Mixing horror and comedy is nothing new, but with the Mieruko-chan manga, writer-artist Tomoki Izumi is doing something truly fresh and exciting. In manga and anime, horror is a well-trodden genre. In fact, the king of that genre, Junji Ito, is arguably the best horror writer working today (sorry Stephen King fans).
But fans of horror manga need to pay attention to what Tomoki Izumi is doing with his Mieruko-chan manga.
What is the Mieruko-chan manga about?
The Mieruko-chan manga begins with Miko, a teenager who, whilst minding her own business one rainy day, comes face-to-face with a twisted and visually unsettling ghoul at a bus stop.
The ghoul asks Miko if she can see it and she smartly chooses to ignore it, instead opting to look around for the bus and check her phone. The ghoul then gives up and walks away, but it is only the first.
Miko is cursed to see the ghouls that haunt every single space, public and private, but that remain invisible to almost everyone going about their daily lives. She doesn’t know what happens if one suspects she can see it, and she doesn’t want to find out.
Right off the bat, the premise of the Mieruko-chan manga is chilling. Miko is constantly being surprised by the sudden presence of a grotesque ghost: in her classroom, on the street, and even at home. She is always on edge but must remain stoic and not let on that she can see them.
As a side note, you may have noticed that the manga is called Mieruko-chan but the protagonist is called Miko. This is because the name is a kind of pun that gets lost in translation.
The name of the manga, Mieruko-chan, is a blend of Miko and the Japanese 見える (or mieru — to be seen/observed). Miko can observe these ghosts, so she is “the girl who sees”, or Mieruko.
To make matters so much worse, Miko’s best friend Hana is oblivious to their existence, and to Miko’s plight, but she also seems to be a magnet for these ghouls.
Miko is now, at every turn, trying to protect her clueless friend from these things, without even really knowing what harm they could do. She is plagued by not only these ghosts but the paranoia over what they might be capable of.
The Mieruko-chan manga’s premise could so easily be nothing but heartbreaking, as we watch Miko suffer and struggle alone, powerless to help her. But the comedy here comes from Hana and their relationship dynamic.
Hana is a bubbly, sweet, fun-loving, carefree girl, always running headfirst into dangers she can’t even see, and Miko is constantly having to think on her feet to steer Hana away from those dangers. The comedy is often cartoonish in the best way possible.
Like the romantic comedy manga Kaguya-sama: Love is War, the Mieruko-chan manga is structured in small, episodic chapters.
Read More: Why You Should Read Kaguya-sama: Love is War
While the narrative is always moving forward, each chapter is also a self-contained narrative focussed on a specific event or problem that delivers scares and laughs in equal measure.
The progress of the overall narrative is slow, with the Mieruko-chan manga’s first few chapters serving as scary/funny setups and payoffs as we spend time getting to know Miko and Hana.
Eventually, we’re introduced to a few new characters, such as the hot-tempered Yuria, a girl who can also see spirits but only smaller, less ferocious ones. Her introduction to the story adds a new layer of terror and comedy, but also a new level of stress for Miko to deal with.
In an memorable early chapter, Miko and Hana find a stray cat and work to rehome it. They meet with a sweet-looking young man but Miko sees that he is haunted by a host of cat ghosts clawing at him, implying that he killed them.
When a tattooed and scary-looking guy comes along, Miko sees that he too is haunted, but by two glowing and happy cats that he must have loved until they passed. Miko happily hands over the cat to him. The first man (the potential cat-killer) comes back around later in the story, in a very clever way.
The balance between a slow-crawling larger narrative and smaller, self-contained events full of horror and comedy, makes the Mieruko-chan manga a brilliantly well-paced story.
The art of Mieruko-chan
As for the art of the Mieruko-chan manga, that’s where the horror really shines. I haven’t seen the anime adaptation but, seeing how cleverly the manga is drawn, I’m not sure I want to.
What makes the manga of Junji Ito stand out isn’t just his innovative approach to setups and characters, or his penchant for delivering Lovecraftian cosmic horror on both a major and a minor scale, but it’s also how all of this is expressed through his art.
Junji Ito has a talent for bringing to life the darkest, most twisted things from the depths of human imagination; things that should never be seen. He draws them with stomach-churning detail.
Tomoki Izumi manages to almost reach those same heights with the ghosts that he creates in his Mieruko-chan manga. These ghosts have monstrous designs: hollowed-out faces, elongated necks, empty eyes, distended bodies, harrowing expressions, and so much more.
They are drawn with thick, deep black ink, scratched and scrawled into life. And it’s this heavy approach to drawing his monsters that sets Tomoki Izumi apart.
There is a very clear and striking difference between Izumi’s human designs and his monster designs. This visually compliments the strange blend of horror and comedy that he’s going for. His human characters are drawn with soft, delicate lines. They’re cute, squishy, but still “realistic” in their design.
Conversely, his creatures are impossibly dark, larger than life, and have a depth to them that just doesn’t work. This juxtaposition of art styles is striking. It makes the ghouls feel as though they truly don’t belong. That they are wrong. A mistake.
It’s unsettling, stomach-churning, and also makes the human world and its characters feel so much warmer, more welcoming, and more comfortable.
Read More: Manga with Strong Female Characters
The one downside…
The only downside to the way in which Izumi draws his characters is a typical problem with a lot of manga (especially manga by men) in general: what we charitably call “fan service”.
In the early chapters of the Mieruko-chan manga, Izumi draws his teenage female characters with the male gaze in mind, and it is exhausting and tiresome. Again, this is nothing new but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pointed out.
In this manga in particular, there’s a focus on Miko’s arse and crotch. While Hana has big bouncing boobs (a tired joke), Miko’s crotch is occasionally the focus of a few panels. A very discomfiting choice.
Who knows why male mangaka choose to do this but I wish they would stop. It’s degrading to the characters, the readers, and even the creators themselves.
Fortunately, this tired “fan service” eases off very quickly, after a handful of chapters. It implies that Izumi may have been leaning on it as a means to grab male readers’ attention before calming down. But who knows.