Saturday, June 9, 2018

Gakkou Kaidan, vol. 1 comments

(Image from, used for review purposes only.)

Gakkou Kaidan (School Tales of Horror) by Yousuke Takahashi, Grade A
Yousuke is probably one of Japan's most prolific horror manga artists, but he's not as well-known outside of Japan as Junji Ito. In 1995, Yuusuke began running Gakkou Kaidan in Weekly Shonan Champion, for a collected 15 volumes total. Before that, he had Mugen Shinshi, which started in 1982, in Comic Ryu. I first encountered Takahashi when I found a used copy of Mugen Shinshi, vol. 1, at Mandarake in Akihabara around 2010. Shinshi is more of a light-hearted detective adventure set in the Showa Era (1926-1989), in kind of a Doc Savage vein, but still heavily laced with the macabre. It was a really fun little book, but I wasn't able to get the next volume used, and I ended up moving to Kagoshima, which doesn't have a Mandarake outlet.

However, we do have Maruzen books, and they have "wide" (smaller height and width, but 2-3 times more pages per volume) collections of both series, new. They're more expensive than normal, at 700 yen for Gakkou, and 950 yen for Shinshi, which is why I've held off on buying them. But, nothing really interesting has been coming out for new releases in the last month or so, and I was becoming more curious about what Gakkou was like. Eventually, I broke down and got volume 1, and here we are.

The short description is that Gakkou Kaidan, is a series of short (8-10 pages) horror stories set in one high school. Manga Updates says that they're along the lines of R. L. Stine, but I haven't read Goosebumps, and I can't make a comparison. I do think the artwork is a lot grosser than anything Stine would feel comfortable employing. And, Japanese horror tends to be more atmospheric and creepy, where American horror resorts more to shock value. So, I'm not sure Stine is all that similar.

Going into a bit more detail, Hida Yamagishi is a semi-girlish looking teenager attending a rather typical high school in a more-or-less rural community. In every single story, Hida and/or one or more of his classmates get sucked into some kind of bizarre situation that more often than not results in at least one gruesome death, if not Hida's, then that of someone he knows. There are strong Twilight Zone and Night Gallery vibes to these tales, and just as with TV sitcoms, everything is back to normal at the beginning of the next chapter. In volume 1 (36 chapters, 408 pages), Hida himself dies at least 10 times, making him more of a recurring actor in an ongoing episodic TV series, than the hero or main lead of an unfolding storyline.

The character designs are kind of old-school, looking more like they come from the 60's or 70's, but the backgrounds are incredibly detailed and well-drawn. The stories flow fast, and are really hard to tell where they're going in the middle. The "twist shock" endings are predictable if you've watched enough horror, but the drawings of the "victims" of whatever evil is going on are really, really elaborate, and can still punch you in the gut.

Just for examples, we have a boy that suddenly walks into an invisible wall surrounding his neighborhood, preventing him from going to school. Yamagishi visits him to find out what's happening, and the boy says that the walls keep slowly closing in on him. This goes on for several days, until, as Yamagishi is talking to him, the walls squeeze down to a small cube, crushing the boy, and ultimately he disappears altogether. Immediately after, as Yamagishi is walking home, he walks into an invisible wall. In another chapter, a different student was out in the woods, when a leech fell on the back of his neck. The boy passed out, and when he recovered, he found himself standing over what looked like his dessicated corpse. He dressed himself in the corpse's clothes and pushed the husk into a swamp. He visits Yamagishi to say that "he" really isn't "himself". Yamagishi goes to the kitchen to get his classmate something to drink to calm down, but when he gets back, the boy is gone and his clothes are lying on the floor. Yamagishi turns around to call to his mother, and notices a leech on the back of his neck. When his mother comes to his room a little later, a naked Yamagishi is standing over his dessicated corpse. The leech copy tells his mother "'I''m not 'me'." Finally, in a more feel-good story, Yamagishi goes out to the sea, and discovers a fishperson. It turns into a beautiful girl, and he gives her his shirt to cover herself with until they can get to a store to do some shopping. It's a hot day, and as they're waiting for a bus, the girl wilts and turns back into a fish. Before she can die, Yamagishi gets her back into the ocean. Eventually, he notices that his shirt is missing. The scene switches to show the mermaid girl in half-human form happily swimming off in a school shirt.

Summary: Takahashi is primarily a horror artist, but his stories rely more on pacing and slow reveals, than on shock tactics. The artwork is good, and the stories are told well. It may be better to read them in short bursts, rather than 10-12 chapters in a row like I did, but I did find these to be an easy read in Japanese. Recommended if you think Junji Ito is a little too extreme.

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