No one does body horror quite like the Japanese. The genre is, by definition, deeply disturbing already, offering up mutations, sickeningly visceral takes on monsters, and fates worth than death. But the Japanese version of it is just somehow…more, in all respects, and more unsettling than its American and European counterparts. From the biomechanoid insanity of cult film classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, to the quiet and visceral existential dread of manga master of Junji Ito, body horror permeates a great deal of Japanese horror fiction, its intrusive, skin-crawling qualities driving home the notion that something is incredibly wrong, in truly intimate, personal way.
Here are six visceral volumes of body horror from the East, for your reading pleasure(?).
Shiver: Selected Stories, by Junji Ito
Junji Ito gained a reputation as the reigning master of body horror thanks to his excessively detailed stories of twisted creatures, human bodies turning into a variety of sickening monstrosities, and worse above all, an inescapable sense of cosmic doom. Thanks to a wealth of translations of his work in English over the past year, there’s never been a better time to get into Ito’s work; the Junji Ito Collection anime brings the manga-ka’s work to the screen in all its twisted glory, while the new collection Shiver gathers Ito’s disparate twisted short stories into a single volumeperfect for those looking to move beyond his longer-form manga, such as Gyo and Uzumaki. Whether this is your first experience with Ito’s work or a welcome return to horrific territory, Shiver‘s nine creator-selected stories, complete with annotations and process notes, is sure to impact fans of body horror everywhere.
Sisyphean: A Mosaic Novel, by Dempow Torishima
Set in a world where genetic engineering corporations have become living organisms unto themselves, their top executives transformed into grotesque alien beings who transcend all flesh, Sisyphean follows the corporate workers, students, and the other low-level denizens of this horrifying universe as they go about their daily routines. Torishima’s gruesome, fluid-drenched prose lends gut-wrenching detail to wild plot elements, from gigantic eel corpses, to massive worms, to parasitic bugs that eat people on an ontological and existential level, and huge flesh-crafted symbiotic organisms that rampage with wild abandon through cities, transforming the flesh of everyone they encounter. The stories in this mosaic shared-setting novel begin in surreal, nigh-incoherent horror and somehow grow more comprehensible and grounded as they go along as you acclimate to a bizarro world. And then things get really bizarre, as Torishima revels in yet more twisted heights of genetically engineered depravity.
B∅dy,by Asa Nonami
Nonami’s short book contains a series of conceptually linked stories, each named for a part of the body and dealing, quite literally, with horror connected to bodies. Nonami’s stories may be a little more grounded than the rest of the volumes on this list, but her tales of self-mutilation, eating disorders, and cosmetic surgery are every bit as unsettling and upsetting. With a savage vein of humor, Nonami explores the bodily obsessions of her protagonists, tracing them to their untimely, yet appropriate ends. It’s a lean but evocative collection, the matter-of-fact prose cutting right to the heart of things while creating horrifying scenes taking on topics as diverse as eating disorders, negative body image, and aging. This slim volume serves as a fantastic introduction to one of Japan’s most prolific horror and crime authors.
In The Miso Soup, by Ryu Murakami
Murakami (no, the other one) is most known for his romantic drama/horror novel Audition, which director Takashi Miike adapted into a notoriously gut-wrenching film. Here, the author serves up the quieter, more surreal story of Kenji, a tour guide specializing in the sexual underbelly of Tokyo, and Frank, his monstrous American client, who claims to just want to meet girls. While Kenji knows something is wrong, Frank’s money is too good to pass up, and he soon finds himself complicit in a series of violent, bizarre events, as Frank reveals his true motives, rambles endlessly about Japan and America, and displays odd supernatural powers. While this may seem a mismatch for a list of novels specifically about body horror, the imagery Murakami weaves around Frank and his acts, and the loving detail lavished on every inch of his grotesque, too-soft flesh, definitely deserve mention here. In Murakami’s view, Frank doesn’t even move or feel like a human, further driving home the abominable nature of his character.
Secret Rendezvous, by Kobo Abe
In the middle of the night, an ambulance shows up to cart off the narrator’s wife, who protests that she is perfectly healthy. The husband tries to follow her, and finds himself in a vast underground hospital where the director is attempting to surgically transform himself into a horse, patients’ bones are dissolving, everyone is kept under constant surveillance, and the research takes on a weirdly sexual bent. Abe was one of Japan’s foremost surrealists and literary minds, and his Kafkaesque novel of nightmarish bureaucracy, in which patients who aren’t even ill get lost in a hospital with vaguely sinister intentions, is styled as the blank, to-the-point “investigations” of the main character. It is a landmark of surrealist fiction and horror, and, because it deals so strongly with bodies and health, of body horror as well.
Parasyte, by Hitoshi Iwaaki
Small alien parasites similar to glowworms come to Earth and infect a variety of people and animals, taking them over and turning them into shapeshifting monstrosities. All except one, whose teenage host wakes up midway through the takeover, is reasonably freaked out by the glowing worm traveling up the inside of his arm, and cuts off its path with a headphone cord. So begins Parasyte, the story of Shinichi Izumi and Migi, the parasitic alien in his right hand, as they battle the alien invasion—both out of Shinichi’s desire to save humanity from the invaders, and Migi’s desire to preserve its own life while its own species tries to murder its host. Iwaaki’s art and writing draw heavily on body horror stories like The Thing, offering an interesting look at humanity’s drive for survival in the face of a new predator. Between the bizarre artwork, the horrifying mutations the parasites put their host bodies through, and the violent nature of a series that features a war between the predatory parasites and the not-much-better humans, Parasyte is an unsettling, kinetic delight for body horror fans.
What body horror classics would you add to the hall of infamy?