Growing up in the latter half of the 70s horror movie boom which included such high profile works such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn Of The Dead, Halloween, and others, my childhood was well-versed in the art of nightmare weaving before the onset of slashers reduced the format into scant numbers, and dopey kill counting. So it was especially important that in the latter years that I searched for scares that matched those that affected me so strongly in my younger years. Thankfully, through the video age, it became easy to see that there were others throughout the world who felt similarly. Who knew that the art of scary was more than being hacked apart by a zombified goalie, or a wisecracking bundle of foam latex. They knew that horror could run deeper than that. And appropriately, Japan has often had a well attuned frequency between the natural and supernatural worlds, making it an ideal place to explore the blackest corners of the human mind.
With only days remaining until the veil between worlds fades yet again , it felt appropriate to go ahead and share a few horror favorites from the hallowed vaults. And since there’s no real shortage of great works, I’ll be making picks from both the manga and anime worlds. And besides, nothing suggests the creeping approach of winter better than a good, scary story to read at bedtime.
Keep in mind that these are merely my opinion, and am quite aware of the vastness of great horror works available. Just sharing ones I’d love to see more folks embrace over time.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
10. X/1999 (1992 – )
In many ways, a seminal work, and quite possibly CLAMP’s signature masterpiece, X’s hallucinogenic clash over the fate of the human race was among the few titles of its time to crossbreed multiple tropes of the manga medium with resounding success. With an exciting mixture of shoujo elements, occult symbolism, and fluid action, the continuing saga has gone on to spawn a controversial movie finale, directed by Rin Taro in 1995, and an above average tv adaptation directed by action master Yoshiaki Kawajiri. A large component of its success is no doubt due to not only the intense artwork, but also the engagingly diverse cast of characters. With one small army of elementally powered humans pitted against another, the argument for and against the prolonged existence of the race on a browbeaten earth is compellingly even-minded, and filled with unusually potent amounts of pathos. The horror lying in that no matter the outcome, losses are inevitable, rendering both sides equally right, and wrong. While more of a dark fantasy epic than a full-blown horror fest, it is also clearly inspired by the works of one legendary Go Nagai, as inexplicable things are set in motion that may have terrible outcomes despite the innocents caught in the crossfire.
9. The Laughing Target (1987)
For some, the name Rumiko Takahashi doesn’t really do much to strike terror into the hearts of fans. Mostly best known for her biting comedy and fantasy works, there are a few who are clearly aware that she has often also wandered into murkier waters. As part of her early Rumik World material, existed the story of a nearly-forgotten arranged marriage between the now teenage captain of the archery club, Yuzuru and his beautiful, but enigmatic cousin who has just moved into his home. The problem (aside from the cousin thing?) is that he is now very much in a close, high school relationship, and has no plans to leave his girl, the sweet, but ordinary Satomi high and dry. Sounds saccharine and simple enough, until you realize that the newly returned financee to be is now possessed by a violently vindictive demon, and won’t take no for an answer! Showing that even in the 80s, the yandere archetype was alive and strong, The Laughing Target is a wildly entertaining short story, and gets me wondering why Takahashi never did more horror outside of this and her Mermaid saga. Both the manga and anime versions (produced by Studio Pierrot in 1987) of this story are very effective, and definitely worth seeking out.
8. Perfect Blue (1998)
The animated directorial debut of writer/artist Satoshi Kon couldn’t have arrived at a better time. As the mid-nineties saw anime boundaries being pushed on tv with shows such as Evangelion & Utena, it seemed natural that expectations would also be blown apart in the theatrical world. Liberally based on Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel, the tale of a young idol(ever the reliable Junko Iwao)’s odyssey into psychohorror after she decides to leave her indie pop outfit for a movie career is a spectacularly bleak look at the idol industry and its fans. Originally intended as a live-action film, the use of the animated technique creates a sort-of funhouse mirror to the world that is both transfixing and terrifying. Kon’s identity is solid throughout as the art direction retains reality, giving the space a dreamlike feeling where we’re never sure where the fantasy begins. Or are these worlds one and the same? As a mystery, the film never makes complete sense, and yet the experience is what it’s all about. Imagine if Dario Argento & Hitchcock collided on a Murakami installation, you’d be halfway there. An astonishing debut.
7. Urotsukidoji (1987)
Well damn. How do I justify this one? With all the press following the international release of this incredible OAV, the prejudicial stamp of all anime being nothing more than hyperviolent porn featuring women attacked by Cthulu-like squid-people became commonplace. A near cultural blacklist was created, placing this upon the top heap of the more infamous creations to ever come from the east. And while the works of mangaka, Toshio Maeda can easily be seen as a window into the more disturbing realms of the japanese experience, it is also worth nothing that an industry took notice for better or worse.(Cream Lemon notwithstanding) Taking the lead from Go Nagai’s Devilman, the story of three worlds, and their collision course brought forth by the rebirth of a demon god in human form not only works in its determination to push viewers’ buttons, but to contemplate a world ruled by pure, unadulterated id. Despite its troubling misogyny, and dangerously repressed sexuality, there is a simmering anger over imposed belief systems bubbling magma-like to the surface. The series’ finale stands as a brutal turning point in a medium’s history, and thus wins points for sheer, unadulterated gall. Deemed by many to be the AKIRA of hentai, Urotsukidoji is a jarring, decadent achievement.(and would you believe that producer, Yasuhito Yamaki went on to produce Imagawa’s milestone, Giant Robo?)
6. BLOOD (2000)
Despite the recent attempt to bring the tale of Chiropterate hunter, Saya to the world stage in the form of a live-action film, as well as a modeslty popular TV series, there’s really only one BLOOD. This Hiroyuki Kitakubo directed OAV was the concoction of a group of Production IG members supervised by their sempai, the legendary Mamoru Oshii. The goal was to create a uniquely marketable character that would cross greater borders than the average anime hero. What resulted, was one of the more notable vampire films of the last decade. Combining a then, and still impressive blending of traditional cel animation, and CG, BLOOD tells the tale of a youthful lone hunter at odds with a small group of fearsome evolutionary mutations loose around a U.S. occupied Air Base in Yokota, circa 1966. Not only is the setting fascinatingly telling of what Oshii intends us to think about, it also gives us a believable backdrop where language and culture are clashing on a day to day, as the “Sho ga nai” generation was taking hold throughout the land. Kitakubo, being a handyman of kinetic energy, milks the suspense with a gnarled edge, closer in tone to an american thriller which works greatly to its benefit. Also of note is one of the more realistic uses of bilingual dialogue in any anime to date. From the shadowy worldview, to the fascinating lead character, there are more layers in this stylish tale than meets the eye. (The BLOOD 2002 manga by often adult artist, Benkyo Tamaoki comes also highly recommended.)
5. Flesh Colored Horror (1988 – 1995)
Oh Junji Ito…What would my nightly rounds of sleep be without you? The man more commonly known for the ever popular titles Tomie (which inspired a slew of live-action films), and UZUMAKI, had me near covering my eyes with his collection of short stories published as Flesh Colored Horror. With cues taken from the core best of paperback fright such as E.C. Comics, and Tales From The Crypt, FCH comes at the reader from a more ordinary angle, which offers often beautiful girls, only to unleash holy hell upon us in latter pages. Undoubtedly a devotee to the works of Kazuo Umezu, there’s a diabolical genius in how he takes the seemingly mundane fears of japanese youth, and turns them on their heads with often savage ferocity. Whether it is haunted hair, living art, or an irrational need to stay youthful, FCH has all the qualities of classic horror with a brain-bending penchant for the grotesque that must be seen to be believed.
4. MONSTER (1994 -2001)
When considering his vast majority of solid work over the years ( Yawara!, 20th Century Boys, Pluto, Master Keaton), it would still likely come off as a surprise that any of his creations could be considered horror. But MONSTER is definitely a different kind of creature. While fitting snug with the trappings of a seinen mystery manga, the story of Dr. Tenma, and his quest to stop his accidental creation in a labyrinthan game of death, is classically in line with many horror tales of the past. Everything from its international flavor, rumination of real-world atrocities, to its interweaving storyline rife with not merely concerns over alpha & omega, but with how easily men run up against their inner abomination. Even as a mystery-drama, MONSTER works wonders rare in any medium. The anime version is a definite gem among many over the last ten years, and begs for a marathon. But in the end, it is an incomparable read.
3. Uzumaki (1998 – 2004)
If Junti Ito wasn’t (to me anyway) the heir of the Umezu throne already, this freakishly wacky title proves that he has the vision and talent to rival royalty. Created at the height of J-horror fever, UZUMAKI is a entrancingly creepy take of a small town, suddenly plagued by what seems to be mass hysteria brought on by (wait for it..) spirals. That’s right. Those little swirly things we used to doodle on our notebooks during class. What starts as a potentially worried young lady who’s potter dad may or may not be losing his mind , becomes a Lovecraftian maze of terror as crafted by Dali. Ito’s imagery begins to plant its assault early, and gradually cranks things past eleven as the heroic Kyrie, comes to realize that she, and the town are pitted against a force without rationale, or understanding. Again, Ito’s signature use of pretty girls, surrealism, and body horror weaves one uncanny tapestry that few can match. A disturbing, yet beautiful ride.
2. Devilman (1972 – 73)
And it often comes back to this work. When one looks back at all the post-apocalyptic titles that have since flooded manga & anime shelves for years, it’s important to see where the cross-ripping of history has been so integral to many of Japan’s most enduring creations. Go Nagai may have introduced the world’s premiere internally piloted mecha demigod in Mazinger-Z, but it’s Devilman that truly takes the prize for sheer, primal energy in a time where a nation was soul searching despite the rampant progress surrounding everyone. Nagai’s tale of the innocent Akira Fudo, and his terrible secret (sharing his body with that of one of Satan’s most dangerous demons, Amon) is amongst the titans of manga horror. Facing the identity crises that the post-war period brought into the nation’s subconsciousness, the manga appears safe enough at first glance with its deceptively kid-safe designs, but therein lies the cruel genius of it. Nagai’s classic is also one of those grand tragedies where there has yet to be a definitive anime version of the tale. (Yes, there has been a classic kids series, several cool OAVs, but nothing near the power of the source!) From the shocking violence, to its unthinkable final pages, Devilman is Nagai’s shattering exploration of the inhumanity that lies deep within us all.
1. The Drifting Classroom (1972 – 1974)
They do not call him the godfather for nothing. As much as I love Battle Royale for its harsh depiction of youth under pressure, nothing beats Kazuo Umezu’s Hyoryu Kyooshitsu for unrelenting terror that is second to none. This suckerpunch-happy series let’s us know that we’re in trouble from the getgo as little Sho is seen sprinting for school after fighting with his mom. But soon after arriving, the entire school erupts in what looks to be a freak explosion to everyone else. But what has truly happened defies logic at every turn, and that is precisely the point. The children, the adults, and the school itself have been transported to a harsh, desolate dimension that resembles a post-apocalyptic desert planet. With leadership crumbling at the adult level, panic rising, and resources dwindling, the children begin to take it upon themselves to survive. What ensues is tantamount to the ultimate childhood nightmare.(Think a very fiendish LOST, with kids, and a sadistic streak a mile-wide) From beginning to end, the horrific carnival never ends, as one freakish event somehow, stiflingly trumps the next. Umezu’s mind never seems to quit as the reader soon realizes that it is confronted with the whims of a calculated madman, hellbent on exposing just how horrific childhood can actually be. Pumped full of invention, ferocity, and humor, The Drifting Classroom is a monolithic scare machine wired into the heart of Japan’s worst fears. Take that, Golding…