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The Quiet Terror of PTSD Radio with Eisner-Nominated Horror Manga Creator Masaaki Nakayama

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Horror manga is having a moment. This is in no small part due to a newfound appreciation for the works of Junji Ito, who has become a critical darling after multiple Eisner nominations and a win under his belt. Comic readers are hungry for more grisly tales, and publishers are taking notice of readers' fixation on Ito, opening doors for more experimentation in the publishing space.

Enter Masaaki Nakayama. Nakayama is no newcomer to horror comics, but his work was previously unavailable to English readers. He started his career in 1990 after his entry "Ridatsu" won the runner-up prize in a contest by Kodansha's Afternoon manga magazine in 1988. Another story, "SHUTTERED ROOM," took second place in the 20th annual Tetsuya Chiba Award's general category. He didn't focus solely on horror comics, but his apt eye for short, startling tales came to the forefront with his 2002 manga Fuan no Tane (Seeds of Anxiety). The series, featuring an unsettling face with sideways features, inspired a live-action film by Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night's Toshikazu Nagae starring Anna Ishibana and Kenta Suga.

Fuan no Tane laid the groundwork for what became Nakayama's unique place in the horror manga scene. Short vignettes startle readers with the turn of the page as twisted faces jump from the page. PTSD Radio, first released digitally by Kodansha Comics and later as two-volume omnibus volumes, invites readers to expand their gruesome horizons and discover there's more that this frightful world has to offer. We sat down with Nakayama to discuss his Eisner-nominated series' origins, the strange creatures within the pages, and how the slightest alterations can make for an unsettling monster.

Anime News Network: The term "PTSD," which appears in the English title PTSD Radio, is short for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition in which specific stimuli can cause flashbacks, anxiety, or defensive reactions, among other symptoms. What's the connection between PTSD and your manga?

Masaaki Nakayama: Anyone who's been in a traffic accident, a natural disaster, a war—any situation where they were involved in an unavoidable catastrophe through no fault of their own or suffered in the extreme—will have mental or psychological wounds that aren't going to just go away. This series shows scenes from lives, moments when people going about their daily activities find themselves caught up in natural disasters—crises that intend neither good nor ill but simply are—and watch how they respond. In the middle of it, all is a simple broadcasting station, as innocent as it is creepy, sending out brain waves that might well inflict psychological damage. That's PTSD Radio.

Here and throughout your work, you've proven yourself a master of the jump scare. What's the secret to making this style work?

NAKAYAMA: I hadn't heard the expression “jump scare” [an English expression that has no perfect Japanese equivalent] before. You're right that surprising or frightening the audience is a major element of this kind of work, but sheer terror isn't the only thing I'm going for. I think the biggest thing is to shake readers emotionally, but only ever so slightly. That slight disturbance grows within each reader in its own unique way; that's what's important. What that seed grows into—the direction it takes, how widely it spreads, how deep it goes, how deep it is, its color and smell—are outside of my control, and that's the real key to transmitting a creative work.

What was the genesis of this project, the initial vision? Did you always plan to embed a larger mythos within the story?

NAKAYAMA: This goes back in part to what I said about the last question, but what I wanted for this story was a system with plenty of potential to unsettle readers' emotions and make their imaginations work. You can read the chapters as individual vignettes, as a single connected story, or you can discern certain linear principles behind the ordering. I was careful to make sure that none of those readings was extraneous. I didn't think at all about including any elements of a “mythos.” Make the reader imagine: that was everything.

Were “Ogushi-sama” and faith in this entity based on any real-life belief?

NAKAYAMA: I'm very much interested in folk traditions and the beliefs of Japan's minorities, including mountain worship, as well as Buddhism, Shinto, and the like, but Ogushi-sama wasn't based on any specific real-world belief system.

One interesting thing, though: I assumed everything I was drawing was entirely fictional, but as I started doing research to supplement my work, I found a panoply of strange and surprising connections back to real-world traditions. It was enough to make me wonder sometimes whether something beyond myself was moving me to draw these things.

So, why hair?

NAKAYAMA: Hair holds special meaning in many cultures, not just in Japan. I don't know what the roots of these beliefs are, but hair has an intrinsic power; it doesn't need any explanation. Say you walk into a room and find a few long strands of hair lying there. What's your reaction? “Yikes!” right? In Japan, hair is believed to harbor spiritual power—again, there's just something special about it.

A lot of the horror of this series is produced by grotesque distortions of the human face. Could you walk us through your process for creating a new take on a terrifying face?

NAKAYAMA: I often start by either making things slightly unbalanced or making them unnaturally neat. Sometimes I also include features that I personally find fundamentally, primally unsettling. For example, you know those perfect, straight teeth that Americans like so much? There's something about teeth like that, that have obviously been straightened, that disturbs me. I don't know why.

Faces that are preternaturally symmetrical, like on a mannequin, are also unsettling. I couldn't give you a reason, but it's something that reaches very deep. By the same token, if you take an image that's stable and balanced and upset that balance even slightly, that can be creepy. Try it and see. You know Hello Kitty, right? Her face is basically a mirror image, left and right. Take one of her eyes, just one of them, and make it 0.1 mm larger. It suddenly looks very weird.

I follow principles like that, going by trial and error until I get something that works.

In between chapters are black pages with snippets of text. They look meaningless at first – or at least, one suspects that decoding them would be very difficult. Was there any intention behind these interconnective phrases?

NAKAYAMA: I think I'm going to keep mum about this one. As I've mentioned, my job is to make space for readers' imaginations, and it would be unfair for me as the author to nip the buds of their ideas by giving some kind of specific answer.

One of the various contrasts in the stories is between ancient traditions and modern-day Japan. (For example, the destruction of images, the development of land, and the discovery of old, sacred objects.) Was this intentional, and what message were you trying to send?

NAKAYAMA: There's no particular message. The commingling of past and present simply shows that wills can be connected across time and space.

The various eerie things that appear in PTSD Radio aren't given names in the story, but do you have names that you personally use for them?

NAKAYAMA: No, not to speak of. My feeling is that if someone encountering one of those apparitions was able to give it a name, it would suggest they had the mental or psychological bandwidth left to do so – but I don't think they do, or would. I simply speak on behalf of the characters, so I don't know anything they don't know.

PTSD Radio includes several recurring characters and story threads. How do you keep track of all the various moving parts?

NAKAYAMA: This is embarrassing, but I don't, not entirely. I see part of the chronology, and I try to fill in the gaps until I start to get a better sense of what's going on. Then I do that over and over.

What first got you interested in the horror genre? What was the first work of horror that truly made you feel scared?

NAKAYAMA: When I was a kid, my uncle on my father's side got me and a bunch of my cousins together at my grandma's house to tell scary stories, and that's where my interest started. As a matter of fact, though, I'm quite the scaredy-cat! I can't bring myself to watch horror movies or TV horror series. I won't go into haunted houses, and I'm too scared by other horror manga to read anything but my own work! Maybe it's because I'm so readily scared that I'm so full of frightening ideas—it might be exactly what enables me to create these stories.

What advice do you have for us if we ever meet an evil spirit?

NAKAYAMA: Hmm… I'm no exorcist, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think if you run into a being like that, the best thing to do is not to take it too seriously. Most of them are just figments of your imagination. Most of them…probably…

PTSD Radio volumes 1-6 are currently available in print as three omnibus volumes from Kodansha Comics. You can read our review of the digital version here and in the Fall 2022 Manga Guide.

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