ve really been thinking about getting into Manga lately ( I only own like the first two trades of Akira put out by Darkhorse, so I’m a complete noob) and have been really wondering what books are worth picking up.

    One of the appeals to Manga is horror, so I’m very excited you started with this. Obviously I’ll keep reading your series, but could anyone recommend any good sites or blogs that have very reliable reviews and sorts through the crap that an American comic fan could stomach?

  12. I have read Gyo and Molly kind of makes it sound silly, but its seriously fucked up. There is some amazing, and creepy, art in it.

  13. ‘k lady, added to my bookmarks. I have been looking to get into manga for a while. The first book I read was Death Note(ugh). The second book is Pluto, which is so good, I am afraid I’ll read it the whole day and not get any work done!

  14. I’m glad to see this type of article on iFanboy

  15. I’m not too kin on Horror Manga. Their stuff are really creepy and ugly looking. But I did read Parasyte, which is okay. I’m surprised you didn’t mention Monster though. 

  16. Hey you mentioned Parasyte! Isn’t it messed up? Here’s a list of other messed up manga if you get a chance to look at them.

    My "approved" Horror list
    BLAME! – a VERY graphic and hyperviolent post-apocalyptic future
    *SNIKT! – like BLAME! but with Wolverine in it (he’s literally in it)
    note: SNIKT! is a marvel property so could be considered an American comic.
    NOISE! – The Prequel to BLAME!

    ELFEN LIED – read the first few pages of this manga and you will instantly know why it’s messed up.

    ALIVE! – a prisoner mysteriously wakes up in a private prison room with a woman on the other side of the glass. Why are there scientists and medical students examining him every other hour? And why has no one ever served their full term of one year in this fatal sentence?
    note: (has NOTHING TO DO WITH BLAME!)*
    note: this manga will disturb even the most disensitized minds.

    Old boy: I always considered this psychological horror more than a mystery.

  17. Molly, another series you should check out is Zetman. It’s a japanese take on what seems like a Marvel superhero but is done very horrifically. Very Sentry-ish but realistic and with reprecussions.

  18. @manga:

    As I sai, my window to the Japanese geek culture is narrow, but even I know Elfin Lied is fucked up!

  19. @molly: I never realized how heartwarming a horror could be before completing Parasyte. There’s always the looming fear, and there are times where the story broke my heart. Definetly a must-buy. The first two volumes will hook your friends.