This has been quite a year for realizing that rules don’t apply. I used to say “I don’t like horror comics”, but I should say, “I don’t like most horror comics”, because I enjoy Parasyte. That’s because the scary element — a body-invading controller — is a perfect metaphor for teenage alienation and discomfort with one’s own body.
When alien worms come to possess humans, Shinichi is saved by his Walkman. He uses the cord as a makeshift tourniquet, preventing the invader from making a full transfer after it bores into his hand. Instead, it takes over only his right arm.
(When Tokyopop originally published this series from 1999-2002, they flipped the art so it read left-to-right, as was expected of translated manga series at the time. That meant that the parasite was called “Lefty” instead of “Migi”, as it is here, which means “right”.)
The art by Hitoshi Iwaaki is clear and straightforward with a minimum of stylization and simple, rectangular panel layouts. It provides a grounded setting for the outrageous events shown; because the presentation is so normal, the air of menace is more disturbing.
Once possessed, people become shape-shifters, devouring others. (The parasites eat others of whatever species they possess.) Shinichi’s arm winds up taking on Plastic Man-like effects, stretching and warping. It grows its own eyes and mouth to communicate with its host. Migi is a failure at its mission, but it wants to learn, stumbling at English and reading while Shinichi sleeps. Unlike the other parasites, who completely take over their hosts by entering the brain, the two maintain separate personalities.
That causes other parasites to see them as a threat, but it also leads to black humor. Migi wants to know more about reproduction, so when Shinichi is shyly talking to a female classmate, his hand forms into a giant penis. Shinichi contemplates cutting off his hand to be rid of Migi, but once it starts behaving, the two form an uneasy alliance. Shinichi doesn’t want to lose part of his body, and Migi needs him to learn and survive.
Shinichi doesn’t pay enough attention, I think, to something that Migi says early on: “I am not human, nor am I a pet.” Its sympathies and drives are not his. When various people wind up dead, chopped up and eaten, Shinichi knows it’s another parasite — but when he wants to tell someone, Migi threatens him in frightening ways.
The demented imagination on view here is impressively chilling. They encounter another “failed” parasyte, one that possessed a feral dog instead of a human. It wants to kill them, pursuing them by turning its head into giant bat-like wings, giving the image of a headless beast flapping after them. Other, more evolved parasites unwrap their human-looking heads in strange, unsettling ways, becoming ribbon-like blades or sharp tentacles.
From Migi’s perspective, its kind is only feeding on something, just like humans keep and kill others. It’s a question I first saw explored in The Vampire Tapestry — if a species existed that only ate humans, would it be wrong for it to kill us? It’s about exploring ethical predation. Humans can be very selfish; what would we do if something just as selfish but more powerful than us arrived on Earth?
As volume one continues, Migi and Shinichi meet other parasites, including one that has taken over its victim’s life as well as the body, successfully pretending to be a schoolteacher. Those close to Shinichi are noting how much he’s changing through all this. How could he not? He now has a dangerous secret and big decisions to make that he can’t share with anyone.
A key difference between Shinichi and Migi is emphasized in volume two. For Migi, everything is analyzed in terms of survival. Whether or not to fight someone is solely a matter to be determined based on whether you can win. For Shinichi, sometimes you fight, knowing you’re going to lose, because it’s the right thing to do (because, for example, a gang of tough guys from a rival school is hassling a classmate). Migi doesn’t understand self-sacrifice, while Shinichi is driven to reassert his humanity in the face of fears that Migi’s presence is changing him more than he knows.
Then many of the decisions are taken out of Shinichi’s hands, as his family becomes deeply involved in a shocking, life-threatening turn of events. His parents have gone off on a vacation, leaving him alone to face an unexpected encounter. After he expresses everything he’s previously left unspoken, he winds up scarred in more than one way. He’s continuing to transform, becoming almost super-human in some ways, with enhanced senses. He meets other hosts, possessed to different degrees, as he (and we) find out more about how the parasites work and what kinds of lives are possible with them.
Volume three introduces another student with a parasite, only he’s fully transformed. He says he wants to learn from Shinichi how to co-exist peacefully, but his actions are suspect. Then again, so are Shinichi’s, as he’s becoming more like Migi in disturbing ways. He fights less now, as he’s more capable of winning. Others recognize his frightening calm and back off.
Shinichi is losing his weaknesses — his indecision, his caring for others, his physical uncertainty — but it’s still a question whether that makes him a better person. He was more human when he had more flaws. When confronted with a horrific massacre, though, he still reacts emotionally, with panic. That mass killing was the result of a smart art student finding out about the parasite student. Society is beginning to suspect their existence, and the result is fear, suspicion, and confusion.
By volume four, Shinichi is torn between two girls: Satomi is a classmate, a normal girl who’s suspicious of the changes she sees happening in him, while Kana’s more of a gangster. She runs with tough guys and has the psychic ability to sense parasites. Her lack of fear attracts him, but he’s afraid it will also get her into trouble, a premonition that comes true and draws official attention to him. That leads to his biggest dilemma yet — how far will he go to protect his secret in the face of Migi’s insistence on survival.
In volume five, Shinichi has one last chance to share with Satomi, but he can’t bring himself to tell her the truth. Instead, he makes plans to find out how much others know about him by turning the tables on those following him.
The back cover mentions his “desperate struggle to save his own soul”, which sums it all up poetically but doesn’t apply to how the characters think about things. Migi doesn’t believe in souls, only Skinner-esque behaviorism and Darwinist survival of the fittest. Shinichi, on the other hand, feels like he’s losing himself, but he can’t get past his immediate circumstances to think in such high-toned terms.
Even though it’s full of terrifying scenes and ideas, I like this series because of the main character. Although there’s gore, there’s also humor and feelings I can relate to. Often, you’re supposed to become more emotionally stoic as you grow up. Although the cause of Shinichi’s shut down is different, his concerns are universal, wondering if what he’s feeling or not feeling is normal when there’s really no such thing.
The price of each volume is higher than the usual manga, but each book is thicker than normal, too, at over 280 pages. And the reading is dense, with plenty happening to keep the reader involved. (Complimentary copies for this review were provided by the publisher.)