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House of 1000 Manga
Manga Hell, Part I

by Jason Thompson,

Manga Hell: Part I

Every manga fan knows what hell is like: it's a place where King Enma judges the dead and they're tortured by red-skinned oni with spiky clubs. Or it's a place where moe-looking horned devils scamper around and fight snobby angels who are the real bad guys. It's a place infested by hapless human souls in the form of little penguins with peg legs. It's called the Makai or the Netherworld or the Shadow Realm, depending on how heavily censored the anime version is.

Except it isn't. Forget everything you know from Disgaea and think more Manga Messiah. We're talking about Christian Hell. Dante Aligheri (1265-1321), an Italian poet, beheld Hell and wrote about it in the Inferno, an epic poem which has gone on to become the blueprint for the world of devils and demons as well as several video games. Hell isn't some place you just hang out for awhile, Buddhism-style, until you get bashed in the head enough by sexy devils and get resurrected. Hell is permanent, unless of course you're a Bronze Saint and you're tough enough to beat up everyone in Hellfollowed by Hades himself. You go to Hell when you die and you stay there, suffering eternal punishment in nine different levels based on the sins you committed in life. And if you are a manga, you go to Manga Hell.

Manga Hell, of course, is where all the most sinful manga in existence burn perpetually according to the scheme devised by Carl Gustav Horn and Medieval theologians. Note that I don't say “worst,” I say “most sinful,” although most of them are indeed manga that you'd want to loan to someone if you wanted to make them hate manga for the rest of their life and try to get it taken out of the school library. I first explored Manga Hell over 10 years ago, in an article in the final issue of Viz's magazine PULP, but Manga Hell has grown a thousandfold since then. Dante's guide to Hell was Virgil, the Roman poet, but our guide will be Yotsuba, temporarily released from the 3rd Circle of Hell to show us sights of torture with her usual childlike wonder. Join me now as I reenter the desolate wood that leads to Hell, pasts the ruins of broken manga empires, into the depths of…

In Dante's Inferno, the first, tamest level of Hell is reserved for the “virtuous pagans,” people who are basically good but can't go to Heaven because they weren't Christians. In Manga Hell, the first level of Hell is reserved for ‘manga’ that are basically good, even awesome, but can't get any love because they're not drawn by Japanese people. (The worst OEL manga aren't here, having sunk to lower depths. We'll get to them later.)

Yes, in the racialized schema of Manga Hell, the very best of ‘American manga,’ ‘OEL manga’ and ‘global manga’ exist semi-happily in a Limbo of mediocre book sales, hopeful but ultimately disappointing weekends at Artists Alley, soul-searching moments of considering whether to totally change their art style, and awkward weekends with their relatives at Thanksgiving trying to explain to them what they do for a living. It could be worse, though. American mangaka who try to write from the perspective of Japanese teenagers, like Red String and Megatokyo, or who write about ninja and samurai while talking about their “deep respect for the mystical and cultural roots of Japanese culture,” suffer a more awful fate: they grow freckles and are forced to wear the American flag, eat nothing but apple pie, hamburgers and hot dogs, and be eternal roommates with Japanese manga about the exotic lives of Americans, like Mad Bull 34 and Cipher.

Here dwell the most boring and bland manga ever written, perpetually trying to finish reading dull tankobon but falling asleep in the middle and accidentally rereading the same place over and over. The dullest manga, of course, are mostly ‘educational’ manga, such as the Project X series of manga infomercials (Project X: Cup Noodle!!) and Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World's Most Successful Investor, which is actually much better than it sounds. In the dingiest pile of sleeping bodies rests Shinichi Yano's New Lanchester Strategy, a Japanese sales and marketing strategy guide (manga style!!) based on the military theories of Frederick W. Lanchester (1868-1946). In other words, the “Lanchester strategy” is the exact mirror image of how Western businessmen think it's cool and exotic to base their business strategies on Sun Tzu's Art of War, and thus this obscure manga is also showered with pie crumbs and bits of ketchup-smeared hot dog buns thrown down from Circle 1.

Here, in the most overcrowded circle of Hell, reside porn manga, tormented by rains of fire, ash, and used tissue paper. Because they're openly just about sex, however, they're spared the really bad torments of the 8th Circle.

One thing that manga shows that American comics almost never show is the simple pleasures of everyday life. In America, it's a big deal to see the Avengers eating shawarma for five seconds, but in Japan, it's common to see characters making food, sitting down for dinner together, enjoying a nice cup of tea, or relaxing a grassy hillside enjoying a summer evening.

The Gluttons are manga where this all goes horribly wrong. Foremost among them is every manga that shows characters fighting over food (“Grrr! Give me the last piece of shabu shabu! I'll literally grab it out of your mouth! Grrr! BTW, I'm supposed to be 18 years old!”), or he-larious jokes about women who can't cook, such as Hajime Kanazaka's Slayers (“It's a wonder you're so flat-chested when you eat that much!”) and Hitoshi Okuda's Tenchi Muyo! manga. (I know both these examples are from the ‘90s and there's many non-old manga that have these same tropes, especially shonen manga, but over the years I've gotten good at identifying and avoiding them.) Also among the Gluttons are those lazy “happy everyday life” manga that intentionally avoid any drama or conflict, such as Someday's Dreamers, Oh My Goddess! and Aria and Aqua. Hayao Miyazaki can get away with this if he wants to, of course, because in Studio Ghibli movies even chopping a bunch of greens for dinner is incredibly fascinating (OMG look how THE GREENS ARE PUSHED DOWN BY THE KNIFE FOR A SECOND BEFORE THE KNIFE SPLITS THEM!!!), but in other creators’ hands it's usually just boring. (Unless it's a cooking manga. Including a recipe and photorealistic food drawings is clearly a free pass to Manga Heaven.)

The 3rd Circle is vast. There is a special place in it for mangaka who always write about the most mundane uninteresting stuff in their authors’ notes, even though the content of their manga is intense and exciting (in a comic which I can't find online anymore, Erin Finnegan fantasized about beating the crap out of Masami Tsuda for her notes in Kare Kano: “In volume 15 you had a mother stabbing a four year old with scissors and in your freetalk section you said ‘I've come to realize I'm really into cloth.’ WTF?!?!”). There is also a whole sub-circle for moe manga about the adorable, sweet, nothing-ever-happens lives of pubescent girls, such as Sunshine Sketch, K-ON!, Strawberry Marshmallow and all the rest. The boss of this level of Hell may be Hai Ran's Tori Koro,but the competition is fierce. Hordes of moe heroines wander in little rows through the 3rd Circle, in groups of four, tripping and showing their panties, complaining about their weight.

If you're an artist who just wants to get rich, there was once a time when manga was the dominant source of licensed properties in Japan. In Kentaro Takekuma and Koji Aihara's Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, drawn in the manga boom of the ‘80s, the characters dream of making it big: “The supplementary income from merchandising far surpasses what you'd make off the original manga itself! You just sit on your ass and the licensing fees come pouring in!”

The Circle of Greed contains all the super-successful, money-farm manga that never ended and kept on going until all interest and personality had been drained out of them and their creators were forgotten, like Bleach, or that shonen fantasy manga by what's-her-name who did Maison Ikkoku and Urusei Yatsura 20+ years ago. Sloshing through a Scrooge McDuck-like swamp of money, the artists must carry their editors with them, tied to them by golden chains and continually whispering in their ears suggesting that maybe Goku should come back again and maybe Kamiya Kaoru shouldn't really be dead. Also doomed to wander the circle of Greed are all the manga that were put on ‘hiatus’ or ended abruptly without resolving anything, like Bus Gamer, Alichino, NANA, Hataraki Man, Kaze no Hana, Sequence, R2: Rise to the Second Power, and almost every manga by Yukiru Sugisaki.

But as the manga industry has receded in the past 20 years, manga—tho’ still a powerful moneymaking force—has dwindled in importance compared to other license farms, like video games. Or light novels, which are faster to produce than manga, since writing is quicker than writing + drawing. As original manga's star has faded, like in the last days of Tokyopop and Del Rey Manga in the US, a new star has risen: manga adaptations of preexisting properties from other media! Of course, like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of someone's butt, most of them are horrible shapeless abominations. Mercifully forgotten by most people as soon as you stop looking at them, like the Silence in Doctor Who, they exist to drain money from human beings and then go die in a puddle of water in a tree stump where their bloated abdomens rupture, releasing thousands of larval spinoffs of Alice in the Country of Hearts, Is This a Zombie?, Shakugan no Shana and Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Some of the most active of this short-lived but prolific breed are the many Galaxy Angel and Di Gi Charat adaptations. Di Gi Charat, of course, is a manga about a character created as a store advertising mascot, so you know it's good. Viz's Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie: Official Comic Adaptation says it all with its title: it's a COMIC based on a MOVIE based on a VIDEO GAME. Licensed adaptations generally have rotten artwork: Horumarin's Medabots manga, Keiko Okamoto's Corrector Yui, and the Coyote Ragtime Show manga (drawn by “Tartan Check,” a creator who apparently puts more time into thinking of weird pen names than into drawing) all stagger the mind with their particularly unique styles of awfulness. Many of these manga are drawn in children's magazines such as CoroCoro Comic, on the time-honored “little kids don't care how bad the art is” philosophy. Following this slime trail back in time to the source leads to the crowningly hellish 1950s akahon “red-book” manga (not based on any license, but in Greed Hell just the same) discovered fossilized in solid rock in a Tokyo bookstore by Ryan Holmberg.

I actually don't have any problem with graphic violence or kinky sex, but if these manga want so bad to be in Hell, who am I to stop them? Many of the most extremely violent manga, like Ichi the Killer, have never been translated. But the extreme gore of MPD-Psycho, Apocalypse Zeroand Warriors of Tao are proof that in the mid-2000s, a few breast-eating scenes didn't necessarily mean your manga couldn't get sold at Borders.

There is a champion of guro/gorn manga, however, one who brutally maims all would-be challengers, and that is Masahiko Takajō and Tetsuya Saruwatari's 1988-1990 Violence Hero Riki-Oh (interestingly categorized by Anime News Network's Encyclopedia as “action, slice of life,” but perhaps they mean ‘slice’ literally). Known to many from the equally gory 1991 Hong Kong live-action movie, Riki-Oh is the bloodsoaked story of an incredibly strong dude who fights for justice in a dystopian world where human flesh tears apart at the slightest touch.

Any horrible thing you can imagine happening to the human body has already been drawn in Riki-Oh!. Riki punches a dude's face off. He punches a dude through the bottom of his jaw so that Riki's fist comes out the guy's mouth. He pushes a dude into a meat grinder (the dude continues fighting Riki even as his lower body is turned into ground flesh). He gets a handful of razor blades shoved into his mouth and then the bad guys tape his mouth shut and beat him in the face repeatedly. Of course, like a truly good hero, Riki also has the power to heal: in one scene when his arm tendons are severed he reaches into his arm with with his teeth, pulls his tendons out, and ties them together so he can keep on fighting. In a shocking twist which, were it released today in English, would make Macklemore's taste in costumes seem trivial, it eventually turns out that Riki's secret sign of power is the Star of David birthmark on his hand; Riki is half-Jewish and his evil brother, who has a Swastika birthmark, is his ultimate rival. WHOA!!! But Saruwatari and Takajo aren't really drawing as an expression of Anti-Semitism like, say, Ichiro Sakano's “the Jews are taking over Japan” anime (later manga) Angel Cop; they're just in it for the gore. You can tell from a scene set in a graveyard, when all the tombstones have English-language text on them…random phrases from anatomy textbooks, probably Saruwatari's reference material.

In Masakazu Yamaguchi's Arm of Kannon, the main character is subjected to a scientific experiment which turns him into a biological super-weapon. One side effect is that, when he's doped into unconsciousness and strapped naked to a gurney by the evil experimenters, he has a wet dream and the scientists gasp in awe as he ejaculates gallons of semen which flood all over the operating table. (Fun fact: before reading it closely, Tokyopop executives wanted to give this manga a 16+ rating!) This leads us past the guro manga, to the other perverted pleasures of the flesh.

Oreimo is here, of course, along with I Don't Like You At All, Big Brother!! and all the other sibling-incest-fetish manga. (Including of course the shojo ones, like Cherry Juice and Aoki Kotomi's I'm in Love With My Little Sister.) There are the truly imaginative fetish manga, such as Qwaser of Stigmata, whose hero recharges his powers by breastfeeding. There are also the thousands of lolicon and borderline-lolicon manga, such as Kanna, Gunslinger Girl, Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase and countless other stories involving adult men who end up as protectors and guardians of little girls. It's almost a relief to find a manga like Nymphet that's actually open about its subject matter (it's still in Hell, of course) instead of dancing around it. In the world of manga, of course, sexual feelings (or actions) towards prepubescents are considered to be a mild social faux pas on the level of getting a traffic ticket. Of course, such pseudo-pedo manga aren't just about underage girls, and they aren't always considered to be borderline, otakus-only titles. In a blog post, the late Toren Smith commented snarkily about Negima: “I found myself wondering how the steely-eyed ‘save the underage kids’ crowd would react to a gender-reversed version of Negima. You know, one in which a 9 year old girl was sent to teach at an all-boys junior high school and despite being unwilling, was constantly besieged with sexual come-ons and surrounded by a mass of horny boys showing her their underwear and waving their dicks at her.”

You might think that Japanese and American creators working together could produce truly wonderful works. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they produce horrifying hybrids like Jerry Robinson's Astra, a manga (later a musical!!) about a planet of Amazonian women who must travel to Earth in search of sperm to breed. Terrible pseudo-manga like the “Marvel Mangaverse,” Shi and Executive Assistant Iris are condemned here. It's amazing that at one point in the late ‘90s, Marvel Comics was so desperate that they actually translated the abysmal X-Men Manga. Devil, a Dark Horse miniseries in which a team of cops must stop demons from raping human women and causing them to explode, was a total waste of the artistic talent of Torajiro Kishi (Maka Maka).

The absolute worst US/Japanese coproduction, however, is Pikachu Meets the Press: A Pokémon Newspaper Strip Collection. It must have seemed like a promising idea: Benimaru Itoh, an artist who used to draw in Nintendo Power! Gerard Jones, the author, a super cool dude who wrote the ‘history of superhero comics creators’ Men of Tomorrow, the anti-censorship book Killing Monsters, Batman graphic novels and tons of manga rewrites! Somehow, however, combining these two elements created a toxic chemical cloud of anti-humor. The fake “American-y” art style Itoh affected was also a disappointment, like if you hire Salt ‘n Pepa to do a rap performance but “Salt” doesn't want to sing her old songs anymore because she's converted to fundamentalist Christianity. 

NEXT WEEK: The descent into Hell continues! Three Circles left! What manga do YOU think should be in Manga Hell?

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