Stateside horror fans have long now been able to find the Japanese take on the zombie via US VHS and DVDs. While there were some attempts that felt like a more serious take on the genre, such as 2000’s Versus, many more of the ones that have made their way to these shores were of a slightly less serious nature. We saw a long line of over-the-top or just plain silly (but in some cases still very enjoyable) takes on the zombie with films like 1999’s Wild Zero, 2005’s Tokyo Zombie, 2006’s Zombie Self-Defense Force, 2010’s Big Tits Zombie, 2011’s Zombie Ass, and 2012’s Dead Sushi. Then, there are things like the Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead series; the less said about the better.
Likewise, the Japanese zombie has also been represented in America for years now in translated manga. However, the problem that would occasionally come up for some horror fans with this format was the off-putting art style. A book like Reiko the Zombie Shop presented dark concepts but wrapped them up in an art style that did not work for a lot of hardcore horror fans. Some, like Biomega, nail the art-style needed but end up with mixed to poor reviews from horror fans over the lack of coherent storyline. But, I’ve recently had three newer titles brought to my attention that bring the more traditional — well, at least in the case of two of them — zombie to manga life with mostly the right balance of art, story, and darker subject matter to appeal to a wider US horror audience. They might be worth checking out, certainly for fans of The Walking Dead comic series looking for that additional comic book zombie fix.
The first of the three is the collected Tokyo Undead. Coming in at around 400 pages, the book is actually a series of short stories following the accidental release of the K Virus into the heart of Tokyo. The stories don’t follow the outbreak in chronological order, and the characters rarely cross over from one story to the next, but the overall story told stands up well alongside some of the traditional zombie horror that American zombie horror fans know and love.
The writing by Shigeo Nakayama is solid. He is not reinventing the wheel and he is not taking the stories into places we have not seen before, but the stories being told are well into the territory of enjoyable zombie horror. The stories are occasionally made to feel a little fresher, though, because of the different cultural perspective. While these shorts are still very much in the standard zombie story mold we all know and love, there are situations that play out — in particular with the dynamics of the character relationships — in ways that do not end up feeling as paint-by-numbers in nature as they otherwise could because some of the actions and reactions of the characters are rooted in different culture moors and customs.
The artwork by Tsukasa Saimura might still turn off some American horror fans since it’s still in line with a style of art that leans towards the more cartoonish than it does the photo-real, but it’s probably well done enough that it won’t be an issue for most. The zombies look effectively zombie-like in their decayed appearances, the artist uses the black and white medium very effectively with regards to mood and atmosphere, and even the drama and action moments work well visually.
Again, this is not a book of stories that reinvent the zombie wheel. It is a nice collection of short stories that can be read one at a time or a few at a time whenever the mood hits, and that will satisfy that zombie itch when it needs scratching.
The second of the three zombie manga is Tokyo Undead artist Tsukasa Saimura’s Hour of the Zombie. This is the riskiest of the three for horror fans to go into sight unseen because it feels the most like a Japanese high school manga series. This would be because it starts out in a Japanese high school and the characters are almost all students. It also doesn’t leave the confines of the high school grounds in the three volumes released in the US so far, but that is largely due to the fact that the story it’s telling across the first few 180 page books covers only a few hours of the zombie outbreak.
It may also be the weakest of the three books covered here. It feels lighter on overall story and plot than other zombie stories that have been told in comic book format, and it has the dreaded-by-some-fans concept of fast zombies in it. Where it finds its saving grace (for now) is in the form of an unusual twist for the zombie concept. The zombies aren’t quite always zombies.
The outbreak here starts in the way that so many other have in the history of zombie storytelling. An outbreak starts and no one knows how or why it is happening. The zombies appear and start attacking everyone in sight. The one “zombie rule” being followed that is immediately noticeable is the manner in which the infection is spread. Anyone bitten by a zombie comes back as a zombie, so anyone not devoured to the point of immobility eventually joins the army of the undead to attack the living.
Where Hour of the Zombie breaks with most zombie stories is what happens after the initial outbreak. Everyone who was infected turns mentally back to normal. They’re certainly not alive anymore, and they’re still missing flesh and still have the fatal wounds from the attacks that killed them, but they revert mentally to who they were before the outbreak. Well, at least for a little while. Once infected, whatever has infected them seems to run on a regular cycle. The infected go through a period of being a mindless, deadly, flesh-eating monster, revert back to a thinking person, revert back to full zombie again, and so on.
This might seem a little odd when just reading about it, but it actually allows for some interesting story possibilities. Once the infected humans revert back to normal, all they want to do is be cured and to not be a threat to their friends. Their friends, however, are less than trusting of them, and all trust goes out the window when the infected again become full-on zombies. A deal is struck to lock all of the infected into the school gym in order to keep the uninfected safe from them when/if they turn again. Once they’re safely locked away, the uninfected try to burn them to death (or redeath) in the gym. This scheme doesn’t quite go off as planned, and it creates in the story a different kind of zombie threat. The undead are now angry, and they have periods of time where they can think, plot, and fight like humans can while still being only vulnerable to the standard “destroy the brains” rule. It certainly creates a different dynamic when the protagonists cannot outthink the zombie hordes at all times.
It also creates a different feeling than the typical zombie story when the zombies have moments of being thinking humans who want nothing more than to survive long enough to perhaps be cured, and the humans driven by fear still want to destroy them even when they’re thinking and feeling just as the living do. Plus, you have yet more factions forming such as the humans who want to save their infected friends and the zombies who see the need to remove the zombie threat in the same way the uninfected humans do.
The weakest aspect of Hour of the Zombie is the style of storytelling. As noted earlier, very little total time has elapsed in the three volumes released so far. In roughly 540 pages, only a few hours have gone by. By following the characters in an almost real-time style, the series runs the very real risk of becoming “wash, rinse, and repeat” with its cycle of drama. The concepts and the possibilities with a zombie outbreak of this nature are intriguing, but only as long as the story actually takes the readers to the point where those concepts and possibilities are explored.
A zombie outbreak that works on specific time intervals screams of a zombie outbreak intelligently designed. It creates a situation where you actually want to know who and/or what started the outbreak and why. Was it a military project that went wrong? Was it a terror attack? Is it the Japanese manga answer to Plan 9? We don’t know, and unless something dramatic happens to speed the narrative along or create a huge reveal, we may never know. Usually, I like that in zombie fiction, but here the nature of the infection creates more of a legitimate feeling of wanting/needing to know these things.
The story so far is fast paced, but also very thin. The ideas that are presented in what’s come so far offer a great deal of potential, but right now there’s no indication that there will be a payoff down the road. At around $10 per volume, the book may be worth it to you if you’re looking for a quick fix from a different take on the zombie, but anyone wanting to see the potential teased at actually paid off on might want to wait until more volumes come out and the story’s path becomes clearer.
The last of the three — and best of the three — is Kengo Hanazawa’s I Am a Hero. The series has been around and winning multiple awards in Japan and elsewhere since 2009 and has been published in multiple countries around the world. Dark Horse Comics began publishing it in omnibus form in the US in 2016.
The story centers on Hideo Suzuki, a man who feels a little bit like a loser in his own life. He and his friends are actually rather unlikeable in the early going, and not without good reason. Their frustrations with their own lives are often taken out on others in the form of treating the people in their life as poorly as possible. Hideo also suffers from very real hallucinations, so the reader cannot initially trust what he is or is not seeing as the signs of the outbreak begin to reveal themselves. Then the unreal happens, and an infection spreads like a wildfire across the country and possibly the world. The infected go insane and seek to kill and eat the living.
The story is very much a slow burn in the beginning. It takes its time establishing the characters and the world they live in before yanking the rug out from under them. But once it gets going, it is absolutely storytelling in the vein of the classic zombie stories. Well, with a few twists.
In a way, this is Japan’s The Walking Dead, but it also has an element that would later show up in Z Nation. One of the characters — who is already sympathetic to the zombies when we’re introduced to the character — eventually gets bitten during an attack. This character doesn’t completely turn and actually shows a natural immunity to the source of the outbreak. One member of our traveling band of survivors, Yabu Oda, is a nurse who recognizes the value of keeping this character safe and alive and hopefully eventually getting the character into the right hands to find a cure for society.
Other characters appear that drift more into the Japanese monster manga mold (or the Z Nation mold) here and there, but the story so far stays largely in the traditional vein of the zombie epic. The story also makes it clear that, even in a world where the living have zombies to fear, the biggest threats — the biggest monsters — can still be the uninfected, living humans. But much of this will come later for American readers as so far there are only two volumes released stateside with two more available for preorder.
What American readers can see now is some very solid writing married to a manga art style that even people who dislike much of the manga or anime artwork that’s most popular today should not find too off-putting. The writing involves actually building and developing the characters and the ways in which they interact with each other and the new world that wants to eat them. Again, some of the characters seem unlikable — or at the very least unrelatable — when we first meet them, but the new world will change them. Some will rise to the challenges, some will become worse, and all have well-written arcs to them so far in the translated Dark Horse Comics releases.
With some exceptions; not the least of them being having not-quite-dead, not-so-slow, and slouching “zombies” as a threat; this is very much an old school feeling zombie story with what’s been published stateside so far. It attempts and succeeds in pulling off some level of psychological horror throughout the story, and the artwork manages to quite effectively convey the grotesque horror of the twisted, damaged infected preying upon the living.
If you’re looking for a quick read zombie fix or two for your bookshelf, Tokyo Undead and I Am a Hero just might be the books you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a zombie fix that plays around with and changes up the zombie concepts a bit, Hour of the Zombie could be what you’re looking for. All of them can be found through online sellers like Amazon, and at most of your larger brick and mortar book sellers.