Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Episode XLX: Reiko the Zombie Shop
"Time to party! You guys love rotting flesh?"
"How 'bout that glorious smell of corpses!"
—Reiko the Zombie Shop
Traditionally, horror manga is sort of a shojo thing. All the major horror mangaka from the Golden Age of manga, such as Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino, did most of their early work in shojo magazines, back in the day when Japanese boys were too macho to openly enjoy spooky stories unless they involved yokai. The shojo magazine Gekkan Halloween was king of Japanese horror in the '80s and '90s, and still lives on (sort of) in the magazine Nemuki, short for Nemurenu Yoru no Kimyo Hanashi, "Strange Tales for Sleepless Nights." While Japanese boys were busy playing baseball, soccer, fighting and reading panty-shot manga, girls were exploring the nethermost hell-pits of fear.
But the splatter movie boom of the '80s made action-horror a popular genre for both genders, expressed in manga through things like Berserk, Hellsing, and many grisly manga from seinen magazines like Champion RED and Comic Birz. Shojo horror manga became more graphic as well—just as graphic as its male counterpart—although there was always something uniquely shojo about the plot-driven anthology horror format, with its undertones of psychological horror and revenge (for example: Hell Girl, Nightmare Inspector, Petshop of Horrors, and manga like Ogre Slayer and xxxHOLiC, drawn by female mangaka for men's magazines).
Reiko the Zombie Shop, drawn by Rei Mikamoto for the shojo-ish magazine Horror M ("Horror Mystery"), is sort of a fusion between these two types of horror—or a Frankensteinian stitched-together monstrosity. It's an ultraviolent horror action comedy, a manga about serial killers, living corpses, maggots and necromancers with big breasts. You can call it horror, but at its heart, it's more gory than scary. To create truly scary manga (or movies, or books) you have to either introduce likeable characters who the reader will empathize with, or create a situation so believable and immersive it's like the reader is really there. But for gore, you just have to show people killed and brutalized in various nasty ways. Of course, even with gore, most of the thrill is in the anticipation; once the death actually takes place, the impact goes away, and the only way to keep the momentum is to keep throwing out more and more crazy, splattery deaths. But this is just what Reiko does, and oh it does it so well.
Reiko, the heroine ("zombie shop" from the Japanese-English zombie-ya, ya meaning "shop" or "dealer") is a teenage necromancer for hire. With the pentagram on her palm and a special incantation ("Oh Satan, lord of demons! Hear my prayer!"), she brings the dead back to life as slowly decaying zombies. But she's not out to raise an army of corpses or anything creepy like that; she's just in it for the money. (Although she's nice enough to raise a dead puppy she finds in the street, just because. Of course, it'll just rot again, but…) She raises the dead so that people can say a last farewell to their loved ones, or solve some mystery about the circumstances of their death; then she reverses the spell and sends them back to the grave. Then she goes back to calmly blowing her bubblegum, or occasionally calmly kicking the ass of someone who bothered her. She's not a cold-hearted antihero per se, but calm is her middle name.
But the dead aren't so calm. In fact, when they're brought back to life, they almost ALWAYS immediately go violently nuts. For this reason, Reiko usually chains up corpses before she resurrects them, but if the chains were enough, there wouldn't be a manga. Released by Reiko's magic, the vengeful dead lash out at those who tormented them when they were alive! There's a strong school-horror flavor in the early chapters, which often involve situations such as child abuse, teen pregnancy, visual kei singers, stalkers and so on. ("An accident?! You gotta be joking! Rika, you threw her down the stairs, didn't you, bitch?" "Oh, whatever! You owed her money! Was it worth killing her for that Hermes bag, you tramp?") The anger of jealous lovers and bullying classmates erupts into gory violence, and although these zombies don't infect you by biting you, you can't stop them even by shooting them in the brain! "The combat abilities and fighting instinct of zombies far exceed those of even trained humans!" says Reiko. Spilling blood and guts from gaping wounds, again and again the zombies go wild with vengeance, and Reiko somehow never QUITE manages to cast the de-zombifying incantation in time.
Reiko doesn't remind me of any particular manga as much as it reminds me of splatter films like Reanimator and Deadalive, with that same blend of graphic gore and winking-at-the-audience self-referentiality. There's a faint Western influence on display, not just in the infrequent references to American pop culture ("I don't have any time to screw around, 'cause The Road Warrior's on TV tonight!"), but also in the thick-lined artwork and extreme camera angles, which remind me of American comics. The gore is over-the-top from page one: bodies are torn in half by plane propellers. Scissors go into people's eyes. A serial killer cuts out a woman's intestines while she's still alive and forces her to eat them. It isn't just the subject matter that's rotten; the art itself looks somehow unclean, the toothy faces of the zombies and the various crazies are so nasty you want to look away. Good-looking bishonen and bishojo—well, as good-looking as anyone can be with those creepy tiny-pupilled eyes—are perpetually on the brink of flipping over into leering madness. Cute little kids drift helplessly into the story, usually ending up horribly butchered. Nearly everyone is evil. As is often the case with horror manga and comics, when in doubt, you must assume that everyone is homicidally insane, and that the slightest misdeed will be paid back with bloody, squishy murder, like in Tales from the Crypt.
Reiko was probably not intended to be a very long manga; the first volume ends with one of the most amazing "Ha! It's OVER! Try to keep this story going NOW!" moments I've ever read. But then somehow, it keeps going, and the tone switches more and more towards action. In volume 2, we meet Reiko's twin sister Riruka, a necromancer just like her, but more evil. Riruka has sworn to take over the world, and she has zombie partners that she can summon at will out of thin air. (Are they zombies? Ghosts? Who knows?) Reiko, too, develops a zombie partner, the sexy former serial killer Saki. She teams up with some other zombie-summoners, such as hot mercenary Jasmine Mendoza, and they bust into Riruka's mansion fighting their way through an army of zombies! It's zombie vs. zombie vs. hot girls in short skirts!
And just like that, it turns into…a shonen-style action/fighting manga like Pokémon and Shaman King, only with more gore and cheesecake?! But actually, it works pretty well, except for a few bits like the cyber-zombie Queradactylus which seems more like it belongs in Yu-Gi-Oh! than in a zombie manga. (Of course, it's probably intended as a parody, but I came to this manga for ZOMBIES, not dinosaurs!) Reiko never quite becomes a fighting manga because it moves too fast to be a fighting manga; it never really settles down enough for 'battles'; it's always about full-throttle, 65mph entrails and fleshy bits. And swearing. In addition to necromancers and madmen, Reiko and her friends face killer robots, tentacle monsters, zombie knights on horses, zombies on skateboards, zombies in Iron Maidens. It switches between horror and action-horror, gore and silliness: Chikuro, a chubby friendly girl who seems like the only non-homicidal character, tries her best to keep her friends from getting too down while they're facing deranged necromancers and madmen. People fight, die, come back to life, eat ice cream, switch sides, mutate, fight some more, and die again! In Reiko the Zombie Shop, death has little permanent effect on the main characters except to make their breasts bigger.
In short, Reiko the Zombie Shop is a violent fantasy manga about female characters killing each other in crazy ways. (That sentence describes a lot of manga, actually.) The mixture of gore and cuteness, together with the mostly-female cast, makes it feel almost as if Junko Mizuno had teamed up with Quentin Tarantino. And although (as mentioned before) it originally ran in more or less a shojo magazine, there's a certain amount of fanservice as well. Really, the amazing thing is that Mikamoto (male) ever bothered to make Reiko shojo-esque at all; one of his more recent manga, Kyunyu Dragon ("Big Breasts Dragon"), is about strippers fighting zombies, and the live-action film adaptation is being translated this year by Funimation under the name Big Tits Zombie. His other series like Satanister also involve women, nudity and gore. But to the manga's credit, Mikamoto doesn't include much or any non-combat fanservice in Reiko; there's no bath scenes, shower scenes, etc. Perhaps he realizes that his art is just too cartoony and creepy for it to look good, or perhaps he doesn't want to turn off female readers, as part of the delicate balance of keeping the manga from becoming a total sausagefest. (Or perhaps he just can't spare a single page away from the zombies and bloodshed.) Like some American superhero comics, it's really all about the action; it just happens that the heroines all have enormous boobs.
The pleasure of Reiko—if this sounds like your kind of pleasure—is that it's so wild and ruthless and shameless, so eager to kill all its characters and smash all taboos and show cute characters dropping f-bombs and/or turning into raging zombies. It's not really either shonen or shojo; in fact it's anti-shonen, anti-shojo, anti-everything. The heavy spot blacks and forced camera angles sometimes fail to cover up Mikamoto's artistic limitations in perspective and anatomy (ironically, since anatomy is splattered all over). But the art mixes cute and gory in entertaining ways. I like the color drawing of Reiko in a swimsuit on the beach shooting a water pistol filled with blood, and I like how Mikamoto can even make a picture of Reiko eating a slice of pizza look gruesome.
The main problem with Reiko I have to mention is: after awhile, the continual over-the-top violence gets a little old. How many ways can you REALLY show human beings torn to pieces, ripped apart, devoured by undead babies, etc.? Well, a lot of ways. But rereading Reiko made me also reread and re-appreciate my tankobons of Katsuhisa Kigitsu's mad-scientist manga Franken Fran, which I like because it's less about plain violence and more about…well, the most disgusting, nasty twist endings you can imagine. Making the characters just a dab more likeable makes their twisted fates that much more awful, and introducing the many possibilities of mad science—and Kigitsu's more versatile art—makes Franken Fran into a rainbow of atrocities while Reiko has just a few colors in its bloody palette. Maybe Reiko is one of those manga which read better in the magazine than in graphic novel format, a monthly helping of gore instead of eating the whole turkey at one sitting. Still, I'm sad we'll probably never see the ending in English, since Da>rk Horse only translated six volumes out of the 11 volumes which ran in Japan from 1998 to 2004. (The English edition stops right on a cliffhanger, too!) I'm glad they didn't make it scratch-and-sniff like DMP's edition of Antique Bakery, though.
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history