From gross-out horror to psychological terror.
The world of Japanese horror has a unique power to it. A combination of rich mythology, distinct cultural anxieties, and style has resulted in some of the best scary stories to ever be produced. More often than not, Japanese horror subverts the label, bending, twisting, and blending it beyond familiarity, into something wholly its own. Rarely is this seen more strongly than in the work of Japanese horror comics.
With their disturbing imagery and stories, which exude a bold sense of dread unmatched by most mainstream hits, horror manga has the power to scare long after you’ve averted your eyes from its black and white pages.
Whether you want a quick scare, a slow burn of terror, or something just downright bizarre this Halloween, look no further than the works of these Japanese horror comics, presented in no particular order…
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Uzumaki is one of the most iconic horror manga ever, from one of the medium’s most infamously twisted imaginations. In Uzumaki, Junji Ito depicts one town’s bizarre descent into madness as its citizens develop a curse-fueled obsession with spirals. So strong is the town’s paranoid lust for the shape that people’s bodies actually begin to warp into it.
What makes the horror of Uzumaki (and most Junji Ito stories) so unlike anything else you’ll ever read is the unrelenting dread dripping off every page. The build-up of denial and panic in his stories only intensify the drama of their inevitably terrifying conclusions. Ito is also really good at drawing images so disturbing that they’ll stick in your head for a long, long time.
The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
This 11-volume horror classic from 1972 is a more terrifying version of Lord of the Flies. Instead of crash-landing a group of children on an unpopulated island, The Drifting Classroom hurls an entire elementary school into a mysterious desert dimension, where the horrors that lie beyond its crumbled boundaries are nothing compared to the disturbing lengths the students will go to in order to survive.
Writer and artist Kazuo Umezu pulls no punches when it comes to graphic violence — in fact, The Drifting Classroom isn’t even his scariest work. The short stories in his 1986 gore-fest God’s Left Hand, Devil’s Right Hand feature, among other things, a serial killer cartoonist, a group of murderous school children and the ghost of their vengeful teacher, and a young girl who, cursed by a pair of rusted scissors, starts vomiting up entire skeletons. If you can find an English translation, that one’s not for the faint of heart.
But unlike some of Umezu’s work, The Drifting Classroom isn’t all shock value. Beneath its horrors lies a tale of desperation, responsibility, and the consequences an older generation’s actions can have on the young.
Domu: A Child’s Dream by Katsuhiro Otomo
Before Katsuhiro Otomo became famous for creating the cyberpunk thriller Akira, he garnered critical acclaim for a short, single-volume paranormal horror story called Domu: A Child’s Dream. The first comic to win Japan’s Nihon SF Taisho Award for science fiction, Domu — similar to Akira — is about people with psychic abilities. Only instead of being set in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, Domu takes place in a massive housing complex, where a spike in strange activity and a rash of recent suicides have residents and law enforcement on edge.
Domu channels a different kind of anxiety than most of the horror on this list, exploring the tension of living in such close proximity with other people, the helplessness of being caught in the middle of inexplicable circumstances, and even, to an extent, the fragility of such towering structures in an earthquake-prone environment. The housing complex at the center of the story becomes a battleground of destruction for two powerful psychic characters, foreshadowing Otomo’s later work on Akira.
Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino
Pet Shop of Horrors is more Gothic, romantic horror than the surreal terror that has made the works of Ito and Umezu so iconic, but it’s still not for the squeamish. It centers around the mysterious Count D, who runs a pet store in the heart of Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The people who patronize his shop are all in search of a companion to fill the void left by some personal or emotional issue, like loss, loneliness, or shame.
Count D usually has the solution in the form of some “rare pet,” all eerily humanoid in appearance and each with a unique 3-clause contract that carries dire consequences if ever broken. Of course, the contract usually is broken by the irresponsible new pet owner, resulting in some gruesome outcomes for the people and sometimes the “pets”… but usually just the people.
Portus by Jun Abe
After a high school girl’s apparent suicide, a friend of the deceased starts playing a cursed video game that she thinks is at the root of the mysterious death. Portus is far from having a mind-blowing story — at times, it feels like a less-inspired version of The Ring or some similar J-horror involving curses and disgruntled spirits. But the unsettling imagery in this short, single-volume tale is something special. When its horrors aren’t in your face like the panel above, they’re hiding in the darkest corners of each panel, forcing you to do a double-take on the page you just flipped past as you catch a glimpse of something strange.
Gyo by Junji Ito
If you’re looking for gross-out horror, it doesn’t get much more disgusting than Junji Ito’s two-volume tale of fish-fueled apocalypse, Gyo. After a young couple on a seaside vacation in Okinawa encounter a fish with long, spindly legs, the girlfriend Kaori is overcome by its “death stench,” which sends her into a fit of illness and psychosis even after the specimen is contained. More of these legged fish, including other sea creatures like a shark and squid, start to appear en masse all around the country as the couple returns home. The boyfriend Tadashi discovers the cause of the phenomenon soon enough, which is only about half as gruesome as its repulsive consequences.
Gyo also includes two of my favorite short Junji Ito stories, the darkly comedic “Sad Tale of the Principal Post” and the haunting and iconic “Enigma of Amigara Fault.”
Hellstar Remina (and other stories) by Junji Ito
What happens when the world finds out that a newly discovered planet is headed straight for Earth, wiping out everything in its path? Panic. Sheer, utter, unadulterated panic. And who’s the best at distilling that panic down into its purest form, and then cramming as much of it as possible into every single panel until it feels like the story is literally bursting at the seams with dread? Junji Ito. Hellstar Remina is one of my personal favorite single-volume Ito stories, for its depiction of a deeply unsettling cosmic dread and the ugly face of humanity in the midst of it. But Ito has created several dozens of even shorter stories that are just as high quality horror as Hellstar Remina, like the previously mentioned Enigma of Amigara Fault.
Most of Ito’s short stories can be found in his many collected works, including:
…the latter of which includes Ito’s award-winning Tomie series.
This is nowhere near all of the amazing horror manga out there, but it is the stuff that’s easiest to find. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments!
Chloi Rad is an Associate Editor for IGN. Follow her on Twitter at @_chloi.