Dublin Comic Con Special: Horror in Manga & Japanese Pop Culture – A History.

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Alola, PokéNerds! Welcome to Straight Outta Kanto, your brand new Irish blog for nostalgia, nerd culture, nonsense and… more! Since last October we’ve had the pleasure of touring around as many Irish conventions as would have us hosting our infamous panel on “Horror in Pokémon.” This summer, your dear old Straight Outta Kanto had the honour of all honours and hosted a panel at (drum roll) Dublin Comic Con at the Convention Centre, Dublin on August 10th.

As Dublin Comic Con is kind of a big deal (ya think…!?) we decided to up the ante panel wise and write a talk on… “Horror in manga as the original comic book format and it’s influence today on modern Japanese Pop Culture.” A bit of a mouthful, but boy is it spooky!

Please, lock the doors, lower the lights, grab yer rosary and welcome to… Horror in Manga – A History.

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*Photo courtesy of Vixen Ninetails*

Come little children, come with me, safe and happy you will be, away from home now let us run, with Hypno you’ll have so much fun/Oh little children please don’t cry, Hypno wouldn’t hurt a fly, be free to frolick, free to play, come with me to a cave to stay/Oh little children please don’t squirm, these ropes I know will hold you firm, now look to me the pendant calls, back and forth your eye lids fall/No little children, you cannot leave, for you your families will grieve, minds unravelling at the seams, allowing me to haunt their dreams/Now do not wail and do not weep, it’s time for you to go to sleep, little children you were not clever, now you’ll stay with me… forever… … …”

– Hypno’s Lullaby, anonymous.

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We’re here today at Dublin Comic Con to celebrate all aspects of alternative pop culture. It’s a wonderful and open environment with a community feel; embracing all forms of creativity with comic books as the gateway. I first got into comic books in the early 1990’s through such English publications as the Beano, Dandy, Bunty, Beezer and so on. Although I know for a lot of you present today the worlds of Marvel and D.C. would have been your initial introduction.

Since the dawn of time the human race have used pictures as a way of expressing themselves. From the cave paintings of France 60,000 years all the way through the satirical political comic strips of the Georgian and Victorian era. While not given the same level of prestige as perhaps the great paintings or compositions of the day, the endeavours of the common man to to encapsulate a particular moment in time or give voice to the silent through sticking their hands in some mud and sprawling it across a wall or caricature their political oppressors is just as important to humanity as any art work hanging in a gallery today.

The first formal “comic book” as is widely accepted as being the first (although there is great debate about many predecessors) is the 1930’s “Famous Funnies” starring Superman.

However! (Or, Go Tobann! If you’re Irish.) One of the oldest and most statistically commercially successful comic book markets is Japan, with… manga!

In my research I stumbled across three of the most common theories on the origins of manga:

The earliest Japanese cartoons were construction worker doodles on a ceiling beam in Horyu-Ji Temple in Nara dated back to 700CE. These were raunchy and bawdy scribbles never intended to be seen and were only discovered 1,200 years later in the 1930s.

In the 1100’s (and this is gas craic lads) a Buddhist monk by the name of Toba Sojo drew anthropomorphic animal pictures to illustrate and aid his religious teachings. However these gained such popularity with the masses (pun intended) they were actually sold separately as Toba-e or “Toba’s Pictures”. (I literally cannot imagine Fr. McGrath from my church doing that…)

The origin story that seems to hold most weight and public consensus originates in the famed and mythical Ukiyo-e prints of old Japan. Ukiyo-e means “floating world” and refers to the almost stereotypical ye olde style image of Japan such as Geisha and Samurai, tea ceremonies, delicate sakura and temples. Ukiyo-e come from when Tokyo was called “Edo” and Kyoto was still the capital of Japan. A romantic period of time lost to the ages that Hollywood can try and re-create with such films as The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha, but never fully replicate.

By the late 1700’s there were ample supply of books spanning many genres such as romance, adventure, horror illustrated in the Ukiyo-e style. A good example of some of these prints are actually in the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin, which I heartily recommend for a visit.

One of the key figures in the Ukiyo-e movement and a gentleman considered the “grandfather” of manga is none other than Katsuhika Hokusai. A diverse and prolific artist of the Edo period alive from 1760-1849. If manga translates to “irresponsible/a million pictures” – then Hokusai certainly lived up to that.

Hokusai was an art fanatic who drew everything imaginable and left a body of work that would make any artist insane with jealousy. His most famous body of work is his “Hokusai’s Manga”. Literally a sketch book of thousands of drawings, doodles and full pieces. This is where the term manga is generally accepted to have been standardised.

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In 1902 the first Japanese manga narrative serial was published in Jiji magazine. In 1946 Osamu Tezuka made his professional manga debut with a four panel comic strip in a local newspaper.

The structure of manga as we know it today was most certainly starting to take shape by this point.

However, one thing I’ve noticed, I don’t know if you’ve noticed is… Japanese manga is just that little bit darker than the comic books of the west. With such a rich and twisted folk lore you can’t really blame Japan for having a darkness underlying in their artistic psyche.

One example of Japanese folklore influencing modern pop culture would be the Tanuki and Kitsune. Just like the man-beast legends of Native Americans, Tanuki (raccoon) and Kitsune (fox) are shape shifting animals who can take the form of humans. Any Studio Ghibli fanatics out there will recognise these guys from the film Pom Poko.

There’s an urban legend in modern Japan of terrifying “Nopperabo” or faceless/egg faced person or persons appearing on dreary, empty night time walks home from the office or on public transport. In essence, Japanese Slenderman, which is most freaky. There’s a theory that the Nopperabo are actual young Tanuki forced out of their woodlands by the forward march of progress and who haven’t quite mastered the art of living among us, hence the humanoid form but featureless expression.

Urban legends such as Kuchisake Onna and Toire no Hanako are further nightmare fuel for the massess. Kuchisake Onna is better known as “The Slit Mouthed Woman” – who appears in front of people while wearing a sanitary face mask wielding a pair of scissors and asking “Am I beautiful?” Say “yes”, you die horribly. Say “no.” you die horribly. Your best method of defence is just legging it…!

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Toire no Hanako or “Hanako of the Toilet” is a relatively benign Japanese equivalent of Moaning Myrtle. She hangs out in the female bathrooms of Japanese schools mildly spooking youngsters with her presence. Unlike the far more malevolent “Blue Cape/Red Cape” toilet ghost. BC/RC will knock on your cubicle door while your pants are round your ankles and ask if you’d like blue bog roll or red bog roll. Answer “Blue” and you’ll be exsanguinated and left a shrivelled blue shell. Answer “Red” and you will also be exsaguinated. But all over the bathroom walls. Just like Kuchisake Onna, there is no right answer, just pray you never need to use a Japanese bathroom alone at night…

Teke Teke, Onibaba, Moku Moku Ren and all manner of Yokai have their origins in Japanese folk lore that then mutate in modern Pop Culture and Urban Legend.

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The figure from Japanese folklore who has, in my opinion, had the most influential impact on Japanese modern horror as we know it today is the Yurei. The Yurei is a vengeful female ghost all in white with long black hair. Sound familiar?

Kayako Saeki from Ju-on (The Grudge), Sadako from Ringu (Ring) and all manner of other long-haired white dress wearing vengeful female ghosts have been terrifying audiences across fright flicks from all across Asia since the mid 1990’s and it’s a trope the west have most certainly picked up on in the 2000s. And why not? When done well it is an incredibly effective scare – especially when coupled with a well made film filled with an engaging storyline and a tension built through-out the movie.

However, as much as the Yurei concept put “J-Horror” on the map, I also feel the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and now a lot of critics write off a lot of today’s Asian horror movies as just being further Grudge/Ring knock-offs and the genre has lost a certain amount of weight it would have once carried. I don’t blame them entirely. As an Asian horror movie obsessee, I’ve watched an unfathomable amount of lazy, lack lustre movies where the director clearly thought that chucking a long haired white dress wearing ghost at the end of the movie would distract from lack of plot and intelligence. And it doesn’t. That’s a shame, because the Asian horror genre has some absolutely stunning offerings out there for the spooky aficianado.

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It’s not just movies that have been tainted with darkness, look at some of the manga topics themselves. Even titles not out-and-out horror, series such as Death Note, Assassination Classroom, Battle Royale – all popular as hell, all about youngsters killing youngsters! In the west we most likely think twice about producing such envelope pushing topics but in Japan, it’s totes fine babes.

Actual horror manga/anime from Japan worth mentioning is Elfin Lied, Attack on Titan, Vampire Knight, Black Butler, Blood the Last Vampire, Tokyo Ghoul, High School of the Dead, Parasyte. All stellar, all spooky in one way or another, and all very, very dark.

My personal favourite horror manga would be “Ibitsu” by Haruto Ryo (I actually just got the the lead Lolita ghost girl from this series tattooed on my arm literally immediately after my panel), “I am a Hero” by Kengo Hanazawa, “Higurashi” by Ryushi07 and “Octopus Girl” by Toru Yamazaku. And of course. Ab. So. Lute. Ly. ANYTHING by Junji Ito. My Junji Ito top three would be Uzumaki, Tomie and his Dissolving Classroom series.

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Junji Ito would be considered one of the “Big Three” of Japanese horror manga. Kazuo Umezu of The Drifting Classroom fame was a massive influence of Ito himself and considered one of the fathers of Japanese horror manga. All-round badass Hideshi Hino was also another influence of Junji Ito (and now one of mine!) who created works such as Hell Baby, Hino Horrors, Panorama of Hell and directed not one but two of the notorious 80’s Japanese video nasty series “Guinea Pig.”

This is all some seriously dark stuff, especially for someone whose first introduction to Japan was Pokémon. And Pokémon is a kid’s show… right? Right? Wrong… Pokémon is just as disturbing and urban legend filled as the next nightmare fuelled creepypasta. But that’s a panel for another day… There we have it, PokéNerds, we hope you enjoyed reading about a very brief history of manga, horror and pop culture as much as we did writing it. Obviously the panel was way more lively than words on a screen can ever be, so close your eyes and imagine you yourself were there… can you hear the screams?

Until next time..

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Disclaimer: All research for this historical talk was done on the internet and through some majorly weeby books in my personal collection. Apart from my own personal opinions about the information presented in this casual, hobbyist blog, I do not claim to have discovered or own any of the historical information nor do I claim it as my own. If anyone has any queries about the bibliography or where I found what, please don’t hesitate to get in touch for clarification. I am by no means an expert or a professional smart person, this panel was hosted as one nerd chatting to a large audience of other nerds and treated as such. Arigato.

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