Despite being a prolific horror manga creator, very few of Kanako Inuki‘s works have been released in English – Dark Horse translated School Zone and the now-defunct CMX released Presents, back in 2006 and 2007; both series are currently out of print. That means that fans can hope that Kodansha‘s release of Be Very Afraid of Kanako Inuki! is testing the waters for a (re)release of her works, because this slim volume is a collection of some of Inuki’s favorite short stories she’s written. Each of the six tales comes from a different series, with the oldest dating to 1991. If you didn’t know that they were from separate collections, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, because although each features a recurring theme or character, the stories all stand on their own decently enough.
Of them, the strongest is in many ways the earliest, “Happiness Hidden in the Dark” from 1991’s Fulfilled Wishes. The story is about a blind princess who lives a charmed life – she’s doted on, has the love of a good, kind man, and never wants for anything. But she feels the loss of her sight keenly, and believes that her life will be just that much better if she had it, so she turns to the larger work’s governing plot: she traps a wish-granting demon on a moonless midnight on Friday the 13th by holding two mirrors facing each other. While we can make guesses as to what the unforeseen result of her wish is, the reveal still hits hard, and part of the reason why it works so well is the juxtaposition of Inuki’s early shoujo sensibilities with the grotesque. It’s a blend she uses frequently, mixing idyllic baby doll-like girls with elements of body horror and gore, but it works especially well in this piece, making clear the influence that Kazuo Umezz had on her as a creator. She repeatedly mentions him as a favorite, and her shoujo-influenced art does have hints of his style.
“Lolita,” from the book Bukita-kun, also uses this juxtaposition to good effect, although it takes a more overtly tragic tone. This story features a five-year-old girl who is fully convinced that she ought to be a grown woman as soon as possible. This belief is largely driven by her attraction to the opposite sex, and her precocity is what gives the story its title: she’s a sexualized child, although in her case it is absolutely her own doing. When she runs across Bukita-kun, the creepy loner who could just as easily be from a Junji Ito story, he offers her a growth potion he’s concocted, one which will accelerate her aging without reducing her lifespan. If you’re already seeing where this could go wrong, you’re not alone, and the story works not because it’s cleverly plotted, but rather because we can see the ending coming and are powerless to stop it. Even Bukita-kun has his reservations, but he feels unable to stop the girl from bulldozing into the adult life she’s so desperate for. The ending is horror, but it’s in part horrific because of the tragic elements present in the plot, and it could also be read as a warning to children who are eager to throw their childhoods away.
That’s a theme that resurfaces in “Lovesickness,” which originally comes from The Haunted Examination Room about the misadventures of a psychiatrist whose patients tend towards the bizarre and supernatural. Like “Lolita,” the heroine of this piece is desperate for something she believes is just out of her reach; in this case, it’s the perfect man. (The heroine of “Lolita” will take any man she deems attractive.) Because she’s ignored or bullied by her classmates, this girl begins to daydream of her one true love, and she eventually becomes convinced that she’s growing him in her heart. In part this is because a piece of her subconsciously realizes that such a perfect man as she desires couldn’t possibly exist, but the horror of the story is that she takes the idea of him being in her heart far too literally.
Looking at all three of these tales together, it begins to appear that one of Inuki’s persistent themes is the idea of being poisoned by social expectations. The princess believes that she’ll be happier knowing for certain that she’s beautiful like everyone tells her, the little girl is desperate to be glamorous and attain the sort of fulfillment she believes only attention from men can bring her, and the schoolgirl is convinced that she cannot be happy without a true love of her own who is perfect in every way. All of these are societal beliefs that people socialized as female are often forced to swallow and internalize, and in all three of these pieces Inuki suggests that they are, in fact, unhealthy and can lead to our downfall. As a genre, horror is often adept at pointing out insidious social issues and fears, and while the other three stories in the collection are also good, it’s the way that these three play with a theme that really brings the book together.
Although not quite as visceral as some other horror titles, Be Very Afraid of Kanako Inuki! is still a solid book. It does feel like a sampler rather than a full collection in its own right, but hopefully it has opened the door for the longer works these stories come from to be (re)released in English. Inuki is a creator worth knowing, and if you’re a fan of Kazuo Umezz and Junji Ito, this is well worth checking out.