Dark Plots in Manga Land
If it's serial killers and unconscious monsters that you want, the following dark manga will leave your head in a satisfying knot.
In the west, anime and manga have been traditionally considered the pastime of lovesick girls and action-addicted young men, but as companies broaden their horizons, manga has been creeping past the border that is decidedly darker and more adult. Shounen and Shoujo may be able to accurately describe a large number of what's on store shelves, but those labels have never been able to do justice for the variety of manga, and more and more titles seem to straddle the line between them, if not wipe it out all together.
One genre that seems to be building up presence in the west is the psychological thriller. A battle of wits between a killer armed with supernatural powers and a nameless investigator, the terror of facing the true nature of humanity, tracking the monster created by your own kindness through a trail of dead bodies, these stories sound like they would make a good horror movie, but it's in the world of manga where they've been realized. Shonen fans may like them for the violence and freaky situations. Shoujo lovers might find the characters to be deep and fascinating. All-round manga fans appreciate them because they're just plain good.
There have been manga floating around with a horror bent for a while. A manga adaptation of The Ring and the fishy horror Gyo have been available for a long time, and Diabolo has a lot of gruesome situations, but when it comes to original manga that aims for your mind as violently as your heart, a few titles stand out.
The first two are Monster and 20th Century Boys, both by Naoki Urasawa. In Monster, Doctor Tenma saves the life of a young boy, only to find out that that boy is a genius killer. No one believes Tenma, and he's forced to set off alone in order to find Johan and stop his killing spree. 20th Century Boys is a manga that spans generations, from when a group of children predict the rise of an evil organization, up to long after the time where the prediction comes true, and the niece of one of the group's members is left to solve the mystery of "Friend". Both manga are full of murder, back-stabbing, sabotage, and mind games, but the violence takes a backseat to the characters and their conflicts.
Both manga have a popular following in Japan and abroad. Monster has been adapted into an anime, and rights to a movie has been sold to New Line Cinema, so we may be seeing a live action version (in English even) sometime this decade. 20th Century Boys has gathered itself a large English speaking fan base, even though it doesn't have an anime adaptation to pull people in. Both titles are licensed by VIZ, with Monster being released in October 2005, but no release date has been set yet for 20th Century Boys. The only way to get either at the moment is through scanlation, or, in Monster's case, to watch the anime.
Naoki Urasawa's works have been licensed for a while now, but another mind-bending manga, Death Note, was picked up by VIZ just recently. The first thing that you see on the cover of Death Note is Light Yagami, a handsome, smoldering young man posing with a scythe. His looks are only trumped by his brain, which he wields with the finesse of a sniper rifle and the viciousness of a bazooka. Just by looking at him one would think Death Note was pandering to the pretty boy ooglers. But then, there's the monster behind him. He's blue, bony, and possesses shark teeth and fish lips. One could call him many things, but pretty would not be one of them. This morbid figure is Ryuuku, a shinigami. The story begins when Ryuuku grows bored and allows Light to pick up a Death Note, which gives him the power to kill simply by writing a name and picturing a face.
From there the story takes off, or spirals down, if you prefer, as Light develops a god complex and starts killing off every convict or shady character that he can find. The only thing stopping him from what would amount to world domination is "L", an eccentric guy just as ingenious as Light, who's dedicated to bringing him down.
Like Monster, Death Note deals with a lot of morbid subject matter, but that all takes a back stage to the real meat of the story, which is character interaction. Death Note concentrates so little on the army of people that Light ends up murdering that half of the time the reader only knows that he got a few on Friday, and he's planning to get a few more over the weekend. The whole point of the manga becomes the mind games that Light plays, mostly against "L", and the mental gymnastics that he manages to perform in order to keep killing without getting caught.
Death Note is created by Takeshi Obata, the same manga-ka that wrote the more innocent Hikaru no Go. Unlike Urasawa, who has characters that are essentially good, Obata has readers rooting for the bad guy, not only because he's good at what he does, but because they find themselves almost agreeing with his ideas. This manga has also grown itself a substantial, loyal fanbase, which should be picking up the domestic version some time in October.
The last manga that stands out as a psychological thriller is Homunculus, by Hideo Yamamoto. In it, a man named Susumu Nakoshi undergoes a medical procedure called trepanation, where a hole is poked in the front of his skull to give him a sixth sense. Nakoshi is given the ability to see the side of humanity that it is most desperate to hide, and as everyone around him warps into monsters, he finds himself changing too. But is his change being imposed from the outside, or is it just the dirty parts inside of himself coming out?
This is a manga with a straightforward purpose. It wants to study Man, in particular the nasty, hidden parts of Man that you don't see on the everyday surface. To do that, it doesn't only assail readers with an army of crazy looking monsters, but also gets a little in depth about what all those monsters are supposed to mean. To do this, Yamamoto delves into psychology, to the point where at some moments it feels very much like you're reading an illustrated textbook on the subject. For someone who's looking for a little monster hunting action, Homunculus will be a disappointment. If you would like a more symbolic, character driven story, this may be a good manga to check out.
Unlike Monster, which is a very similar psychological thriller type manga, Homonculus tends to rely a lot more on the shock value of things. Situations are more graphic and blunt. Since Homonculus deals so much with repressed desires and unconscious urges, it's not surprising that sex and violence plays a big part in the story, even though it's more of a shock element than an action element. For example, a girl made of sand annoys Nakoshi to the point where he decides to solidify her by raping her. Monster and Death Note are much more sterile than that.
Hideo Yamamoto is also known for writing the manga Ichi the Killer, or Koroshiya 1, which is a little more violent and little less psychedelic take on the same genre. A movie was made of Koroshiya 1 in 2001, and is considered a very blunt and gruesome thriller. Homonculus isn't as gory as it's predecessor, but it is still being published in Japan, and anything is possible. It's also the only manga of the above group that hasn't been licensed in the U.S.. Both of Yamamoto's manga are currently being scanlated by The Hawks.
Any fan of deep thinking, gut-spilling stories should be looking forward to the eventual release of some very good psychological manga. There are pretty faces and senseless violence in abundance, but above all, these manga are food for the brain. Next time you're looking for a new series to check out, please give these some consideration when, or if, they become available. You might find a lover of dark plots and human monsters lurking inside yourself, just ready to burst out.