Asian literature is having a really big moment right now here in the West. I don’t mean that to belittle Asian literature, a lot of it is really fantastic. Genre traditions go back many years in Asian cultures. When it comes to horror, a lot of it can be very intimidating. We often look at Asian horror and we think of The Grudge or The Ring. But did you know that The Ring was originally a novel? This following list is designed to be a good entry point into Japanese genre fiction, focusing more on the horror side of the spectrum. The books below will be a mixture of manga (Japanese comic), and a novel. You’ll notice there are a lot of manga on this list and that is because we have more manga being translated into English than Japanese novels. However one thing that a lot of Japanese horror has in common is its themes of grief, longing, mystery, and pessimism. There is normally a nihilistic fog over a lot of what is happening, even if that story does fall into humor at times. I hope you enjoy these works below.
Please note that the Amazon links are, as usual, not affiliate links. Rich just wanted to give you a quick, easy buy link if you were interested in any of them. – LG
1. Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Uzumaki is a cosmic-horror manga by the master himself, Junji Ito. I’ve been a fan of Ito for many years and I’m happy to see the recent fame he’s found for himself. Uzumaki is considered his masterpiece and I wouldn’t disagree there. The story itself follows Kirie Goshima and her boyfriend Suichi Saito, they both live in a small town called Kurouzu-co where the local citizens are becoming obsessed and even consumed by spirals. Kirie and Suichi begin to look into the curse, it’s origins, and what it means for the town itself. This work is Ito firing at all cylinders, it’s a work where you will see all sides of Ito. You’ll see his humor, his taste for the grotesque, and his cosmic horror nods towards Lovecraft. Ito is one of the best horror manga authors there is and this is easily one of the best places to start.
2. I am a Hero by Kengo Kanazawa
I am a Hero by Kengo Kanazawa is often called the Japanese version of The Walking Dead. It’s easy to make that comparison. Both stories are about the zombie apocalypse, and both stories focus on a small group trying to survive in a big world. However, I am a Hero tackles different themes. The story focuses on a failed 30 something manga author named Hideo Suzuki, he’s stuck in his life and is unsatisfied. One day, a disease that turns people into zombies appears and Suzuki finds himself as becoming a man of importance because he has a gun (Japan has strict gun laws). The series follows Hideo and others as they navigate a zombie infested Japan trying to survive and understand what is really happening. The manga itself is 22 volumes long so you will be in for an epic journey that keeps you invested the entire way through.
3. Zoo by Otsuichi
Zoo is a collection of short stories by Japanese novelist Otsuichi. He is more famous for his YA collection Goth. However, I think Zoo highlights his strength as an author. All the stories here are horror in one way or another. There is also some sci-fi sprinkled in there as well. My favorite story in the collection is the title story. The story follow a man who notices his girlfriend has gone missing. As he begins looking for her, he begins receiving photos of her decomposing corpse. This collection is grim, fast paced, fun, and really hart to put down. I strongly recommend checking it out, if comics aren’t your bag.
4. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo
Edogawa Rampo is often called the godfather of Japanese horror and detective stories. His pen name is meant to pay tribute to Edgar Allan Poe who was one of his major influences. His other influence was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This book is a massive collection of his best horror and mystery work. The most famous is “The Human Chair” which is about a woman who buys a chair and begins reading notes sent from the chairmaker about how he created a space for himself inside the chair and falls in love with the ladies who sit on the chair. This is one the foundations of Japanese mystery and horror fiction and is a must own if you’re interested in the foundation of j horror.
5. The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezz
The Drifting Classroom is a foundational horror manga. The manga follows Sho Takamatsu who wakes up and has a bitter argument with his mother. As he gets to school, there is an earthquake and the school vanishes and ends up in a desert wasteland. The children and the adults begin to try to survive and end up butting heads in a game of survival. Only to realize that there are bigger threats in this new world than each other. This manga has it all, death, destruction, intensity, excitement, monsters, and murder! A good story to compare this to is The Lord of the Flies, but even then it’s more of it’s own thing. We see the struggle of the children as they try to survive in the desolate wasteland. We also see the families and community that has been left behind, how their disappearance affects the community. This is a fantastic entry level manga, as well as an entry level into Japanese Horror.
Richard Gerlach is a horror author and podcast host based out of New England. You can follow him on twitter @rudy53088 and give his podcast Staring Into the Abyss– (available on all podcasting platforms) where he discusses horror fiction with Michael Patrick Hicks and Matt Brandenburg –a follow.
Lilyn G is the founder of Sci-Fi & Scary, and leader of the Coolthulhu Crew. She does book and film reviews for both genres the site focuses on. Her tastes run towards creature features, hard science fiction, and lots and lots of action. She also has a soft spot for middle-grade fiction that rears its head frequently.
Though no longer involved with Ladies of Horror Fiction due to other responsibilities and a too-full plate, she was one of the original 4 co-founders.
Feel free to chat her up on Twitter as long as you aren’t hitting her up to review your book.