Looking for a slow-burning scare? Take a look at the works of Shuzo Oshimi! Oshimi, author, and artist, of works like THE FLOWERS OF EVIL, INSIDE MARI, and A TRAIL OF BLOOD, is one of the biggest names in horror manga for a good reason. A skilled writer and artist with a knack for grounded yet bizarre horror, his unique brand of horror largely consists of bizarre reality to raising tangible issues and important questions about life and identity.

Horror, Expectations, and Shuzo Oshimi

Oshimi’s horror, unsettling and subdued, grabs the reader and doesn’t let go, even over the course of dozens of chapters. This is largely due to his emphasis on realism and distortion. Distortion is the alteration of one thing into something it is not normally associated with. A generic example would be a telephone ring. The “proper” association would be that someone is calling this phone, but someone who uses the same sound as an alarm may not associate the ring with a phone call.

A more relevant example in a horror context might be the two girls from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of THE SHINING by Stephen King. While there is nothing particularly alarming about two girls asking a boy to play, the scene is set up to be blood-chilling. This is distortion in a nutshell.

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Bizarre reality, then, is the result of distortion in a given context. It is a reality that creates a feeling of estrangement. The uncanny valley is a good example of this. Everything seems pretty close to normal, but not quite right. While many authors and artists emphasize the visceral, this is only one way to go about horror. Oshimi’s works are greatly disturbing, despite being more or less PG-13 and firmly grounded in the physical world. This is largely due to his skillful use of distortion and bizarre reality.

Everyday Horror in THE FLOWERS OF EVIL (spoilers)

Shuzo Oshimi’s most popular work, THE FLOWERS OF EVIL, is perhaps the one most inspired by his own experiences. Because of this, the story is grounded and normal at a glance. As a child, Oshimi spent his formative years in rural Gunma Prefecture. The sleepy towns, rusting storefronts, and endless mountains that surround Kasuga, Saeki, and Nakamura are so real largely because of Oshimi’s personal touch. He does not shy away from this connection and even includes a section discussing his own troubled teen years.

Japanese cover of Shuzo Oshimi's THE FLOWERS OF EVIL
THE FLOWERS OF EVIL | Image: SF Manga

The story is one of downfall and redemption. Takao Kasuga, an unremarkable high school boy in a rural Gunma town, one day makes a mistake. Smitten and stupid, Kasuga steals class beauty Nanako Saeki’s gym clothes after school and then tries to cover it up. Of course, the theft has some serious ramifications. Rumors of a pervert stalking Saeki spread and Kasuga doubles down on his lies. This forces him into a deal with class outcast Sawa Nakamura, a manipulative and foul-mouthed girl opposed to anything normal and decent. This gripping, yet disturbing story is largely a downward spiral for Kasuga, one that explores the frailty of our social lives and normalcy.

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Normalcy and Horror

Normalcy is the key theme in the FLOWERS OF EVIL. For anyone who grew up in a dull and sleepy place, Kasuga’s hometown is immediately familiar. However, Shuzo Oshimi’s detailed artwork is so real as to pull even the most jaded city-slicker into this stagnant valley town. You can practically hear the buzzing cicadas as Kasuga walks the block on a humid summer day. Oshimi draws characters in a realistic fashion which only serves to further cement this story in our world. Moreover, Oshimi has a knack for dialogue and character-writing, with even bit players having distinct and memorable personalities.

Stylistically, THE FLOWERS OF EVIL is a great example of bizarre reality even with a grounded story. Kasuga and Nakamura’s warped relationship is almost a friendship but distorted to the point of mutual toxicity. Kasuga’s feelings for Saeki are almost normal, but he acts upon them in twisted ways. This town is almost normal, but something is warped. That this disturbing story unfolds in a more or less normal town under more or less normal circumstances drives the horror home and makes it personal.

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INSIDE MARI’s Bizarre Reality

While THE FLOWERS OF EVIL is superficially normal, INSIDE MARI is bizarre at first glance. The main characters, high school flower Mari Yoshizaki and NEET Isao Komori, do not know each other. However, they live in the same neighborhood. Komori, a pervert, has long since grown smitten with Yoshizaki, a regular at the local convenience store. He coordinates his daily trip to the store with her snack run and spends much of his time fantasizing about Yoshizaki and her life. While unsettling, this is a fairly cut and dry setup. But there are two large twists to this story that play with Shuzo Oshimi’s constructed reality.

The first twist comes when Komori wakes up inside Yoshizaki’s body after a fateful smile and some cell phone magic. This is plainly strange and seemingly shoe-horned for a body swap story. A drop-out with no skills, social or otherwise, Komori is then forced into Yoshizaki’s daily reality. Komori’s disillusionment is palpable as his dream of the perfect Yoshizaki crumbles with every passing hour. This is the horror of disillusionment, a normal, though disheartening, experience. Komori, living as the “angel” of his baseless and indulgent fantasies, is surprised to find she’s human too. His learning experience is amusing at times, disgusting at others, and unsettling throughout.

There’s Something About Mari… (major spoilers)

Throughout the story, there is the constant question: what happened to Yoshizaki?  This can be overlooked at times, particularly as Komori learns to navigate Yoshizaki’s world. While Komori is at the wheel, Yoshizaki is still, in a sense, Yoshizaki. However, Komori’s personality comes out too. As a result, Yoshizaki’s old friends find her new behavior weird and off-putting.

Japanese cover of Shuzo Oshimi's INSIDE MARI
INSIDE MARI | Image: Mangajunky

It’s this thread that tethers it all together, however. As it turns out, there is a grounded explanation for this Komori-is-Yoshizaki arc: Mari Yoshizaki lost her marbles. A powder-keg of repressed emotions and forced to meet her mother’s expectations for years, Yoshizaki begins to crack under the pressure. While at the store, she notices a dirty guy who can’t hold eye contact and buys nothing but junk food. One day, Yoshizaki follows him home and watches him through his window. Playing video games, watching porn, and drinking booze: no one tells him what to do! Komori is truly a free man and Yoshizaki is envious.

She then builds a fantasy of Komori, one of indulgent freedom and low-stress living. This is the good life! But it’s not her life. Yoshizaki continues to cram for school, cram for cram school, cram her emotions inside. However, she can’t keep it up forever. After a particularly taxing period in her life, she breaks and begins to think she is actually Komori. Acting as Komori, she begins acting upon her true desires, not those she internalized courtesy of her demanding mother. This is the great, unsettling twist at the heart of INSIDE MARI: we don’t know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do.

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Lessons Through Horror

So, Shuzo Oshimi writes weird and creepy stories, what’s the big deal? Oshimi explores themes that are tangible and direct. His stories have no monsters, no evil. Rather, every disturbing twist and turn is the result of something firmly within the human world. Kasuga’s descent into degeneracy is not the result of demons, but of impulse, cowardice, and inertia. Yoshizaki’s descent into madness, likewise, is a product of her own fantasies. However, Oshimi emphasizes the role of the outside world in our personal lives. What if Kasuga lived in a less insular town? What if Yoshizaki’s mother wasn’t controlling? This is an unsettling observation about the lack of control we have over our own circumstances.

While Oshimi’s works are often disturbing and unsettling, they are rarely without positive endings and character redemption. This perhaps speaks to Oshimi’s motives in writing these bizarre, yet grounded horror stories. While our lives are fragile and not entirely our own, we have to make the best of them. In this way, Oshimi’s works are fable-like. By exploring the darker aspects of our world, he emphasizes the importance of perspective and the individual. THE FLOWERS OF EVIL and INSIDE MARI are, in this sense, classic coming-of-age tales.

His latest work, A TRAIL OF BLOOD, plays on similar themes. Take a look at the ongoing series and Shuzo Oshimi’s other works for a taste of his blood-chilling horror!

Feature image courtesy of Amazon.jp.

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