Manga author Morohoshi Daijoro is as obscure as the myths he writes about but he's every bit the legend. Tezuka Osamu couldn't mimic his style. Miyazaki Hayao wanted to use his art to tell stories. Anno Hideaki was haunted by his imagery. And yet, his works have eluded English publishers for decades. Read on to discover the man who touched some of the greatest minds in pop culture history.
An office worker notices a robed figure on his daily commute and makes the mistake of following it… (A Sinister Specter, 1973)
A traveler is led by a masked guide whose culture forbids him to look at the beauty of the world... (Distant Lands, 1978)
A business is literally haunted by the spirit of its former executives… (Company Ghosts, 1982)
A boy escapes into an alternate reality where his darkest fantasies come true with real world consequences... (Shadow Town, 1985)
A plant that lives off dreams and feeds the host its own… (Beneath the Dream Tree, 1997)
Morohoshi was born July 6, 1949 as a child of Japan's golden age of sci-fi. His imagination grew strong on a diet of kaiju, tokusatsu and Hayakawa SF Magazine with stories by Arthur C. Clark, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. His own plots incorporate these influences with results that range from whimsical to nihilistic, their settings either grounded as social commentary or floating as pie-in-the-sky parables.
One of my personal favorites, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard (1983) showcases Morohoshi's dreamlike style. An elementary school boy befriends his awkward classmate Julio, a transfer student who insists he can communicate with UFOs. Julio says aliens sent him and his father on a mission to observe humans. Julio sounds like he's full of it, except he knows more about the area than the local boys, such as the location of an old bomb shelter that he uses as a club house. Maybe there's some truth to his claims after all.
I think we all knew a kid like Julio growing up, someone you didn't exactly trust but kept around just to see what crazy thing they'd spout off next. “Spend enough time in the bomb shelter and the outside world changes, honest! Don't believe me? Count the number of smokestacks across the river. There used to be four. But now there's three,” he challenges. Would you count to prove him wrong? Or ignore him on the chance that he's right?
Reality is putty in Morohoshi's hands, both thematically and visually. Bio City (1974), the tale of mankind and machine merging into one perfect being, landed him the Tezuka Award, a prestigious prize for breakout manga artists. In fact, the work was so original that readers accused him of plagiarism--he must of stolen the idea from a foreign sci-fi author! The irony wasn't lost on award committee member and sci-fi writer Tsutsui Yasutaka (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Paprika) who later vouched for Morohoshi's prodigious talent. A classy gesture, though Morohoshi was already in a position to defend himself.
The Tezuka Award came with a fat two million yen prize purse and a coveted spot in the pages of Shonen Jump. His first serialized work, Yokai Hunter (1974-), would crush the magazine's slogan of “friendship, perseverance, victory” under the weight of eldritch horror and folklore gone wrong.
The setup to Yokai Hunter is everything you could want from a weird tale. Stoic anthropologist Hieda Reijiro explores the dark corners of rural Japan driven by a hunch that academic journals don't tell the whole story. The quintessential gentleman scholar in the lineage of pulp heroes like Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, Hieda keeps his necktie tight and his wits sharp as unspeakable events unfold around him before stepping in at the last minute to save the day with his mastery of arcane knowledge.
Hieda takes you beneath megalithic kofun burial mounds, fireside at forgotten rituals and into mind-bending theories that tie world religions together. Each adventure will have you turn to outside reference material for better insight into the topic, be it the genealogy of Shinto gods, the different styles of prehistoric pottery or the dark truth behind a seemingly harmless nursery rhyme. You become an amateur researcher, Hieda's assistant into the realm of myth made real. By the end of a book you'll know more about the ancient history of Japan and its harrowing modern implications than your Japanese peers.
Elder gods, cyclopean cities, strange cults--the parallels with H.P. Lovecraft are obvious. Morohoshi has even said as much. Yet there's a danger in equating "Lovecraftian" solely to cosmic horror, the gnawing realization that in the grand scheme of an uncaring universe, mankind is worth as much as a grain of dust on a pinhead. The concept, while slick, overshadows Lovecraft's importance as an antiquarian. The man committed far more ink to the proud gambrel roofs of Providence and musings on the region's past than to blasphemous horrors and indescribable nightmares.
Morohoshi elicits a fear of the unknown while drawing upon the known--in this case, the shared experience of human history. This makes select works truly Lovecraftian, and all the more disquieting.
THE DARK MYTH OF CONFUCIUS
If Yokai Hunter has you clicking through Wikipedia to fill in the blanks, then The Dark Myth of Confucius (1977-1978) requires a minor in East Asian History to even understand the cast of characters--which makes you wonder how it slipped into the kid-friendly pages of Shonen Jump! The tale begins in China, 495 BC with Confucius in a journey of self-exile. He discovers an ancient imperial tomb and, while using the I-Ching to unravel its mysteries, reverses the Wu Xing--the five elements--which accidentally turns back time.
Tampering with the laws of the universe revives Yang Huo, an ambitious regional political figure, as an immortal lich with the power to mess up your ying-yang on the physiological level. "The elements have reversed! Death now conquers life! And I wield the power of DEATH!"
Meanwhile, in India...
An "untouchable" possessed by Shiva, the Destroyer meets a boy who embodies Vishnu, the Protector. The two encounter the historical Buddha who takes them on a vision quest to see the Three Towers of Brahma, crystal spires holding a series of 64 gold plates that govern the life of the universe: once the hand of the cosmos moves all plates from one tower to another, without placing a larger one on top of a smaller one, existence as we know it will cease to be.
Mathematicians have worked out how much time we have left--assuming one second per move, it's 590 billion years, or about five times longer than the current age of the universe. Nothing for us mortals to worry about. But what if there were a hidden fourth pillar? That would speed up the heat death of the cosmos something fierce. And Yang Huo, the Chinese lich, knows where to find it.
The last act reassembles the cast in Japan to bind the Kojiki, Rigveda and Analects of Confucius under a single cosmic law. If that wasn't enough to pry your third eye open, Morohoshi reveals that all matter in the universe is built on binary code and with the right processing power you can know the true nature of existence and time itself. As if we needed another reason to be afraid of supercomputers.
Morohoshi's influence is felt more strongly than his presence. According to Gainax founder Okada Toshio, the deformed silhouette from Shadow Town (1985) gave Neon Genesis Evangelion director Anno Hideaki the idea for the show's oddly emaciated mecha designs. In an 1986 interview Miyazaki Hayao lamented to manga editor Takekuma Kentaro that Morohoshi should have been the one to draw Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
In the same interview he marveled at the sense of scale Morohoshi imbued into the forest god of Mud Men (1975-1982), a story about the creation myth of Papua New Guinea tribes. Years later Miyazaki would attempt the same spectacle in his film Princess Mononoke with his own forest god and a plot that plays out like a gender-flipped Mud Men. And those are just the things he's owned up to!
Even a jealous curmudgeon like Tezuka could admit that Morohoshi was one of a kind. In a roundtable discussion with Morohoshi and his contemporary, Hoshino Yukinobu, Tezuka quipped, “I could draw like Otomo (Katsuhiro), I could draw like Hoshino, but I couldn't draw like Morohoshi.” It's not that Morohoshi's art is somehow superior. Rather, it's ruled by aesthetics alien to manga.
Takekuma describes Morohoshi's style as the halfway point between gekiga realism and the post-war boy's adventure stories of Yamakawa Soji and Komatsuzaki Shigeru. Though given the heavy crosshatching and otherworldly subject matter, I bet his reference shelf is full of etchings by Goya, John Tenniel and Edward Gorey.
By now you must have a mental image of Morohoshi as a grim madman bent over his drawing easel flanked by towers of moldy books, mumbling to himself as he crosshatches another page of crackpot theories. In reality, Morohoshi is a serious goofball.
His one-shot gags are a portal into an alternate universe where toilets get constipated, kaiju-sized tapeworms attack and cats run companies. Then there's Shiori and Shimiko (1996- ), a sitcom about two girls who work in an occult bookstore that won the 2008 Japan Media Arts Festival manga prize for its absurd situations and black humor.
That's enough material to take up a good of your bookshelf and I haven't even mentioned his take on Grimm fairy tales, recent fantasy anthologies or Saiyu Yoenden, his retelling of the Chinese epic Journey to the West. His output is staggering. More shocking still is the lack of English translations.
As far as I know the only official translation is the short story A Sinister Specter, available in an anthology from Kurodahan Press. Further reading means plumbing the depths of the Internet. Dark Myth, the prelude to The Dark Myth of Confucius, has been scanlated and there's even an OVA with a so-bad-it’s-good early-90s dub. Yokai Hunter has two film adaptations, the fast-and-loose creature feature Hiruko the Goblin (directed by Tsukamoto Shinya no less!) and the more faithful (and sleep-inducing) Kidan. Shiori and Shimiko was adapted into a TV drama starring former AKB48 center Maeda Atsuko, which says everything there is to know. Slim pickings, I know. Supposedly there's an fan translation of Yokai Hunter in the works, but nothing through legit channels.
To a western audience Morohoshi Daijiro is the manga equivalent of Atlantis, his stories a lost civilization of imagination and dreaming waiting to be rediscovered. When fragments wash up on English-speaking shores we're left to marvel at the secrets the untranslated volumes hold. For now, we must wait to see what the tide brings in. Or, if you're as adventurous and resourceful as one of his protagonists, you can take the plunge and search them out yourself. Who can say what you'll return with.