House of 1000 Manga 10 Great Zombie Manga
by Jason Thompson, Jan 9th 2014
After America, Japan is probably the world's #2 producer of zombies. (The only challenger I can think of is Italy, but most of the great Italian zombie movies were made in the early '80s, long ago.) Beginning with Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay in 1992, Japanese zombie movies have ranged from straightforward Romero-zombie movies like Junk (1999), to trashy zombie comedies like Attack Girls' Swim Team vs. Undead, Big Tits Zombie and pretty much every Yoshihiro Nishimura movie, to creepy serious horror like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo ("Pulse")(2001), which blurs the line between zombies and Japanese ghosts a la Ju-on and The Ring. Perhaps Japan's biggest contribution to World Zombiedom is laying the foundation for the current zombie wave with games like House of the Dead and Resident Evil; in 1998 CAPCOM even hired George Romero, who couldn't find work as a janitor in the US at the time, to direct a pair of TV commercials for Resident Evil 2.
I bring this up because lately I've been working on a huge poster explaining the links between all zombies, so for the past few months my mission has been to absorb as many zombie books, movies, games and comics as possible. And of course, zombie manga. (No, not Manga Zombie.) The past 10 years have witnessed an explosive outbreak of zombie manga: Cradle of Monsters, Broadway of the Dead, Tokyo Summer of the Dead, and countless more. Even Attack on Titan is essentially a mutant zombie story, with humanity cowering behind walls against cannibal humanoids, even though those humanoids are 50 feet tall. (I'd say more, but spoilers spoilers.) And that's just cannibal/killer zombies, not even counting "friendly zombie" manga like Zombie-Loan, Is This a Zombie?, and any old story where the hero or heroine came back from the dead. IMHO, if they're not cannibals, or hideously rotting, it doesn't count.
But which zombie manga are good? Or at least, interesting? Here's 10 zombie manga, some translated, some unlicensed, that are all worth checking out. I haven't listed action manga that might occasionally include some zombies, like D.Gray-man and One Piece…never mind that tease Zombie Powder whose title tricked me into buying all four volumes without reading them (spoiler: NO ZOMBIES). I've avoided manga about itako, magicians and other people who can talk to the spirits of the dead and solve their dead-people problems, even ones like The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, where the dead people get up and walk around once in awhile. I also haven't listed the obvious one, Highschool of the Dead, because frankly, its just isn't one of my favorites, because of its unoriginal zombies (slow and moany, just like in Max Brooks' books) and the gun-fetishy, cynical, most-people-in-a-disaster-are-idiots-and/or-rapists attitude. (In other words, it's just like bad American zombie fiction, plus the massive fanservice.) But for truly great zombies, run, don't walk, to your nearest BookOff, comic store or Kinokuniya and get bitten by one of these ones. You'll never turn back.
10. Reiko the Zombie Shop (available from Dark Horse)
Bringing back the dead to take care of their issues from life is no big deal. Tons of manga heroes do it. But not all of them can bring back the dead as snarling, savage killer corpses, let alone do it with a short skirt and a decorated cellphone strap, and that's what makes Reiko…Reiko. Bloodsplattered action-horror-comedy (well, you have to squint hard to see the comedy) in the style of Evil Dead and all those Japanese splatter films, Reiko is the story of an antisocial necromancer-for-hire who brings back the dead for profit and revenge. Like the heroine of Eko Eko Azarak, Reiko soon gets entangled fighting a variety of rival magicians, mad scientists, undead serial killers and so on (mostly hot girls, of course). Their weapon of choice is their enslaved undead familiars, who they summon up like decomposing Pokémon or monsters in Yu-Gi-Oh!. I've written about this one before,
but if you want the short pitch, it's maggot-covered undead mayhem from start to finish,
9. Tokyo Zombie (available from Last Gasp)
Yūsaku Hanakuma is not a mainstream mangaka; he's an underground gag manga artist whose heta-uma ("good-bad") artstyle is intentionally crude and childish-looking. In keeping with the Osamu Tezuka "star system," aka "I have a limited number of character designs," his work often features two recurring characters, "Afro" and "Baldy." In Tokyo Zombie, this inept duo are schmoes who work in a fire extinguisher factory and dream of being jujitsu champions, until suddenly zombies start to rise from beneath "Black Fuji," a massive mound of garbage and toxic waste just outside of Tokyo. After the initial scenes of zombies clawing out of the toxic waste dump and doing things like ripping men's penises off, civilization quickly collapses, leaving only a heavily guarded enclave of rich people whose primary entertainment is watching humans fight zombies in gladiatorial pit-fights. Of course "Afro" and "Baldy" are there too, still practicing their jujitsu moves and making fun of one another for being lolicon. It's all good, cheesy, ultraviolent entertainment, and the simple art makes sure you can't get that offended. What's weird is that George Romero used almost the exact same plot in Land of the Dead a few years later.
8. Grand Guignol Orchestra (available from Viz)
Yes, even shojo manga has cannibal zombies! The twist in this manga by Kaori Yuki (Angel Sanctuary) is that the zombie virus turns people into living cannibal puppets, with segmented limbs like marionettes. The heroes are a troupe of musicians who travel a ruined pseudo-Europe, using their magical music to cure and destroy the zombies…a suitably elegant death for a lusciously Gothic zombie apocalypse.
7. Hellsing (available from Dark Horse)
Technically, I'm cheating here since this is not a zombie manga; vampire spawn (people who have been drained by vampires but don't quite become full vampires) probably don't count. But no zombie fan can fail to be awed at the apocalyptic scenes in the last few volumes of Hellsing, when London falls siege to an assault of Nazi vampires whose victims turn into flesh-hungry, undead ghouls. Kohta Hirano delivers amazing levels of detail in page after page of moaning undead with bloody eyesockets crawling all over one another through Trafalgar Square. Still, the climactic battle leaves no doubt whether vampires or zombies are on top of the undead food chain.
6. Life is Dead (unlicensed)
In most zombie media, zombies are irredeemable enemies and zombie-infected people turn quickly, but a few stories, like Life is Dead (and Harold's Going Stiff, and In the Flesh) treat zombie-ism as a medical condition requiring long-term care. In Tomohiro Koizumi's Life is Dead, being a zombie is basically like having AIDS, and the slowly rotting sufferers must take tons of medication and endure societal prejudice while trying to reverse their gradual descent into flesh-eating decrepitude. Oh, also, it's sexually transmitted, and the unemployed seinen hero gets the disease from sleeping with a prostitute, who's still deceptively fresh and non-rotten. Did I mention this is a romantic comedy manga? This short, 18+ (tho' not porny) manga is unlikely to ever be licensed, but it was adapted into a low-budget Japanese movie.
5. Mahō Shōjo of the End (unlicensed)
Any manga that runs in Akita Shoten's Champion series of magazines is, more likely than not, totally twisted. That glorious bad-taste tradition continues with Mahō Shōjo of the End, Kentarō Satō's apocalyptic action-horror manga about an invasion of otherworldly demonesses from whatever abyssal hell-pit Magical Girls come from. It starts suddenly and violently, as a three-foot-tall chibi girl in black taffeta enters the protagonist's high school classroom and starts bludgeoning people to death with a massive wand. The dead students rise as screeching, running zombies, their clothes magically transforming into black Loli-Goth dresses, and as the survivors flee into the streets they see that the sky has opened up and an army of Magical Girls is descending upon Tokyo to eliminate the human race. Zombies are the least of the heroes' problems here; each one of the Magical Girls is an individual precious snowflake with unique magical powers, and to quotethe musical sequence from Dead and Breakfast, "they feel so alive when they kill, kill, kill." Is there any hope for humanity??! If you hate Magical Girls and have ever wanted to see them dismembered and smashed into pieces by every means imaginable, although the Magical Girl Deaths to Human Deaths ratio runs about 1,000,000 to 1, so spoiler alert, things aren't looking great for our heroes. Guns, blood and fanservice runs three inches deep in the streets, making this a great manga for Highschool of the Dead fans who want to move on to something rawer and funnier…too bad it's not licensed.
4. Fort of Apocalypse (available from Crunchyroll Manga)
Zombie filmmakers should know: apocalypses cost money. It's one thing if your film is about an isolated zombie incident, but if your backstory is "the entire world has been taken over by the living dead," it's hard to take your dumb movie seriously if you can only afford to hire three zombies and to film in some crappy abandoned industrial park in Canada or Eastern Europe that was cheap to rent. In manga, on the other hand, the only limit is the artist's skill and imagination, and possibly an extra 100,000 yen a month to hire assistants; you don't need to spend >$100 million for World War Z-esque scene of zillions of zombies rampaging through the world's biggest urban landmarks.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present you Fort of the Apocalypse. A shonen action-horror zombie world-ender, this manga's first twist is that it takes place in a juvenile prison, where the hapless hero has been falsely accused and locked up with teenage thugs from all around the Kanto region. When the viral zombie apocalypse begins, though, imprisoned behind 20-foot stone walls seems like a great place to be, and when prison authority breaks down, our hero and his plucky band of cellmates (all of whom are exactly the kind of cool dudes you'd want at your back in this situation) are the ones who must keep order among the convicts and send an expedition into the flesh-hungry zombie-filled world outside. And there are LOTS of zombies: typical slow, shuffling zombies…doglike fast zombies…and a giant squirming blob, the ultimate (?) form of zombie evolution, a towering pile of bodies merged together into a single being…
In short, this is a super-big-budget zombie movie in manga form. It's still a shonen manga when you look at it closely—it's easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys and the mooks from the important characters—but Fort of the Apocalypse is solid, page-turning zombie pulp. What really surprises me about Fort of Apocalypse is that the same author, Yuu Kuraishi, also wrote My Wife is Wagatsuma-san, a series with a totally different style (and much stronger female characters). Meanwhile, Kazu Inabe's art brings the zombie action. Anyone got a spare $100 million to make the live-action version?
3. Biomega (available from Viz)
The greatest science-fiction virus zombie manga ever. Set a few hundred years in the future, on an Earth of giant skyscrapers and arcologies, Biomega begins with large areas of the planet already overrun by the living dead. The plague seems contained, however—until a floating corpse-satellite begins seeding Earth with zombie spores from orbit, and airborne undeath sprinkles down upon the hapless remnants of humanity. While the Earth dies screaming, a handful of people struggle to survive: some folks in biohazard suits, a scientist with his brain cybernetically implanted into a bear's body (bears are immune, whodathunk) and Zoichi, a synthetic human with superhuman reflexes whose artificial body is immune to the virus. Of course, in the style of Resident Evil, there is an evil conspiracy involved, and the grandmasters of the plan have transformed themselves into tentacled, twisted undead monsters. Tsutomu Nihei (Blame!) was never big on explanations, though, so it's best to accept that not all your questions will be answered and just sit back to watch cyborgs on motorcycles duel with slimy bio-organic mutants as the planet is slowly transformed. And I did say the planet: in Biomega, the very earth and rocks are not safe from zombie infection. Things take a massive 180-degree plot turn right in the middle, but for the first few volumes, this manga is the graphic-novel embodiment of the weirdest zombie video game never made.
2. Living Corpse (available from DH Publishing (out of print))
Yosuke Shinkai wakes up to find himself wandering the streets, sluggish, his memory a blur. People scream and run at the sight of him, and when he looks at his reflection on a window, he sees why: he is gray and bloated, his eyes are glazed over, his touch is cold. He is a Living Corpse, horrified and disgusted by his own condition, with no idea how he got this way. He is soon captured by the police, studied by scientists, vivisected and maimed to find the secret of his living death. In the center of it all, Yosuke tries to remember who he was, to find some meaning to his existence, before his flesh rots away…
The idea of being a conscious mind trapped in a rotting body is a horror staple, but it's a theme one Hideshi Hino (Panorama of Hell,etc.) is especially fond of; his Hell Baby (who's also a cannibal) and the protagonist of Zoroku's Strange Disease also fester horribly. His untranslated manga Kaiki! Shinin Shojo ("Shocking! Dead Girl") is basically a shojo reskinning of this idea. Really, it's a theme that fits Hino like bread fits butter, since no one draws rotting flesh and maggots better than him; it's especially grotesque mixed with his simple, big-eyed character designs. The whole thing takes on an added dimension when you read Hino's afterword, which says he was severely depressed when he wrote it.
1. I am a Hero (unlicensed)
Most Japanese zombie movies, and manga, are a little tongue in cheek. J-zombie films tend to be silly and self-referential rather than dramatic, and manga lends itself to exaggeration so it's hard not to for the author to wink at the reader, especially in a long story arc. Maybe it's impossible to take zombies seriously? Maybe it's just all been done before?
Wrong. Kengo Hanazawa's I am a Hero shows that you can do it straight-up scary and it can be totally amazing. When it starts out, everything seems normal, a typical seinen story set in present-day Japan. The hero, Hideo, is a struggling, scruffy mangaka's assistant who's in his mid-30s but still waiting for his life to start. He's not a total NEET—he's got a girlfriend—but he's sort of a loser, spending his free time at the gun range (he owns a sporting shotgun), often drifting off in a fantasy world. "Fantasy world" is literally the case, since Hideo is plagued by hallucinations. He can function in society, and he knows it's not real, but sometimes he seems things…scary things. Sometimes he spends all night huddled under the blanket, hoping the faces peering from under the bed will go away.
The hallucinations make it hard to trust Hideo's senses when the zombie virus takes over Japan. At first it starts slowly: for almost the entire first volume—for nearly 200 pages—our "hero" doesn't even see a zombie. It starts with rumors of violent incidents, of a flu, of strange YouTube videos: and then, BOOM, in one crazed 24-hour period, the streets of Tokyo are swarming with babbling, running, cannibal monsters, super-strong and super-agile, neither dead nor alive. Even the tiniest drop of bodily fluids will turn you into one of them. Monstrous, relentless, the things take over Japan, while Hideo runs, runs, barely out of reach of the terrible plague that makes his worst nightmares seem like paradise…
I am a Hero is probably the greatest zombie manga ever. It has the slow buildup of a psychological horror manga, but when the zombies hit, they hit hard, and the manga accelerates into volumes-long fight-or-flight sequences that seem like they'll never stop. Hanazawa's combination of grotesque facial expressions and ultra-realistic art makes the apocalypse look real, and he shows his horror-manga mastery with long, wordless cinematic sequences of as many as 10 or 12 pages, showing zombies propagating through a crowd, a corpse rising from a bed, rubbery-limbed ghouls ambushing screaming people. If there's a God of Manga, this series needs to be licensed NOW. Rise from your grave, Osamu Tezuka, and make it so.
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