Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Parasyte
by Jason Thompson, Jul 5th 2012
Episode CXII: Parasyte
They drift down from the skies like dandelion seeds: little filmy spores, almost too small to see. When they hit the ground, they crack open revealing transparent worms with screw-shaped heads, which crawl into houses, crawl into people's ears, and into their brains. Then they become the brain. The person is dead; all that is left is their body, with an alien thing riding on top of it, a shapeshifting blob that mimics a human head.
Shinichi is lying in his bedroom, listening to music, when they attack. He is saved because he has headphones in his ears; the worm tries to crawl down his nose instead but he feels it and tugs it away. As he opens his eyes and realizes what's going on, it jumps onto his right hand and starts boring into his arm. He screams and screams, but by the time his parents rush into the room asking what's happened, the wound has sealed, his arm seems normal and the worm is gone.
Did he just imagine it? The next day at school, his right arm starts acting strange, moving out of his control, stretching in weird ways, groping things. (This is particularly bad in the men's restroom.) When thugs try to beat him up, his arm defends him, beating them senseless with incredible speed. Certain that something is wrong, he goes home and prepares to cut his hand with a kitchen knife, but before he can stab it, his fingers turn into eyestalks and his palm splits open into a mouth with teeth. "Wh…where's my hand?" he asks. "I ate it," the mouth says.
And so begins the strange partnership of Shinichi and Migi ("right": the Parasytes don't believe in names), the monster which has replaced his right arm. Shinichi is a one-in-a-million case; most of the aliens have consumed the brains of their hosts, but by pure luck, he escaped and the two of them must share a body. It's symbiosis instead of parasitism. ("What a pity," Migi sighs. "But we'll just have to learn to coexist.") Migi doesn't know the origins of his species any more than Shinichi does, but both of them soon hear the news about a rash of gruesome cannibal murders around Japan. The other Parasytes are out there, disguised as humans, feeding on human flesh. And Shinichi, with the power of a Parasyte combined with the intelligence of a human mind, may be the only one who can save humanity…
Hitoshi Iwaaki's Parasyte is one of the best "real-world" science fiction manga available in English. One of the first ever "license rescues," it's been published twice, once by Tokyopop and later by Del Rey. Similar to movies such as The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the opening scene when the spores drift down is almost exactly like the 1978 film), Parasyte is horror, part teenage drama, part sci-fi. Iwaaki, a seinen artist currently working on the ancient Greek historical drama Historie, has a restrained, realistic-but-simple style, somehow keeping it classy (but not dry or unemotional) even when blood and guts are splashing all over the page and people's heads are sprouting eyestalks and tentacles and popping open like corkscrews. It's an ultra-violent manga, and sometimes a scary manga, but somehow it's not a gratuitous manga, like Warriors of Tao or Arm of Kannon.
It's not predictable either; at first it seems like it might be a monster-of-the-week story where Shinichi and Migi defeat one Parasyte after another, but Iwaaki's much too smart for that. This isn't a shonen manga about a boy and his lovable monster; like the Body Snatchers, the Parasytes don't need love. Although he's pretty freaked out, Shinichi keeps Migi's existence a secret, not wanting his arm to be cut off or his family to be endangered. Although he is only a few days old, Migi is as smart as an adult (so much for superior human intelligence) and curious about the world; he especially likes reading books of animal anatomy, so he can mimic the different limbs and body types. They come to an agreement: when they are alone, Migi stretches into strange shapes and does what he wants, but when Shinichi is in public (at school, for instance), Migi goes to sleep so that Shinichi regains feeling in his arm and can use it like normal.
It all works out somehow, and it's even a little funny…until other Parasytes start coming by, sensing the presence of one of their kind. One Parasyte has accidentally fused with a dog instead of a human (another probable 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers reference). Most of the others have absorbed human brains, developing a desire to hunt and eat human flesh. To them, Migi and Shinichi are at best an amusing curiosity, and at worst a mistake that needs to be erased.
At first, Shinichi is terrified that Migi will betray him and join up with the other Parasytes. But he soon realizes he's safe for all the wrong reasons: Migi doesn't care about any of the other Parasytes, because Migi doesn't care about anything but itself. When Shinichi threatens to go to the cops and tell the whole world about the Parasytes, Migi threatens him right back. ("There's a lot I can do to you without killing you. I can destroy your eyes and ears…I can cut up your face…what's wrong? Your heartrate is increasing…why don't you take a nap?") When Shinichi wants to tell his friends about the Parasyte, Migi threatens to kill them too. ("I'm sure you don't want to watch your hand start cutting people in half.") The Parasytes aren't mammals or birds with emotions and tribal/family instincts: they're cold-blooded creatures, like a praying mantis, a spider. Migi fights to survive, when they are attacked, but he adamantly refuses to let Shinichi tell the world about Parasytes, or join any grand scheme to "save humanity." "The part of the human mind I find hardest to understand is self-sacrifice," Migi says. Are they truly partners, or is Shinichi a prisoner in his own body?
The Parasytes are some of the most interesting manga monsters I've ever seen. In his author's notes, Iwaaki writes that he tried to make the Parasytes "both scary and a little humorous." Certainly, the Parasytes never look "diseased" or "gross", with slimy textures and weird stuff sticking out just for decoration, like some of the things H.R. Giger draws: they look natural. (Incidentally, according to a New Yorker interview, "natural" was also one of Guillermo Del Toro's guidelines for designing the shapeshifting shoggoths in his aborted film adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness.) The horror comes from seeing normal-looking human faces transform into alien shapes (like on the creepy front covers of the Del Rey edition), but when the transformations are finished, their forms are actually simple and streamlined (logically, and also conveniently for Iwaaki's art style). Their main weapon is their speed; moving too fast for the human eye to follow, their heads turn into tentacles like long lashing sword-whips, slicing people to pieces. They can dodge bullets (sometimes) and catch knives and swords in mid-swing. Their only real vulnerability is the human part of their bodies, but being impervious to pain, they can keep going for a long time even when their human body has been mutilated. In one scene, a Parasyte turns its entire head into a whirling propellor and carves up the head of a lion: the apex predator finally met something higher up on the apex.
But although the Parasytes may be the cool-looking ones, the humans are the real characters. After all, Parasytes cannot suffer. Refreshingly for manga, Shinichi is actually a pretty normal teenage guy, neither a wimp nor a super-badass, and Parasyte is his coming-of-age story. One of the first symptoms is, since he's "eating for two," his appetite increases. He learns how to fight alongside Migi, to defend himself. Having a Parasyte doesn't just mean he has one really strong arm: gradually, a bit of the Parasyte's inhumanity rubs off on him, and when he gets angry, he has a cold predator's stare.
The experiences of killing monsters and watching people die—including people he loves—changes Shinichi into a harder person. On the other hand, it also attracts girls, including Satomi, the archetypal girl next door, and Kana, a tough girl who's intrigued by Shinichi's new wildness. ("So calm and strong…like someone else…" "It just doesn't shock you much when people die now, does it?") Like other superheroes, Shinichi worries whether his new powers are making him less human, and whether he will frighten and disgust the people he loves; one scene in Parasyte is almost identical to a scene from Ryoichi Ikegami's Spider-Man manga. There's zero fanservice in Parasyte, although there are one or two…I mean literally two…sex jokes, like when Migi senses Shinichi's intentions and asks if he can watch ("You want to mate with that female, don't you?"). And of course there's the "Migi turns into an enormous penis" panel, which, oddly, was apparently one of the first scenes Iwaaki envisioned for the manga. It's the only dirty scene, so apparently readers didn't besiege Afternoon magazine with fan mail asking for more transforming penises.
Through adversity and tragedy—major, heartbreaking tragedy—Shinichi transforms and grows stronger, and his own body becomes a strange melting-pot of Parasyte and human. But he and Migi are a special case, and the real battle of the story is the battle between Parasytes and normal humans, who are hapless against Parasytes one-on-one but are dangerous to them in large numbers. As the series goes on, the government starts to figure out the truth about Parasytes, and secretly mobilizes forces to locate and kill them. There are mass battle scenes with dozens of SWAT team members trying to kill Parasytes. Meanwhile, the Parasytes begin to develop distinct personalities and become different from one another. "Humans are one life form consisting of hundreds of thousands of millions. Humans have a larger mind outside of their own head, and if we go against that we will fail," says Ryôko Tamiya, one of the smartest Parasytes, who is fascinated by humans. One of her first actions is to leave Migi and Shinichi alone, because she is curious what will happen to them. A scientist at heart, she experiments by having sex with another Parasyte and discovers the obvious: the baby she becomes pregnant with is a human, not a Parasyte. In one of the most disturbing scenes in a manga full of decapitation and disembowelings, she leaves the crying baby alone in a closet, because she simply has no instinct to care for it. And yet, alone among all the Parasytes, Ryoko comes the closest to understanding humans—even closer than Migi.
Future Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy liked Parasyte so much, he planned to publish it as an online comic, back in 1996 before Tokyopop even existed. He eventually published it in 1997 as one of the first titles in the shojo/shonen/seinen manga anthology Mixxzine, where its gory dismemberment scenes pissed off people who had bought the magazine to read Sailor Moon. (They censored the penis, though.) Probably due to Levy pitching it to Hollywood, Parasyte was always surrounded by rumors that it would be made into a film: the most recent news, as of 2005, was that it would be a Japanese-American coproduction funded by New Line Pictures and the Jim Henson Company (for the special effects—heck yeah, animatronics!!) and directed by J-horror director Takashi Shimizu. But seven years later, nothing's happened, so it's probably stuck at the bottom of some executive's desk drawer, beneath the script for the live-action Akira movie.
Another movie director who was briefly attached to Parasyte was James Cameron. Interestingly, there's a possibility that Cameron was already influenced by Parasyte when he made his own movie about a shapeshifting killer, Terminator 2. At least, Hitoshi Iwaaki thinks so. "This summer I met a major film director in Los Angeles, and he loved Parasyte, too!" a reader wrote to Iwaaki in 1991, as printed in volume 2 of the Del Rey edition. "The best movie I saw recently was Terminator 2," wrote Iwaaki in 1992."The transformation scenes made me laugh, reminding me of Parasyte. Soon, no one will remember which came first, but I hope nobody accuses me of stealing the idea." Was Cameron really inspired by Parasyte? It seems unlikely to me, because the time window between the first publication of Parasyte in Japan (January 1990) and the greenlighting of Terminator 2 (in late 1990) is pretty small. But Cameron is a known fan of Battle Angel Alita, another manga movie that's probably never going to get made (possibly for the better), so who knows?
If I have one regret about Parasyte it's that Iwaaki leaves some big unanswered questions about the aliens: mainly, he never tells us where they came from. (Or how they breed, if they do breed; it's kind of a weak invasion if there's no way to replace them when they die off.) (SPOILERS) Only the author's notes in the Del Rey edition really explain the truth: the Parasytes aren't actually aliens, they're some new kind of species from Earth. "If you actually read the narration, they were intended to have been created somewhere on Earth," writes Iwaaki in volume 5. "Since they did fall out of the sky, I can see why people thought that…but they were just being carried by the wind." Looking back, the opening narration, which seemed like rhetorical questions the first time I read it, pretty much confirms that the Parasytes are artificial life forms specifically created by who-knows-what to reduce the human population. ("Somewhere on Earth, someone was thinking…if half of humanity disappeared, would half of the forests be saved? If 99% of humanity disappeared, would pollution be reduced 99%?") But Iwaaki never actually explains this, just like he never shows us Migi having some kind of weird alien egg-fertilizing orgy at the end of Shinichi's arm (or penis, as the case may be).
On the one hand, Parasyte is a fairly simple story. It's essentially an environmental/animal-rights tale, pointing out that humans are just part of the food chain, and that there's nothing immoral about Parasytes eating humans ("If you think of humans as equal to cows, or pigs, or fish, then humans are eating bits of chopped-up animals every day.") There is no grand revelation or final battle; the ending implies that Parasytes end up fitting into the food chain of Earth like any other animal, hunting and hiding from the police and governmental organizations who are aware of them, in a wary stalemate with human beings. Ultimately, it seems, Iwaaki just wasn't that interested in the sci-fi nitty-gritty aspect of the series (or maybe he liked keeping the mystery), and there will never be a Parasyte 2 where the heroes break into the lab that was making the Parasytes and confront the mad scientist and figure out what was going on. The real climax of the story isn't about huge battle scenes, or a fight between Shinichi and some Boss Parasyte, but human questions of cruelty and kindness, and the old manga moral dilemma of "Do I fight to save the world, or do I fight to protect the ones I love?" It's the way the question's asked, not the answer, that makes this manga so good. And of course, the monsters.
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