Enter the fifth dimension, where cute girls and guys with big round eyes mix up with chills, thrills, and morbid twists.
Yoko Matsumoto is probably a very obscure name to English-speaking audience, but she was a household name in my country, with a vast majority (if not all) of her works published here. Published under the ‘Mystery Series’ brand, you’d know what you get from a Matsumoto title: dark comfort food with the likes of murderous teenagers, ancient evil, the Grim Reaper, and parallel worlds as typical ingredients.
Making her debut in 1975 (at the age of 32) with Kiss wa Oazuke, Matsumoto is affiliated with the shoujo manga mag Nakayoshi throughout her career. Producing a high amount of short pieces and one-shots as well as occasional long-running series (Yami wa Tsudou and Scramble Doumei are the most noteworthy), she stands out by juxtaposing horror elements with shoujo art style, which is not exactly the first thing that pop in mind when you’re looking for something that could scare you. It actually makes a lot sense, though; as my former classmates (and nowadays, current students) can testify, teen girls like scary stories just as much as boys.
For a lot of teens in Japan and other Asian countries where her works are published, Matsumoto may even be an ideal gateway to the horror genre. Her character design is very accessible, the settings relatable, and the overall package hit that exact sweet spot for the age group she’s aiming for: it’s not going to leave the readers with nightmares or traumatize them for life, but it’ certainly exciting enough for the part of their brain that craves for something more sinister than your bubbly, genre-defining, high-school romance.
Matsumoto understands very well that the basic tenet of horror is an ‘uncompromising assault against the mundane normalcy of everyday lives’ , and she applies it within a broad range of sub-genre; sci-fi horror, murder mystery, slasher, cosmic horror, and even horror comedy. She may lack the graphic and intentionally repulsive aesthetic of a Junji Itou or (her fellow contemporary shoujo horror mangaka) Chie Watari, but her stories have genuine bite and compelling puzzle-solving element. There’s often a morbid sense of playfulness leading to well-crafted twist endings—I didn’t namecheck Rod Serling’s classic mystery anthology in the title just on a whim, after all.
It’s difficult to find substantial information about this author (at least in a language that I can read), but as I understand it she was most active during the 1980s and early to mid-1990s. As the latest work I can find of her was from 2000 and that she’s on her 70s now, I figure she has probably retired from drawing manga. Nonetheless, out of a rather sizable body of her work that I’m familiar with, I can assemble a list of titles that I considered as the representative highlights.
The In-Betweeners: Yami wa Tsudou
Also known as Darkness Gathers and Tales from the Darkside (not to be mistaken with George Romero’s TV series), a lot of fellow Matsumoto fans agreed with me that this is her strongest work. It has a slightly similar set-up with the 2015 anime Death Parade: recently deceased souls wander into an in-between chamber, where a mysterious arbiter-like host listen to their stories. These people invariably died under unnatural circumstances and/or have lingering concern that needs to be resolved, and it’s up to the Host—a fascinating and apparently genderless elfin creature—to decide if they should return into the living world or move on to the after life.
It’s a premise that makes for a solid anthology format, and while there’s basically no overarching plot or major recurring characters besides the Host (whose backstory and origin remained elusive throughout), the individual stories are easily good enough mystery on their own. It’s always a treat to see what happened to each character and how their situation is eventually resolved, with Matsumoto adding occasional dashes of comedy and poignancy to the predominantly dark tone. The wandering souls being almost exclusively high-schoolers did lower the ceiling for narrative possibility, but on the other hand it’s also a tried and true formula for stories of karmic consequences, bad blood, and tenuous adolescence relationship. Oh, and I love the curveballs and twists here, with my favorite being the one where it’s revealed that a lost soul (hitherto staying off-panel) was a stray cat.
Yami wa Tsudou is officially listed under ‘hiatus’ after a serialization in Nakayoshi and eight published volumes circa mid-1990s, but it’s safe to say that it’s effectively ended now. What’s there is still a very enjoyable read, and the Host remains my favorite Matsumoto creation—sometimes ruthless, sometimes benevolent, but always fair and forever shrouded in mystery.
Shorts Anthology: Mamonogatari/Inviting Darkness
Genre writers generally hone their craft through short stories, and accessing them first is a great way to get a feel on whether you’d like a given author or not. In that regard, I consider this title as an ideal gateway and arguably the best among Matsumoto’s shorts collection (it’s also one of the few of her works that had been fully translated to English). There are five stories in this with pretty varied range (black comedy, supernatural, slasher, and even sci-fi), all lead to a big, well-crafted, twist. They’re quite Twilight Zone-esque in tone, particularly Tody and Family, which also feature my favorite twists in this collection. Heck, the twist ending in Tody—a darkly whimsical story about a boy who hates carrots—still makes me laugh everytime I think about it.
Serial Murder Party: Mienai Kao, Nusumareta Houkago, Noroi no Kuro Juuji
(yes, Matsumoto’s artwork isn’t exactly varied. Read a couple of her titles, and you’ve practically seen all her character templates).
These three titles are two-parter (in tankoubon) thriller. The first two, Mienai Kao (Hidden Face) and Nusumareta Houkago (Stolen After-School Time Period, collaborating with renowned mystery novelist Jirou Akagawa for the story), revolve around a series of violent murders in school, starring female protagonists who had somebody close to them dying in mysterious circumstances prior to the story. There are whoddunnit mystery, circle of cannon fodder girlfriends, and of course, surprise endings. Both are good pulpy reads, and Mienai Kao also have the bonus story Nemesis, another very solid revenge slasher.
Meanwhile, Noroi no Kuro Juuji (Curse of The Black Cross) is a supernatural horror that concerns itself with an ancient demonic evil. It’s possibly the creepiest Matsumoto I’ve read, with a certain graveyard scene (where a violated corpse being shown) being especially notable.
Whimsical Mystery Club: Scramble Doumei
Another long series (collected in seven tankoubon volumes), this is about a group of silly high-schoolers (and a dog!) in a ‘special interest’ club that deals with mysterious and occult-ish events. Yes, because nothing makes your high school life more enriching than constantly running into dead bodies and supernatural shenanigans. Although frequently comedic, the mysteries are taken fairly seriously and a major character is also surprisingly killed off early on. It mixes up thriller, comedy, and romance well, and I found the cast to be endearing enough to support the whole ride.
Also, the dog… is a unique character, to say the least.
In addition to the above, there’s a bunch of short stories and one-shots, including another good collection Shio Utauseiza (which includes probable Stephen King homage Fire Starter), the male friendship themed Kimi ga Kimi de Aru Tameni, and humorous cousins’ misadventures Mystery Tour and The Devil. Generally speaking, I found her output in the 1990s to be of stronger quality, especially in terms of pacing and characterization. Matsumoto’ s brand may be known best as Teenage Girls’ First Mystery/Horror, but she’s weaved some darn good yarn on their own and made a great contribution to the whole sub-genre of shoujo mystery.