Written by: Pomelote
Did you hear that? Be- behind you, I thought I heard someth-
You know what, never mind, it's probably nothing...
Somewhat strangely, considering the massive J-Horror boom of the 2000s and Japan's rich horror tradition, “horror” is rarely a genre that comes to mind when people think about anime and manga. The reason for that isn't entirely clear, but Halloween 2016 has just passed us by (hopefully you've just had a happy one), and in the spirit of the season, we've prepared this little Top 10 article with some of our favourite examples of horror.
Warning: this article contains some graphic imagery, and worse yet, potential SPOILERS for all works mentioned here. Proceed at your own risk!🎃
10. Ghost Hunt (manga/anime)
Based on the Evil Spirit book series by Ono Fuyumi, Ghost Hunt is about a team of paranormal experts from the small Shibuya Psychic Research company. Joined by Taniyama Mai, a normal(-ish) schoolgirl and our viewpoint character, they investigate cases of hauntings and strange occurences.
The most interesting thing about Ghost Hunt is the syncretic approach the team takes with cases: everyone specialises in different religious practices, and it takes the whole team working through investigation, research, and trial-and-error to put the spirits they face to rest. It's a refreshingly practical methodology. As you might expect from that description, Ghost Hunt is somewhat more of a mystery series with a paranormal bent than a true horror series, however, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
That being said, there is a zombie episode.
Another selling point of the series is the dynamic between the cast. Besides Mai, the team consists of Shibuya “Naru” Kazuya, the aloof head of Shibuya Psychic Research, Lin, his stoic personal assistant and onmyoudou specialist, Takigawa “Bou-san/Monk” Houshou, a former Buddhist monk, Matsuzaki Ayako, a Miko-wannabe and Shinto shaman, Hara Masako, a teen celebrity spirit medium, and John Brown, a Catholic priest and exorcist (and Australian, although that comes up less than you'd really think it would).
Their interactions make up the majority of the running time, and thankfully they're an enjoyable lot to be around. They all have their own quirks, but since the series is fairly grounded, it rarely gets out of control or irritating to watch. So overall, Ghost Hunt is an enjoyable experience, and a good way for newbies to dip their toes into the horror genre without getting swept away.
9. HIDEOUT (manga)
HIDEOUT is a short, dark, one-volume tale of hate, blame, madness, and, uh... spelunking.
Despite that description, the bulk of the story is actually about the couple's past and Seiichi's progressively deteriorating state-of-mind, spending a lot of page-time on flashbacks and Seiichi's mental processes.
And here's where we reach a caveat: for a story that spends so much time on the characters, the characterisation in HIDEOUT is embarassingly flat and one-dimensional. Seiichi basically only has two modes: hapless, blameless victim or murderous lunatic, while Miki is a creation of pure misogynist fantasy – and these are the most developed characters. According to the mangaka, he was heavily influenced by Stephen King, although by that, he probably just meant The Shining, because that's all that really shows.
Putting the negativity aside, the shadowy, underlit art is what carries HIDEOUT, and it really is gorgeous. Recommended for claustrophobes!
As anybody who's seen a Ralph Bakshi movie can attest, the world of rotoscoping is a disturbing dimension of nightmares. Kowabon knows that, and gives the audience a glimpse into a world that's off-kilter and subtly wrong even before the hauntings begin.
It Follows... you on Twitter
Each of Kowabon's 13 short, three minute-ish episodes are viewed from the perspective of a particular kind of telecommunications technology: a phone texting and video-chatting, a Skype chat, security camera video feeds, Instagram accounts, intercom feeds, Youtube videos, and even a traditional “found footage” ghost hunt video. In each episode, the “normal” reality presented at the start is gradually warped and corrupted by the presence of some kind of entity, usually a skull-headed ghost woman.
Oh, and here she is now.
Buggy software updates: a fear for the modern ages!
Yamishibai, like Kowabon, is a recent series of short, urban-legend-like stories told with a strange, arguably ugly animation style. Animated with a deliberate flatness and very limited in movement, Yamishibai pays loving homage to the art of kamishibai, a traditional street theatre popular in the early 20th century.
It's worse than I could have imagined - CHILDREN! Wait, that's not the twist?
Incidentally, Yamishibai has a feel very similar to the live-action series Tales of Terror from Tokyo/Kaidan Shinmimibukuro, so if you're familiar with that and you're looking for more of the same, Yamishibai might satisfy your craving!
6. Fuan no Tane/Fuan no Tane + (manga)
Efficiency is the name of the game in Fuan no Tane. No names, no locations, no set-up - Fuan no Tane scoffs at such niceties – it's just pure concentrated creepiness.
Efficiency is the name of the game in Fuan no Tane. No names, no locations, no set-up - Fuan no Tane scoffs at such niceties – it's just pure concentrated creepiness.
Even lighter on details than Yamishibai or Kowabon, each “story” in Fuan no Tane often takes up no more than a couple of pages, detailing urban legend-like stories or exchanges and almost always ending on a piece of lovingly illustrated creepy imagery.
Oh, sure, out of context, this seems innocent...
Unlike most anthology horror, Fuan no Tane's stories rarely end in violence, or even with cliffhangers implying violence – the encounters often just come across as awkward and teeming with dread, instead. Adding to the strange charm is the admission by Nakayama Masaaki, the mangaka, that many of the stories are “real” encounters collected from people around Japan, hence why there's no proper conclusion to most stories.
As of 2016, both series' of Fuan no Tane are complete, and for those interested in more, Nakayama is also currently writing a spiritual sequel series, Kouishou Radio.
5. Screaming Lessons (Zekkyou Gakkyuu)/Screaming Lessons Reincarnated (Zekkyou Gakkyuu Tensei) (manga)
Once again, an anthology series. This one's different, though, I swear: it's a shoujo manga! Screaming Lessons is a strange, unique beast. It combines the cast age and cuteness of a shoujo with some often shockingly dark violence (especially by the standards of Western childrens' horror, which tends to shy away from violence) and a terrible, misanthropic cruelty to its young protagonists. I love it to bits, obviously.
Yomi, series mascot and your homeroom teacher for Screaming Lessons.
As you might expect from a series aimed at a young demographic, the stories are nearly always morality tales, wagging a finger and tutting at socially unacceptable behaviour that kids today might be tempted to engage in: bullying, stealing, materialism, jealousy, social one-upmanship, putting young love over friendship, taking your parents for granted, wanting to grow up too soon, etc, etc. Things almost always end badly for the character (you can count the number of happy endings on one hand), and their “punishment” is usually so hilariously disproportionate to the original “crime” that you just end up feeling sorry for them. It's classic morality tale cheesiness.
Screaming Lessons also occasionally delves into urban legends, giving classic stories an extra turn of the knife for audiences familiar with them. A personal favourite is the series' take on kuchisake-onna, which invents its own reasoning for the exact reason that kuchisake-onna, in the legend, is said to avoid groups of children.
The only real negative thing I have to say about Screaming Lessons is that only around half of the original series has been translated into English, and it doesn't seem like more is coming any time soon. Admittedly, that's quite a big "negative", but what's available currently still isn't anything to scoff at.
4. Shiki (manga/anime)
The second series on this list based on a work by Ono Fuyumi, this 2009 manga and anime tells the story of the inhabitants of Sotoba, a small rural town, and a pack of vampiric “shiki” who have recently come to live in the town, attracted by the town's aversion to cremating their dead.
The horror in Shiki is slow to build, but not without good reason. The village's bloodsucking encroachers are unlikely to leave you impressed in the first few episodes – it's nothing you haven't seen before (especially if you're familiar with Salem's Lot, which the original novels were explicitly dedicated to). But the initial slow pace does a fantastic job at establishing the geography of the town and the dynamics of the sprawling cast, and by a third of the anime's run, the tension ramps up considerably, and just keeps building from there.
A drop-vampire! I thought they were just a joke to scare the tourists.
I'll do my best to avoid spoiling too much of Shiki's plot, but it's fairly hard to avoid talking about what makes Shiki so compelling without giving into spoilers, so if you'd like to avoid any further spoilers, maybe skip to the next entry.
In the first half of the series, what drives the horror is a feeling of dread, that the human population in the know is powerless to stop the gradual takeover of their town, that they can't do anything except wait for their own deaths.
But then, in the second half, the perspective more-or-less switches around to the shiki, as the remaining humans turn the tables on them and start hunting them down, in the disturbingly systematic and dehumanising fashion that human beings are so capable of.
What makes this turn-around work so well is that it's made clear that the shiki are not conscience-less monsters, but exactly as human as those being preyed on – particularly the former villagers who rise as shiki, who are fundamentally the exact same people they were when they were alive. Basically, despite being sold as a vampire tale, what Shiki really is is a brutal and horrifying portrait of a community destroying itself. Cool, huh?
Now, Shiki isn't perfect. Firstly, the series is infamous for its wildly out-of-place character designs (and if there's only one thing you know about Shiki, this is it) that clash hideously with the otherwise muted colour palette.
Nope, nothing out of the ordinary here, no sir.
After a while, you're likely to get used to the hair and come to see it as its own stylistic choice, but there's definitely a hurdle. More serious are some pacing issues and odd narrative choices towards the end, such as a character left for dead two-thirds of the way through the series inexplicably showing up in the epilogue, alive and well (this, and most of these issues, can be attributed to a character who died early on in the books surviving and being turned into a plot device, incidentally).
Dear Claustrophobes, OVA 1/episode 20.5 is a must-see.
The manga and anime both essentially present the same story, with a few minor differences; the manga provides slightly more details, but the art can be distractingly busy and messy, whereas the anime streamlines the story to the point of cutting several character's fates out entirely. So, take your pick.
Sadly, viewers of just the anime don't get to find out what happens to these two. (´◕﹏◕`)
3. Franken Fran (manga)
Deep in a mansion in the forest, you can find a very helpful surgeon who takes her Hippocratic Oath very seriously. A little too seriously, in fact. Horrifyingly/hilariously seriously.
Franken Fran is a body horror/comedy series about world-famous jack-of-all-trades scientist and surgeon Madaraki Fran, herself implied to be a surgical creation, and the strange cases she takes on. Displaying an admirable dedication to her craft, she takes on almost all patients that come to her, no matter what they ask for. What makes Fran's work particularly... interesting... is her fascinatingly warped moral code about the preservation of human life, regardless of what the human in question has to say about it.
I'd prefer to avoid spoiling any of the stories, since half of the fun in Franken Fran comes from its twists, but among many other things, expect to see absurd cosmetic surgery, graphic violence, grotesque nudity, biological experiments gone wrong/horribly right, ironic hells, existential horror, monstrous theme park mascots, Kamen Rider parodies, and even... the occasional heartwarming moment. Dawww.
Besides Fran (herself one of horror's most memorable characters), other major characters include Veronica, Fran's younger “sister” and living weapon bodyguard, Okita, Fran's personal assistant who happens to be a cat with a human head (or possibly a human with a cat body, he's not telling), Gavrill, Fran's older “sister” and near-psychotic gang leader, and many, many one-off characters who are generally left much worse off than if they'd had nothing to do with Fran in the first place.
Even if you haven't read Franken Fran, you've probably heard about its reputation as a modern cult classic – and it's a reputation that it's absolutely earned. Gruesome, misanthropic, with a wickedly dark and bitingly satirical sense of humour, almost every chapter is memorable in one way or another. Highly recommended!
It's… exactly what you think it is.
2. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (manga)Each member of the team possesses a unique skill that allows them to corner this market; these range from practical skills like management and embalming/autopsies, to supernatural abilities like corpse-finding and talking to/raising the dead, to the questionable talent of “having a talking hand puppet that may or may not be possessed by a the spirit of a dead alien”. Yeah, it's a weird series.
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is another horror-comedy series, about the titular company run by a group of young, struggling young adults, specialising in paranormal activity. Unlike, for example, the Shibuya Psychic Research company from Ghost Hunt, they don't offer their services to the living – they offer them to the already dead.
Most stories in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery are roughly standalone, but there are recurring plot elements and characters throughout them, and past cases are frequently referred back to in later chapters. Each story usually starts with the find of a body and the subsequent investigation, but they go off in all kinds of directions from there, more often than not driving into the realm of social commentary. Just for example, there are chapters that explicitly discuss Unit 731 and the Nanking Massacre in fairly sobering detail, which is fairly unusual in Japanese media in the first place (and back when I first read it, this was definitely the first time I ever saw them brought up in manga). However, that's not to say the series doesn't know how to have fun and goof around – the “flatworm eye parasite” storyline is proof of that.
Dare you to take this seriously.
Obviously, since the series revolves around death (see: well, gee, the title), there's a fair amount of gore and violence; there's also the occasional moment of nudity. More than anything else, though, it's just plain funny, and in a very dry, matter-of-fact way, which makes it such an appealing read.
1. The collected oeuvre of Itou Junji (manga)
Itou Junji is the mangaka behind Uzumaki, Gyo, Tomie, the Shoichi series, and countless other stories. In the interest of fairness to every other horror series, rather than nominate any specific work of his, it seemed to make more sense to just combine them all under one banner.
Itou is the long-reigning champion of horror manga, and his shadow hangs over the heads of pretty much every other entry on this list. Even if you don’t know his name and aren’t a horror fan, you've probably seen at least one or two memes of an image-grab from one of his stories. Without a doubt, the most infamous of his works among English-speaking audiences would be The Enigma of Amigara Fault, which is a good introduction to Itou's particular blend of body horror and cosmic horror (although the visual that the story ends on is actually pretty restrained, by Itou's standards).
As an emotional reaction, horror is a lot like humour. They're both very subjective and personal. What's more, what disturbs and terrifies one person can be utterly ridiculous and laughable to another; what somebody else sees as innocent or amusing can disgust and unnerve someone with its creepiness.
Even cat manga isn't safe from the touch of Itou Junji.
Horror and humour are almost opposite sides of the same coin, and what makes Itou's work so entertaining is that it seems to almost strike the perfect balance between them. Human beings turning into snails, apocalypses of murderous doppelganger balloons, the gas-bloated carcasses of sea life walking over land on robotic spider legs, etc. - it's all so ridiculous and surreal, but it's always played completely straight. At any given moment, it's hard to tell whether you're going to laugh at or be grossed out by an Itou story. It's pretty much the purest example you can get of a horror manga. So, for that reason, and the sheer quantity of Itou's work, it's definitely number one.
Oh, and Itou has also recently done some collaborative illustrations with Pokemon, because after all, why should kids get to sleep soundly at night?
Corpse Party series
Thanks for reading! Did we miss anything? Do you have any of your own recommendations? Let us know in the comments!