Parasyte-The Japanese Anime 2024 Review

 

Parasyte-The Japanese Anime

Parasyte starts with its money shot. A husband and wife face each other in a dimmed room; then the man’s head splits and unfolds into a Venus fly-trap, with rows of teeth and a half-dozen eyes on stalks. The woman can’t scream, only gasp in halting, terrified breaths, before the thing chomps her head off. Then a synthetic but spiky opening theme kicks in, by the group Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, previously heard on the end of Hunter x Hunter. The music races like a hysterical heartbeat, as if the woman’s terror outlives her.

“On Earth,” the original Parasyte manga began, “someone thought if there were half the number of humans, how many fewer forests would burn?” (This was long before the idea entered blockbuster culture with Thanos in the Marvel films.) As the tale opens, mysterious tiny pods, the size of tennis balls, drift over the night-time Tokyo streets, and break open to produce delicate, translucent, worm-like creatures. Instinctively these things scuttle into houses, under doors and into beds, seeking sleeping humans. They usually enter their victims by ear, zeroing in on the luckless host’s brain, to change them from within.

In these kinds of stories, we usually follow the human authorities trying to work out what the monsters are. But while there are such investigations in Parasyte, they’re only the subplot. Parasyte’s twist is that the main character knows what the monsters are already, but he’s helpless to tell anyone. High-school boy Shinichi is one of the humans targeted by a worm-like invader. He’s saved by his unhealthy teen habit of listening to music as he drops off; his earphones block the worm’s first try at brain invasion. Shinichi wakes and desperately tries to fend off the creature; it burrows into his hand, but he stops it by making a tourniquet from his earphones before it can get higher than his arm.

Parasyte-The Japanese Anime

The upshot; the thing fails to take over Shinichi’s brain, and must instead settle for possessing the boy’s hand, as it explains to the shocked Shinichi. (“I matured before I could eat your brain… Such a shame!”) Because it’s taken over Shinichi’s right hand, Shinichi christens the thing Migi, or “Righty.” As well as growing a talking mouth, Migi can mutate Shinichi’s hand into a range of strange shapes, but it often manifests as a fleshy lump with a humourless grin and restless eyestalk. The good news is that Migi doesn’t need or want to eat people, as he’s fed by Shinichi’s circulatory system.

The bad news is that Migi is determined to survive, and is ready to snip squidgy bits off the boy before he can amputate the parasite. (Evil Dead fans, put down that chainsaw.)

For the same reason, Shinichi can’t tell anyone about what’s happened, even when he sees reports of grisly killings carried out by Migi’s fellow parasites. The media dubs them “the mincemeat murders” because of their extreme levels of splatter.

Meanwhile, Migi wants to meet his parasitic kin, drawing Shinichi into a shadow world of shark-mouthed predators in human clothing. Like many anime heroes, Shinichi comes to lead a double life; home and school on the one side (including a pretty girl classmate who senses something different about Shinichi), and blood, guts and deathmatches on the other. But Shinichi can’t keep his two lives apart for long, and when they come together explosively… Welcome to Shinichi’s real nightmare.

“I believe the protagonist in a story is like a traveller in places ordinary humans seldom see,” said Hiroshi Iwasaki, who created the original Parasyte manga. “I hope that readers will follow him into the inhuman world.

The further we get from humans, the greater our understanding of what it is to be human becomes, I hope!” Iwaaki suggests there’s little point in making the journey with someone who’s already a hero at the outset. “I believe mental frailty is part of what makes humanity so appealing. If you’re telling a story about a brave hero, the weaker he is inside, the more dramatic his bravery becomes. Characters who start out strong remain strong, and so we never see them become brave.”

On the one hand, Parasyte is in a tradition of anime and manga which play like gruesome parodies of X-Men, putting teenagers through monstrous transformations that are empowering and terrifying (Akira, Attack on Titan, Tokyo Ghoul). On the other, Parasyte is also part of a classic horror film tradition, dubbed body horror. One of the most famous body horror scenes in cinema involves an alien parasite, one that clings onto your face and plants its offspring in your stomach; the same offspring later bursts bloodily out of your chest. Of course, we’re talking about the first Alien in 1979.

Parasyte, though, seems to owe more to the 1982 film The Thing, in which a monstrous alien is unfrozen in Antarctica. Like Parasite parasites, The Thing can impersonate humans before turning into a howling blob of flesh with snapping teeth. Later in Parasites story, we learn the creatures alter the human body so that every small part is an autonomous creature; this means you can tell if someone’s a parasite or not by plucking a strand of his or her hair. Anyone who remembers The Thing’s most terrifying scene, involving Kurt Russell tying up his colleagues and testing their blood samples one by one, should know where this comes from.

Parasyte-The Japanese Anime

As well as The Thing, Parasyte also parallels a much-filmed chiller called Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (The best film versions were made in 1956 and 1978.) Based on a 1954 novel by Jack Finney, this involves aliens hatching from pods, making contact with sleeping victims, and duplicating and replacing them.

As in Parasyte and The Thing, it’s an intensely paranoid scenario; the ‘pod people’ look just like us. Or if you want a really gross precursor to Parasyte, try Shivers (1975), an early work by the Canadian director David Cronenberg, who later made The Fly and Videodrome. In Shivers, parasites crawl into the bodies of humans, but turn them into much worse things than mere carnivorous monsters! Here’s a clue; Shivers’ working title was Orgy of the Blood Parasites.

Parasyte, though, isn’t primarily about gross-out, for all its shocking images. It’s more of a dark adventure story. Like Battle Royale, it flings its young hero into a terrifying situation and continually challenges him to find a way out.

Parasyte is also a blackly comic twist on the buddy genre, as Shinichi is forced to live with the unwelcome lodger in his body. Migi may be amoral and uncaring in any human terms, but his intelligence, curiosity and tactlessness are most entertaining – “You wish to mate with that female, I can tell by your blood pressure!” An outsider to human values, he can’t see any difference between humans eating farm animals and parasites eating humans. Perhaps he was an influence on a certain character in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Parasyte-The Japanese Anime

The original Parasyte manga ran in Japan between 1988 and 1995. It was acclaimed critically, winning the prestigious “Seiun” science-fiction award for Best Manga in 1996, and was the subject of an unprecedented scramble for foreign rights — on either side of the Atlantic, translators Toren Smith and Jonathan Clements both offered to translate the first volume for free if their publishers would consider acquiring it.

The next year, Parasyte debuted in English from the ultimate victor in the publishers’ race; it was serialised in the US manga anthology Mixxzine, where it made quite a contrast with another of the magazine’s serials, Sailor Moon! Since then, Parasyte has been collected in several English-language editions, starting with a twelve-book version published by Tokyopop.

Infamously, this was back in the days when manga was “flipped” to read left to right, Western-style, so Migi (which as we noted, means “Righty”) had to become Lefty instead! More recently, a Kodansha unflipped edition serialised the manga in eight books and included Iwaaki’s answers to questions asked by his Japanese fans.

The fact that Parasyte, despite its acclaim, was not turned into an anime long ago may reflect the state of the anime industry back then. In 1988, when the Parasyte manga started, and even in 1995 when it ended, horror anime tended to be video (OVA) titles. The age of late-night anime shows had not yet begun. Without very heavy censorship, Parasyte would have been too gruesome for mainstream timeslots. An alternative would have been to make Parasyte an OVA, but most OVAs were very short; it would have been impossible to offer more than a brief taster of the lengthy manga.

Instead, Parasyte became one of the early manga to be optioned for a live-action Hollywood remake and entered the strange dimension known to film fans as Development Hell. It was developed as a Japanese-American production, with the New Line Pictures studio on the American side. James Cameron was reportedly linked to the project at one time; so was the Japanese director Takashi Shimizu, who’s best known for his work on The Grudge/Ju-on horror franchise.

Most intriguingly, the film was planned to have physical, animatronic effects by the Jim Henson Company. It’s strange to think of the Muppets studio involved in a gory horror movie – though it had been involved in some scary kids’ filmsbut it would have put Parasyte in the proud ‘real effects’ tradition of The Thing.

If the idea of a Jim Henson Parasyte sounds odd, how about Hayao Miyazaki’s version? In 2015, Ghibli founder Toshio Suzuki revealed that Ghibli and Miyazaki had wanted to adapt Parasyte too, but were blocked because the rights still lay with New Line at that time. We can only imagine what the Miyazaki Parasyte might have been like…

These plans came to nought, but when the Hollywood rights expired in 2013, Parasyte slithered free. Japan quickly brought out two glossy screen versions of Parasyte. One was the 24-part anime – a late-night TV serial, naturally, by the Madhouse studio – called Parasyte The Maxim. The other was a two-part live-action film version, directed by Takashi Yamazaki. His other films range from the new monster spectacle Godzilla Minus One to the nostalgia-soaked trilogy, Always: Sunset on Third Street, set in 1960s Tokyo; he also made the CG animation Lupin III: The First.

Focusing on the Parasyte anime series, its story is enormously engrossing. That’s largely because there’s no reset button, no way to take back the enormous developments that come quickly.

The anime was by the Madhouse studio (Death Note, Ninja Scroll). Character expressions and acting are often good, while the morphing Migi is a gift to animators, squashing and stretching ickily. Apart from the flexing Migi, the show has no ‘super-deformed’ humour, but the early episodes have a surprise touch of goofiness, like an old Hollywood teen comedy. But then the horror ramps up and Parasyte’s episodes start ending on masterful killer cliffhangers.

There are also moments of delicate humour. In one scene, Shinichi’s maybe-girlfriend tentatively takes his right hand, then hesitates and takes his left hand instead. The very next scene switches to two emotionless monsters about to have sex.

Parasyte’s gender politics are as fascinating as they are contentious. The manned-up Shinichi becomes a magnet for girls who continually fail the Bechdel test, including a supporting character – a bad girl turned stalker – who’s written cruelly and shallowly, which doesn’t stop her having good scenes. Parasyte also has a running obsession with motherhood which becomes comically obvious.

Yet at the same time, there’s no worship of male ‘macho’ ideals, which the show provocatively presents as a female illusion. And then there’s the multi-shaped, freeform Migi at the show’s centre, portrayed as male in the manga and the live-action Parasytes… yet played in the anime by a woman, Aya Hirano, who’d previously voiced the iconic Haruhi Suzumiya.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Parasyte, the anime series, is released in the UK by Anime Limited.

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