After seeing Gore Verbinski’s remake of The Ring way back in 2002, I took to the internet to try and dig up more info on this “J-horror” thing I had been hearing about. Online culture was just gathering steam, and fan sites such as Snow Blood Apple (which is still online, though it hasn’t updated in about a decade) and Ring World were a heavily treasured source of info. I found my way to articles about a lurid movie series called Guinea Pig that promised something far more extreme than the future Pirates of the Caribbean director could offer. Murder performed by a guy dressed like a samurai? On VHS? And reported to the FBI by Charlie Sheen!?!? There were enough gaps in information at the time to let the imagination run rampant, but my prodigious proto-bloggers guided me to my first brush with the work of Hideshi Hino. Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood was a loose adaptation of the work of manga author Hideshi Hino, presented as found footage from a killer capturing and dismembering a woman to grow beautiful flowers (botany most foul). This was followed by Mermaid in a Manhole, which ditches the found footage angle in favor of a story finding a man finding a mermaid wallowing in a sewer and caring for her as she succumbs to illness. Guinea Pig is a lauded piece of scum cinema, but it’s one facet of his long career, and as my interest in manga and comics grew, I became more familiar with Hino’s work on the page.
Ad for Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood
Hino’s career as a manga author goes as far back as the 1960s, with his work appearing in Osamu Tezuka’s experimental manga anthology COM and the magazine Garo, where he made a name for himself as a horror artist. Hino’s work combines a simplicity reminiscent of children’s books with vicious and over the top violence. This dichotomy creates a feeling to his stories that’s closer to the more sanguine fairytales of old rather than the more palatable versions inhabiting the cultural zeitgeist. Along with having his work published around the world, Hino was an instrumental influence on Junji Ito and horror manga as we know it. Despite a long and prolific career, Hino’s work published in English came in erratic spurts.
The earliest known publication of Hideshi Hino’s work in English is courtesy of Blast Books, a New York based publisher that briefly flirted with alternative manga in the late 80s and early 90s, just as manga was barely starting to trickle into American comic book stores. Blast Books released Panorama of Hell in the US in 1989, when Viz was just starting to dabble with releasing Golgo 13 in the states and one year after Marvel began colorizing Otomo’s Akira to make it more palatable to American readers. The cover to Panorama of Hell presents the book as a western style comic read left to right, but the first page instructs the reader to flip the book over so it can be read right to left in the Japanese style. This was something of a rarity at the time as most of the manga released in the US at this time was flipped to left to right style with individual chapters released as single floppy issues. Clearly Blast Books realized that Panorama of Hell is a book that has to be experienced as close to the artist’s vision as possible. Curiously special effects artist Screaming Mad George is given a translation credit, and as far as I can tell, this is the only time he has ever worked in that capacity. Panorama of Hell features one of Hino’s recurring motifs, a questionable narrator who’s an artist, with an additional autobiographical bent to the comic. A painter who gashes his own body so he may create art with fresh blood recounts his life, from the vicious degeneracy of his grandparents, to his birth in Manchuria during the twilight days of WWII as Japanese soldiers were being lynched en masse. As he descends further into madness the story emphasizes perpetuation of destructive tendencies across generations in Panorama, culminating in death and artistic expression being intertwined. The self-destructive tendencies of the artist could also be seen as a commentary on the harsh demands of being a manga author and how the career has driven many to an early death (luckily, Hino himself is in good health at 76 years old). Blast Books would publish one more title from Hino, Hell Baby, in 1995, after which they completely stopped publishing manga.
Self destruction as the path to artistic creation is a recurring theme through much of Hino’s work, with Zoroku’s Strange Disease being one of the most famous examples. Originally released in Japan in 1976, Zoroku’s Strange Disease was published in English in 2006 as part of the anthology Lullabies From Hell from Dark Horse. Zoroku is a simple minded villager who is forced to live in a secluded hut when his body erupts in boils that ooze colorful pus. As Zoroku’s body and mind decompose, he uses the vibrant bodily fluids to paint masterpieces unseen by his family back in the village. The grotesque transformation of the protagonist echoes Cronenberg’s The Fly, but a full decade before that film came out. Among Hino’s fans were the early noise music group, Hijokaidan, who used Hino’s art for the cover of their 1981 live album named after the manga. The album opens with the sounds of a man vomiting and gagging, followed by polite applause, and the listener is then immediately assaulted by Hijokaidan’s cacophonous performance. Hijokaidan’s work is largely improvisational, so the album was not necessarily composed with Hino’s story in mind, but by juxtaposing it with Hino’s art it inhabits a sort of unknowable space within the comic, creating a companion piece to the comic. Why ruminate on the sound of one hand clapping when you can contemplate the sounds of a painting made by an artist whose body is melting?
My personal favorite though is The Red Snake. First published in Japan in 1985, it was released during the heady days of the US manga boom in 2004, as part of a 14 volume series called Hino Horror, from the now defunct Cocoro Books imprint of DH Publishing, Inc (no relation to Dark Horse). A play on the old dark house trope, a boy lives in a secluded house with his family, with each member embodying either unhinged disconnect from reality, quasi-incestuous proclivities, violent tendencies, or all of the above. Part of the house is blocked off by an enormous mirror, meant to keep demons living on the other side of it at bay, and when the young boy gets curious about what lies on the other side, all hell breaks loose. Red Snake is another story with themes of cross-generational cruelty, though it seems everlasting. We never see the boy’s family before they were crazed and vicious, they simply always were and the story just escalates from that point. Red Snake perfectly captures the feeling of helpless inescapable dread that can only be felt by a child with no means of escaping an abusive and suffocating home.
Unfortunately just about every English release of Hino’s work has gone out of print, so you’ll have to read them by any means necessary. In some much welcome news, indie manga publisher Star Fruit Books will be publishing Hino’s 1983 manga, The City of Pigs, in English. If you’re reading this and have never enjoyed Hino’s work before now is a great time to explore the work of one of Japan’s all time horror greats.