H.P. Lovecraft’s greatest fear has come true. No, I don’t mean the return of eldritch horrors from beyond space-time to engulf our world in the black flames of madness. I refer to his controversial obsession with hereditary degradation, the corruption of nobility through generations of inbreeding or contamination from foreign blood. Japan has proven that, given enough iterations, not even the Gods are immune from tainted genetics.
Japan has mutated Cthulhu and company from serious literature to pop culture tropes to self-parody. What follows is an account of this singular transformation.
The 1940’s: Edogawa Rampo Approved
In the poverty of post-war Japan pop culture was a shared commodity. While school kids swapped comic books, adults swapped imported pulp fiction. The grown-ups looked to author Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese detective genre, as their literary leader--his name is a play on Edgar Allen Poe, least you doubt his authority on western genre fiction. He introduced Lovecraft to the public in a list of essential weird tales, The Reader’s Guide to Horror Stories, in the June 1948 issue of Jewel, a mystery anthology he edited.
Rampo's seal of approval was a passport for under-recognized western authors to find their foothold on Japanese soil. Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror, In the Vault, The Music of Erich Zann, The Outsider and The Color Out of Space, as well as Lovecraft's key influences, Machen’s The Great God Pan and Blackwood’s The Willows, made the list of must-read titles.
The 1950’s and 1960’s: Madness Takes Root
Over the following decades translations of Lovecraft and his contemporaries slowly crept into the pages of Jewel and other anthologies, beginning with Kajima Yozo’s The Rats in the Walls (Bungei, July 1955) and Tamura Yuji’s The Music of Erich Zann (Jewel, November 1955).
Artists also took interest in Lovecraft. Manga author Mizuki Shigeru, famous for his haunted folklore, read The Dunwich Horror in a collection of western horror, which inspired him to adapt it as Footfalls from Below (1963).
Mizuki cleverly localized the original plot by changing the setting to a rural village in his birthplace of Tottori prefecture. Wilbur Whateley’s library is filled with volumes on Oriental mysticism and divination instead of Western witchcraft. There’s no mention of the stars being right, but the return of the Great Old Ones is said to be eventual as the changing seasons. And Dr. Armitage defeats Yog-Sothoth (given the tongue-in-cheek name "Yogurt") by reading an incantation from a scroll as it were a Buddhist sutra.
The Mythos movement was gaining momentum, though Japanese releases woefully trailed Arkham House. This makes Takaki Akimitsu’s The God of the Cult (1956) all the more impressive as the first original Japanese Mythos tale.
This sixty-page mystery opens with Murakami Kiyohiko, a well to-do miser, on one of his frequent drunken jaunts around antique shops where he acquires an ominous black idol with seven fingers and a crowned head. He enlists the help of his friend, an amateur researcher of primitive art, to identify the carved wooden relief, but to no avail. Though the narrator doesn’t need to an expert to tell him that the haunting gaze of the idol exudes a malicious aura.
Murakami is soon visited by an odd fellow whose otherwise impeccable Japanese is marred by his foreign upbringing. He has traveled from England in search of the idol, a priceless object of worship for his religion--the cult of Chuuloo--which believes that mankind descended from a highly advanced civilization that sunk into the Pacific Ocean millennia ago。
The story shifts from a Call of Cthulhu pastiche to noir mystery when the idol vanishes and Murakami's brutalized corpse is discovered in its place. The private eyes on the case learn that the idol represents a larger conspiracy, for the Chuuloo cult has infiltrated the highest level of Japanese society...
The 1970’s: The Stars Are Right
The Exorcist. Uri Geller. Paranormal horror manga by Tsunoda Jiro. These phenomena struck to ignite a nationwide interest in the occult and supernatural that burned fiercely until it was extinguished in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult and their Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The zeitgeist carried Mythos stories from the stuffy pages of mystery serials to the burgeoning field of sci-fi and horror.
The extra edition of the September 1972 issue of SF Magazine featured Mythos tales, including The Black Stone, The Hounds of Tindalos, Out of the Aeons and The Haunter of the Dark. Emphasis on “Mythos,” which is to say, authors from Lovecraft’s inner circle. The expanded cosmology of August Derleth and Arkham House descended upon the land and spread across several mystery and sci-fi publishers through the 80s.
The 1980’s: Roll For Sanity Check
The success of dungeon-crawl PC RPGS like Wizardry and Ultima made Japan hungry for fantasy. In 1983 computer gaming magazines answered the demand by introducing Dungeons & Dragons, the urtext of their beloved PC titles, and unwittingly caused a tabletop role-playing game boom.
Tabletop and electronic gaming created a positive feedback loop of borrowed ideas and innovation. Garry Gygax’s Monster Manual laid the groundwork for Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy; video games stimulated youth interest and demand for cheap rulebooks (box sets came with cumbersome literature and high price tags despite low production values,) which resulted in pen and paper systems such as 1989’s Sword World RPG, a pioneer of the highly portable and affordable A6-size bunkobon format.
In 1986 PC gaming magazine Comptiq began to novelize transcripts of epic campaigns with The Record of Lodoss Wars. Also that year Hobby Japan released Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium’s horror fiction tabletop role-playing game. The tome brought eldritch horror to a new audience accustomed to Tolkien-derived hack-and-slash style dice chucking. Gamers were quick to internalize the utterly alien worldview it presented. The Great Old Ones soon began to spill into other gaming-related media.
In 1987 Hummingbird Soft released the first-person RPG Laplace’s Demon for the PC-88. The game system and 1920’s American setting are straight out of the pages of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook. You and your posse investigate a haunted mansion located on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Newkham, Massachusetts, where you solve puzzles, battle otherworldly entities and, depending on your tolerance for torturous gameplay, go insane.
Success or failure relies on the makeup of your team. Gumshoes are handy with guns, spirit mediums can damage incorporeal foes, journalists snap photos of monsters to sell for cash. Sadly, the unique concept is bogged down by its unforgiving difficulty, brutal even in an era of purposely impossible games. First-person dungeon exploration, confusing enough as it was, is made incomprehensible by traps that turn you around without notice. Story events won’t trigger without the proper characters in your party. and you die if your sanity meter--which doubles as your magic points--drops to zero.
Though the game’s obtuse nature limited its appeal, it started the trend of computer and console RPGs cherry-picking Mythos monsters to round out their demonic host. Hudson Soft’s Wicked Holy Sword: Necromancer (1988) featured an all-star cast of Great Old Ones led by Azathoth, and the Megami Tensei series was never coy about where it cribbed its vilest deities.
The TRPG would be buried under the collectable card game boom of the early 90’s, yet these video games allowed Cthulhu and his ilk to live on digitally, waiting for their time to once again rise to the spotlight.
Even confectionery maker Lotte jumped on the name dropping bandwagon with Fortress of Neclos, a fantasy-themed dice game played with rubber miniatures sold in booster boxes with chocolate-coated graham cracker eggs.
The story is a collection of genre tropes that were stale even at the time. Long, long ago, the Dark Lord waged war with the Creator for control of the land, only to be sealed away by eight virtuous warriors. Now, as the Dark Lord’s minions move to revive him, the descendants of the original heroes must retrace the footsteps of their ancestors.
Each series featured eight playable characters and a colorful bestiary of monsters and deities re-appropriated from world mythology and religion. In the eighth and final series, Neclos calls down the planet R’lyeh and with it Cthulhu and his followers, Tsathoggua, Nyarlathotep and Innsmouth (a common misnomener for Deep Ones or those with the Innsmouth look).
Modern Mythos literature was emerging as well. Kikuchi Hideyuki, known for the Demon City Shinjuku and Vampire Hunter D series, penned the first Lovecraft parody novel, Great Old One Gourmet (1984). The story features your go-to ingredients of trash literature--snappy dialogue, lavish descriptions of gore and sexy chicks--while the narrative plays out like an Arkham House edition of mad libs. Structures are cyclopean. Revelations are maddening. And Cthulhu… he hungers.
Protagonist Naihara Fumio is a master chef in the school of disgusting delicacies. The slimier the vegetable, the more rotten the meat, the more vomit-inducing the seasoning the more brilliant the result. Of course, finding one with taste buds sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle texture of mold soufflé is another matter altogether. Enter Abdul Alhazred, whose master would be very interested in sampling Naihara’s cooking. You can’t bring forth madness and the end of the world on an empty stomach. But time is of the essence. The constellations click into position like a doomsday clock, and Cthulhu isn’t the only God who hasn’t been fed in strange aeons.
Naihara finds himself as the MacGuffin in a globe-spanning adventure with the U.S. Military and dark cultists vying for his golden spoon. It’s Professor Armitage’s grandson and the U.N.’s Anti-Cthulhu League against the Marsh family’s shipping conglomerate and deprived Dunwich yokels. Can the Whateleys' pickup trucks and shotguns compete against a flood of fish men? Can Dagon punch through the hull of a nuclear sub? And how good does your cooking need to be to make a Great Old One literally eat their heart out?
Weird fiction to be sure, but not in the way that Lovecraft originally envisioned. Many Japanese authors base their worldview on the tabletop RPG, which is based on August Derleth’s cosmology that sorts the alien gods by their servitors and elemental affinity--the sort of bookkeeping that’s good for grooming monster manuals, bad for crafting a sense of dread. And while Kikuchi’s works are as exciting as a summer blockbuster, many authors get caught up dropping names and neglect to drop forbidden knowledge.
The 1990’s: Instability in the Mythos
With Lovecraftian games and literature creeping into the mainstream it was only a matter of time before manga and light novels were assimilated into the collective, beginning with Juan Gotoh's Alicia Y (1994).
111 years after Jack the Ripper’s homicide spree London is hit by a similar string of grisly slayings. Demigod Alicia Y. Armitage (or Whateley, depending on which side of the family you ask,) knows that something far more wicked than mere foul play is afoot. The Elizabethan magician John Dee has been resurrected and is searching for the entrance to R’lyeh rumored to be along the Thames River. The day of Cthulhu's awakening is close at hand, and unless Alicia and her cat familiar Nyarlathotep intervene, the British Isles will be the appetizer for a global smorgasbord of destruction.
Author Izumi Makoto moved even further away from the source material with his erotic action adventure novel Jashin Hunter (1998). The risqué romp follows Nanamori Sarah, a pert female martial artist with monster slaying blood pumping through her developing body, in the sensual struggle to rescue her bubble-brained best friend from the twisted tentacles of the Cult of Dagon.
Publisher Seishinsha output a bulk of the Mythos anthologies through the 80s before pivoting in the 90s towards a genre of young adult literature that still hasn’t caught on in the west: Juvenile erotica. Jashin Hunter and similar titles are the missing link between weird fiction and weird fetishes, the breaking point where the Japanese Mythos crossed shifted from cosmic horror to self-parodying trope.
The 2000’s: Sanity’s Requiem
As Stephen King pointed out, Lovecraft’s tales are “all about gigantic disembodied vaginas.” Anime fans took it upon themselves to give bodies to these vaginas. Archeological records of message boards show that internet denizens were scrawling moe illustrations of Mythos monsters as early as 2002.
The meme was given physical form in 2009 with the Moe Moe Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia and the stars shook in ecstasy the following year with light novels My Maid is an Amorphous Blob, the tale of a boy and his subservient, cosplaying Shoggoth alongside The Magickal Girl R'lyeh Lulu, a return to form for reverse-tentacle rape and teen erotica.
Amongst all the bizarre activity in recent memory, none is as prolific as Nyaruko: Crawling with Love. Spanning 12 novels and two anime seasons, the series assumes that Lovecraft's creations actually exist, except as cute girls instead of sanity-blasting horrors. The titular Nyaruko, the silver-haired personification of Nyarlathotep, comes to earth to protect the high school protagonist from an intergalactic ring of human traffickers plotting to sell his baby face into sexual slavery. Nyaruko is followed by a flat-chested lesbian Cthugha and a petite genderqueer Hastur. Hilarity ensues as they battle monsters, reference pop culture and buy comic books.
Yet all hope is not lost. Just as there are brave investigators working against the malignant forces that conspire to release unfathomable terror into our world, there are artists creating works that help counteract the ever-expanding intellectual blight.
A number of artists have attempted serious manga adaptations with mixed results. Molice, Japan's leading Lovecraft researcher, produced adaptations of The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and other classics, but the mood and visuals fall short of one’s imagination. On the other hand you have the impeccable work of Tanabe Goh, pictured above. His art is as baroque as the source text and the tight pacing invents tension for otherwise mediocre tales such as The Hound and The Nameless City.
Then there's writer Asamatsu Ken. Like Edogawa Ranpo before him, his pseudonym is also a pseudo-anglicism, in this case, The Great God Pan author Arthur Machen. As a teenager Asamatsu formed The Black Magic Society to produce Crypt, a sci-fi/horror literary journal featuring his fan translations of Lovecraft stories. He later joined a publishing house to oversee official translations of strange tales. His excellent Mythos anthology, Lair of the Hidden Gods, is available in English from Kurodahan Press.
For a compromise between cosmic horror and internet memes I recommend the Call of Cthulhu TRPG replay series by Uchiyama Yasujiro. The cast work at a pawn shop specializing in esoteric goods and each session delivers a new forbidden object to lead them to places better left unexplored. The scenarios are at home with the modern Mythos cycle and, more importantly, the younger Youtube generation.
In letters to friends Lovecraft displayed a wry sense of humor and would poke fun at his own admittedly overwrought style. Still, given how serious he was about writing itself, I doubt he would find the current state of affairs to be very funny. I have to wonder, if the alternative meant being misremembered, would Lovecraft have preferred to be forgotten?