WARNING! DISTURBING IMAGES!
Zombies, zombies everywhere! We might claim to be sick of zombies in our video games and pop culture, but the numbers don't lie: those video games still sell like gangbusters and The Walking Dead is an unstoppable ratings juggernaut on TV. In our world, zombies are the apocalyptic fantasy that never stops.
Zombies are the perfect genre for our times, since they hit so many buttons: a dream of social collapse and the end of the world, a metaphor for the mindless hordes and chaos, a narcissistic fantasy of being smart and tough and lucky enough to survive that end of the world, a parable of Man's inhumanity to Man and undead man, woman and babies.
But zombies aren't just popular in the US. Just about every other country has been getting in on the act, and they become very culturally specific. You can find out a lot of things about the culture from their zombie stories. Take The Returned from France, where the zombies don't eat people, they just glare at their friends and loved ones to make them feel guilty and inadequate. What I find particularly interesting is how Japan deals with zombies. There's been Highschool of the Dead, with its tits and arse fan service sugarcoating the empowerment fantasy of teenagers who act smart and possess tactical awareness to function as a highly efficient armed group that can survive in the zombie apocalypse. Then the there's the more surreal I am a Hero.
Kengo Hanazawa's series began in 2009 and has gone past its 16th volume by now with over 4 million copies in print. It's unique among both manga and zombie stories in its lone and increasing weirdness. Hideo Suzuki is a struggling manga artist prone to hallucinations of spooky people lurking in the corner of his eye or in his walls. Hideo tries to keep himself sane by seeing himself as a manga hero despite being a slightly passive schulb in his 30s with mental issues, and when the zombie apocalypse hits, he's forced to try to live up to that ideal. The series is a slow burn, showing the gradual encroachment of zombies in little corners of Tokyo until the day all hell breaks loose, and Hideo has the advantage of being that rare thing in Japan: a licenced gun owner.
Unlike the hysterical, hand-wringing tone of The Walking Dead, I am a Hero opts for unsentimental, pitch-black, deadpan comedy. There's a heavy satirical layer throughout the series, from the placid, disbelieving Japanese reaction to a zombie outbreak until it's far too late to the way the characters try to cling to the law after society and the rule of law has collapsed. Hideo insisting on everyone not touching his gun because it would get him in trouble for a violation of gun and safety laws is a running joke. The horror setpieces have a farcical vibe such as the colleague who loudly declares that he's one of the people who can take advantage and attain real power in the zombie apocalypse right before a plunging jetliner takes his head off. The zombies are driven by rage and habit, shuffling about replicating the daily routines of their everyday lives while they were alive and even mumbling catchphrases and old lines over and over again in a funhouse mirror distortion of the conformity of Japanese society. Hideo and his partners worry that they're breaking the law whenever they have to loot supplies. The zombies are appropriately grotesque and the setpieces are even more ambitious and grotesque than what we've seen on The Walking Dead, and horrifically funnier to boot. Bodies rip and tear and splatter, contort into forms reminiscent of Japanese demons more than the usual shuffling zombies. Hideo worries that he would be condemned as a criminal and mass murderer if the zombie plague gets cured and society ever gets put back together. A cult starts to form around an insane former shut-in who claims to be immune and has some kind of mystical link to the zombies. In a country where guns are rare, Hideo slowly becomes the apex predator of survivors because he has a rifle and knows how to use it. Then things get really weird.
I am a Hero has won awards and will be getting a live action movie adaptation this year. It's the quintessential Japanese counterpart to The Walking Dead as well as a masterpiece of comic book storytelling. Unfortunately, it hasn't been officially translated into English, though you can find fan scanlations of the first 15 volumes with a cursory internet search.
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