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.