From earthquakes to slime molds, from zombies to the romance of decay, here are the manga you'll want to read to prepare for the End of Days.
"Visions of world cataclysm constitute one of the most powerful and most mysterious of all the categories of science fiction," wrote J.G. Ballard, apocalyptic sci-fi writer extraordinaire, in an essay in The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. "I would guess that from Man's first inkling of this planet as a single entity existing independently of himself came the determination to bring about its destruction, part of the same impulse we see in a placid infant who wakes alone in his cot and suddenly sets about wrecking his entire nursery."
By those standards, manga creators have been some of the most enthusiastic nursery-wreckers in the world. Manga end-of-the-world stories are far too imaginative and varied to just blame on post-World War II Hiroshima and Nagasaki stress, as some critics would have it; it's far simpler to say that seeing the everyday world blasted to smithereens is a natural desire among people in comfortably middle-class countries, like Japan and the USA. For this list of 10 lavish apocalypses, I've focused not on manga where cities get smashed and wrecked (like every single giant robot manga), or where the apocalypse is just an excuse for people to run around fighting each other in the lawlessness, but on manga that actually dwell on the destruction…and the weird life that blossoms in the ruins.
Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind
Hayao Miyazaki's only long-form manga series, with super-detailed artwork more like French bandes desinees than a typical manga, is a postapocalyptic classic. Sometime in the far, far future, biological warfare has devastated the earth, converting most of the planet into desert and the rest into a fungus forest filled with poisonous miasma and giant mutant insects inimical to human life. Humans survives in warring kingdoms on the edge of the wasteland, but every country still uses bioweapons whenever they can, and year by year, the wasteland creeps closer. The original manga version (available in English from Viz) is much longer than the anime, with a greater variety of mutant creatures, including a giant slime mold that swallows up whole cities. It's darker, too; Nausicaä, the warrior princess who communes with the giant Ohmu grubs, comes off as your typical tree-hugging hippie in the anime, but in the manga, she makes some shockingly cruel choices to protect the safety of her people. The science fiction element is buried a bit beneath prophecies and psychic powers and fantasy weirdness, but it's hard not to like a like a bio-cataclysm manga set in a world where, the heroes tell us, "once, even horses used to be mammals."
Go Nagai fused giant monsters, tokusatsu superheroes and Book of Revelations eschatology into this 1972 boys' manga megahit, which not only made tons of money in children's toys and animation, it showed that even mainstream manga can exoticize Christianity like crazy. (See Bastard!!, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Angel Sanctuary, etc.) Akira, a mild-mannered high school student, develops awesome power when he becomes the host for Amon, a demon from millions of years in the past. His friend Ryo, sort of like a deranged street preacher crossed with a mad scientist, wants Akira, now in the form of Devilman, to use his devilish strength to fight his fellow demons- half dinosaurs and half Cthulhu Mythos monstrosities-who slumber beneath the earth, waiting for a chance to rise again.
It starts out a bit like Ultraman, with Devilman protecting his school buddies from monsters, but before long the demons awaken en masse and the world descends into chaos. People everywhere become possessed and start turning into monsters. Zenon, the gigantic four-faced demon lord, flies over the world's cities announcing the end of humanity. Armies are mobilized against the demonic threat, but to no avail. Cities burn. As everything goes to hell and everyone dies, Ryo/Devilman also discovers that, when they're pushed to the edge, humans can be just as evil as demons.
"People transforming into monsters" is practically a manga subgenre—Yuji Iwahara's King of Thorn is one of the better recent examples—but Devilman, which started it all, delivers the "Who's the monster NOW?" message with the bluntness of a metal rod to the base of your skull. Nagai (and his onetime assistant Ken Ishikawa) destroyed the world in fire and rubble again and again in manga like the many iterations of Violence Jack and Getter Robo, but Devilman is still one of the greatest. Sadly, it's only available in English in a hard-to-find bilingual edition published in Japan.
Of all the works of the famous science fiction shojo manga artist Moto Hagio, only the Ray Bradbury-esque short story collection A Drunken Dream is currently in print in English, but her longer works are just as incredible. Her 1985-1987 series Marginal, untranslated in any licensed format, takes place in a desert world that, we soon realize, is Earth circa 2999 AD.
Plague, pollution and climate change has destroyed the world and reduced the average lifespan to 35 years, affecting women more than men…to the point that now, the population of Earth is entirely male, and the only woman is the Holy Mother in the city of Matador, who gives birth to the entire human race and distributes the precious gift of sons to the various tribes. But now, the Mother is giving birth less and less frequently, and with no future generation, the world is on the brink of falling apart.
Marginal is one of many postapocalyptic manga set in dried-up low-tech desert worlds (The Legend of Mother Sarah, Agharta, SAND, Basara, etc.), but it's not about the environment, or about desert raider Road Warrior action, as much as the ramifications of a society consisting entirely of men. Pederasty is normal, with nenja (adult men) feuding and trading for the affections of iroko (adolescent boys).
The setting has a Middle Eastern flavor, with tents and turbans and whispers of demons and djinn, a choice perhaps offensive to some, but a wry Ursula K. LeGuin/James Tiptree, Jr.-esque commentary on male-dominated societies going all the way back to the Bible: instead of a world where women are invisible, it's a world where women just aren't there at all. It's a good excuse for some bishonen man-on-man action, too, of course, but there's enough hard science fiction, adventure and character development for even the most heteronormative reader to enjoy.
A devastating explosion and earthquake strikes Tokyo. Three teenagers who were traveling in a train going through a tunnel awaken in the darkness to find that the tunnel has collapsed around them and they are the only survivors. When they finally get out, lava begins to rise from cracks in the earth, and they reach the surface only to find the landscape devastated and the sun covered in thick black smoke; Mount Fuji has erupted. And that might not be all.
This grueling survival manga by Minetaro Mochizuki (published in English by Tokyopop) never shows us any crowd scenes or news reports or gives us a full sense of the extent of the disaster; by the time the heroes escape from their underground prison, Japan (and maybe the whole world) is so depopulated that they rarely encounter more than a handful of people at the time. As the heroes walk and walk through hellish ashen landscapes, like scenes from Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the overwhelming mood is not one of survival action but a sense of total, almost supernatural dread. On a side note, it's probably a good thing that Dragon Head was published from 1995-2000, and not in 2011. Had it been, it might have been canceled, like Michio Watanabe and Dai Tennoji's manga Hakuryû Legend, which abruptly ended a nuclear power plant disaster storyline due to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Science is scary. It's one thing to read about a Dyson sphere, it's another thing to read Tsutomu Nihei's Blame!, a science fiction horror manga set inside an endless dungeon of corroded metal, which turns out to be an enormous Dyson sphere in which the remnants of humanity have become trapped, as colossal automated machines continue to build and build humanity's ever-expanding prison.
Nihei's Biomega is not set in the same universe as Blame!, but it's a toss-up which one to write about, since they're both equally ambitious in their vision of apocalyptic transformation. In a future of oppressive megacities, a zombie-esque virus has spread over much of the earth, turning humans into mindless drones. Zoichi, a synthetic human with insanely awesome reflexes and endurance, is immune to the virus, so he's given the mission of entering the infected zone and rescuing Eon Green, a girl who is also immune and whose DNA might have the secret to saving humanity…
…if only it were so easy. Like in Resident Evil, zombies are just the beginning. Biomega (available in English from Viz) is basically an action manga, involving Zoichi's battles against the tentacled mutant masterminds of the Data Recovery Foundation, a shadowy organization that's secretly responsible for the whole disaster. Soon, utter chaos breaks out and Nihei gives us his vision of a gray goo scenario. There's only one other manga I can think of that matches it for disgusting things happening not just to people, but to the planet as a whole: the scenes of the Earth literally licked and eaten by a giant planet-monster in Junji Ito's Hellstar Remina.
Highschool of the Dead
What's that you say? You just want an old-fashioned zombie apocalypse, without the zombies being only the first phase of a gooey global transformation? Look no further than Daisuke Sato and Shoji Sato's Highschool of the Dead, a super-traditional zombie story with George Romero sensibilities (these are definitely SLOW-MOVING zombies, thank you) and moe moe artwork. A zombie infection sweeps around the earth, and a few high school students and teachers manage to survive the first wave and fight for survival through infested schools, towns, even a shopping mall.
As the shambling, cannibal hordes lurch closer, the main characters defend themselves with nailguns, broken cleaning equipment, chairs, knives, swords (did I mention one of them is a kendo expert?), anything they can, really. There's more action than innovation, but Highschool of the Dead (translated by Yen Press) delivers what it promises. In typical Romero fashion, any group of people larger than five or six is doomed to collapse into infighting, and as the heroes struggle to survive, we get bitterly pessimistic glimpses of society collapsing around them. Less Romero-esque, perhaps, is the extremely fanservicey artwork, with most of the female characters possessing watermelon-sized breasts and frequently stopping for hot, steamy baths. Rei Mikamoto, creator of the schoolgirl-necromancer tale Reiko the Zombie Shop and the zombies-vs-strippers film Big Tits Zombie, would probably approve.
Sex is death. I mean, obviously. So is war, another time-honored transformative passage to adulthood, and the connection between the two is made pretty obvious in manga and anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, where adolescent fears of being alone and losing your virginity are tied in to planet-threatening disaster. For a manga about the futility of war and the urge to "man up" and embrace your doom, I'm torn between Yoshihisa Tagami's 1985 Grey, a grim and depressing manga set in a war-devastated future earth, and Shin Takahashi's 2000 Saikano (both translated by Viz), a war romance set in very near-future Japan. Saikano wins by a nose, a cute button nose, and maybe a blink of its big watery eyes.
In the near future, Japan is at war with the outside world for reasons which are never explained. Shuji, the main character, is a high school student in love with his girlfriend Chise, a timid, waifish little girl. To his horror, he soon discovers that Chise has been made the subject of biological experiments, and transformed into a barely human army killing machine that, on occasion, can scrunch itself back into the form of an underage-looking teenage girl. Of course, after he discovers this, they must go all the way and have sex.
I'm simplifying here, since Saikano is actually a pretty realistic manga about daily life in wartime, far from the front lines. But it's also a story about male fears and bodily transformations and forbidden love, a tiny bit like the cult hit eroge Saya no Uta. In any case, it's not so much an orgy of destruction as a melancholy tale of growing up and accepting who you are and who you love…no matter who must die in the process.
To even include it on this list is a spoiler, but yes: Hiroya Oku's action manga Gantz, translated by Dark Horse, is a story about the end of the world. You wouldn't know it from the first 20 or so volumes of the series, which starts out as a science fiction survival game in which recently dead people find themselves miraculously resurrected — or perhaps cloned from their own dead bodies would be more accurate — in an empty apartment occupied only by a strange black metal ball labelled "Gantz." The Gantz sphere soon equips the resurrected ones with high-tech weapons and equipment and sends them out in teams to fight weird, sometimes comical but always deadly aliens lurking in Tokyo. As the fights get tougher and tougher, and the public at large starts to become aware of the aliens, the increasingly battle-hardened survivors spend their scant spare time trying to figure out what's going on and to escape from Gantz's servitude.
But — surprise! — the survival game is just the prelude to a massive alien invasion, and at a crucial moment, the skies turn red and massive alien ships descend from the skies and start killing everyone. (I guess they never learned about relativistic weaponry.) Oku serves up some solid character development along with the relentless ultra-realistic CG-enhanced violence (and sex), and when the day of armageddon finally arrives, there's more epic-scale city destruction than any manga since Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. A caveat: like Highschool of the Dead, it's still running in Japan, so the plot could still mutate wildly.
Kazuo Umezu, a contemporary of Tezuka, delivered one of manga's most total visions of the end of the world in his classic children's manga The Drifting Classroom (1972-1974, translated by Viz), in which children teleported into the future find that the planet has been reduced to nothing but a endless expanse of dust, mud and trash. But in Fourteen he outdoes himself, bludgeoning the reader with a cautionary cavalcade of ecological horrors which reduces the population of the earth from billions and billions to…well, a very low number.
Like Osamu Tezuka's "Phoenix: Future", Fourteen has a charmingly oldschool vision of the future: humans live in domed cities eating vat-cloned meat and blissfully ignoring the ecological devastation outside. But unlike Tezuka, Umezu doesn't let his creations get away with anything as nice as a planet-destroying nuclear war. A vat of chicken meat mutates into a chicken-headed mutant, Chicken George, who miraculously grows into a super-genius mad scientist who vows to punish humanity for harming the natural world. And then things get REALLY weird. Every plant on earth dies overnight. Air pollution gets so bad that people's faces melt off the bone. A giant earthquake rocks the planet to its core and spills forth a tsunami of polluted, bacterial slime. By the end, everyone left on earth is screaming in the ruins running from (or changing into) mutant cannibal monsters.
The shaky art naive artwork by the elderly Umezu adds to the feeling of filth, contamination and bio-horror. And don't think that, because this manga was serialized in a magazine for adults, Umezu added much subtlety and nuance to his usual kiddie-manga scripting. But after completing the twenty-volume Fourteen in 1995, Umezu retired, no doubt satisfied that he had capped his career with something unsurpassable. It's the craziest, sickest pollution-horror story EVER, in any medium. Oh, and it's also got child sexual abuse, sort of, so don't expect to see it professionally translated.
Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (Yokohama Shopping Log)
Japan has the highest percentage of elderly people of any nation-21% of people are above the age of 1965, and the percentage is expected to increase to 40% by 2055. The low birthrate is considered such a problem that some politicians, like politician and economist Hiroko Ota, have openly called for people to have more children to keep Japan's economy from declining; some politicians have even called for government funds for matchmaking services. But what if instead we all just accept we're getting older, and let the world settle into amiable decay?
Hitoshi Ashinano's unlicensed manga Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou ("Yokohama Shopping Log") seems almost like an expression of that generational feeling. Sometime in the near future, the human world has entered a 'twilight age'. The population is declining; big cities have turned into small towns, cultivated land has been reclaimed by the forest and the sea, and tall grass grows through cracks in what used to be major roads. Alpha, a humanoid android left to run a coffeeshop in the distant outskirts of Yokohama, keeps the porch swept and the placemats clean while everything returns to nature around her, her lazy days broken only by occasional visits from local fishermen, passers-by and the old man who runs the gas station down the road.
Ashinano never really explains what happened to the world, or the flickers of magic which suggest that an older, animistic order is reasserting itself in humanity's absence. Instead of a postapocalyptic struggle for resources, it's a world where the dwindling survivors produce more food than they can eat; a manga of mono no aware, the sense of wistfulness of Earth's passing. Not unlike Kozue Amano's Aria, it's also a lazy-day story of home and hearth, of tea and beautiful landscapes, and a pretty android homemaker for (platonic) company. Will the world end, not in a bang or a whimper, but a peaceful sigh? This feeling of pleasant malaise, of accepting the end of the world instead of fighting it, is very much like a J.G. Ballard novel, taking us right back where we began.