Look no further than The Crawling Cuteness! Nyarl-Ko, the newest entry into the Mythos, to see how far the Great Old Ones have fallen.
The long-faced apron is the only link to the source material.
The flash anime is based on a series of light novels that ostensibly draw their influence from Lovecraft-themed video games and tabletop RPGs, which are in turn based on the original works that began to trickle into the country in the late 1940’s. How did Cthulhu and company go from serious literature favored by Japan’s masters of weird fiction to a self-parody unrecognizable to even stalwart fans?
The harrowing journey towards the answer is an unsettling one that begins with hushed whispers of awe and concludes with the collective guffaws of the Internet. Take my hand as we trace the source of decay through history.
The 1940’s: Edogawa Rampo Approved
The first overtly Lovecraft inspired tale appeared in the November/December 1947 issue of the mystery anthology Pearl, with Nishio Tadashi’s Grave, a faithful retelling of The Statement of Randolph Carter in which an ex-British soldier recalls his horrific experience in a foggy graveyard to his Japanese friend. The narration is bookended by observations from his companion, whose humorous descriptions of the gregarious, excitable, and predictably blue-eyed foreigner ruins any suspense built up by the tale. Still, for the author and his associates, it must have been the ultimate in-joke—the same raison d'être for many works amongst Lovecraft’s community of letter writers.
In the post war years, imported pulp fiction passed from person to person, circulated around a tightly-knit group like third-generation VHS bootlegs during the tape trading days. Nishio was in deep, but not as deep as Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese detective genre. Rampo's popular treatises on amazing stories introduced his countrymen to a new breed of weird fiction and expanded their horizons, like a literary version of the Peel sessions.
At some point Edogawa Rampo was floated a copy of The Dunwich Horror and Other Weird Tales. Impressed with what he found within, he brought Lovecraft to the public’s attention for the first time by applauding him in his list of essential weird tales, The Reader’s Guide to Horror Stories, which ran as part of his column, Castle of Illusion, in the June 1948 issue of Jewel (which was a mystery anthology supervised by Rampo himself).
This seal of approval from the contemporary leader of the field was the equivalent to having your passport stamped by customs, and was the piece of paper that helped under-recognized Western authors find their foothold on Japanese soil, Lovecraft included. The piece praises The Dunwich Horror, In the Vault, The Music of Erich Zann, The Outsider, and The Color Out of Space, in addition to Machen’s The Great God Pan and Blackwood’s The Willows, both of which Lovecraft has professed being influenced by.
The 1950’s and 1960’s: Madness Takes Root
Over the following decades, translations of Lovecraft and his contemporaries slowly creep into the pages of Jewel and other anthologies with ponderous regularity, beginning with
Kajima Yozo’s The Rats in the Walls in the July 1955 issue of Bungei, and followed later that year by Tamura Yuji’s The Music of Erich Zann in the November issue of Jewel, the same magazine in which Rampo had previously sung its praise.
Mizuki Shigeru's take on Dr. Armitage versus Yog-Sothoth. (Source)
Other artists began taking interest in Lovecraft as well. Following the inclusion of The Dunwich Horror in the collection The Great Tales of the Supernatural and Uncanny (1956), Mizuki Shigeru, famous for his lighthearted horror manga based on haunted folklore, spun his version of the classic with Footfalls from Beneath (1963).
Set in Yatsume, a rural village on the outskirts of Tottori City, the basic plot remains largely unchanged save from its clever localization. Wilbur Whateley’s library is filled with volumes on Oriental mysticism and divination, not Western witchcraft. There is no mention of the stars being right, but the return of the Great Old Ones is described as being as eventual as the changing seasons. And Dr. Armitage defeats Yog-Sothoth (given the tongue-in-cheek name Yogurt) by reading an incantation from a scroll as it were a sutra.
Cover from the first edition of The God of the Cult. (Source)
Though gaining momentum, the movement was still taking baby steps, with Japanese releases far trailing the output of Arkham House. This makes Takaki Akimitsu’s The God of the Cult (1956) all the more impressive as the first original Japanese Mythos tale.
This sixty-page mystery opens with Murakami Kiyohiko, a well to-do miser on one of his frequent drunken wanderings around antique shops where he acquires an ominous black idol with seven fingers and a crowned head. He enlists the help of his friend, an amateur researcher of primitive art, in identifying the carved wooden relief, but to no avail. One thing’s for sure—The haunting gaze of the idol exudes a malicious aura.
Murakami is soon visited by an odd fellow whose otherwise impeccable Japanese is marred by his foreign upbringing. He has traveled from England in search of the idol, a priceless object of worship for his religion—the cult of Chuuloo—who believe that mankind descended from a highly advanced civilization which sunk under the waves of the Pacific just north of Australia millennia ago, and that when we die our souls join our ancestors in their underwater city.
The visitor moves to purchase the idol for a hefty sum, which piques Murakami’s interest. There’s more to the carving than meets the eye, he muses, and turns down the offer for the sake of being contrary. Enraged, the visitor departs in a huff, but not before marking his host with the curse of Chuuloo.
Murakami’s brutalized corpse is discovered the next day and the idol vanishes, only to later reemerge at the scene of a second, seemingly unrelated murder. The story shifts from a Call of Cthulhu pastiche to a noir mystery, complete with resourceful beat cop and cock-sure detective. Readers are kept guessing as to the true nature of the accursed idol, christened the Plague Lord for the misfortune that follows its wake. Even when all supernatural leads are stamped out, a sick sense of dread sinks in. Seemingly benign or otherwise, the Chuuloo cults have made their presence known in Japan.
The 1970’s: The Stars Are Right
The Exorcist. Uri Geller. Tsunoda Jiro’s horror manga Newspaper of Fear. These ingredients combined to ignite nationwide interest in the occult and supernatural that burned fiercely until being extinguished by the Aum Shinrikyo's 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Mythos literature rode this wave from the stuffy pages of mystery serials to the burgeoning field of sci-fi.
The extra edition of the September 1972 SF Magazine devoted a special space to Mythos tales, including The Black Stone, The Hound of Tindalos, Out of the Aeons, and The Haunter of the Dark. This distinction is important. The idea of an independent yet tangently related series of stories was starting to take hold. If August Derleth and Arkham House gave birth to the Mythos concept, then Japan had finally signed the adoption papers.
This ten volume series from Kokusho Kankokai was released regularly from October 1984 to June 1986. Many will recognize the jacket art, Spell III by H.R. Giger, from the front cover of the artist's Necronomicon.
Soon after, Sogensha and other mystery/sci-fi publishers began producing collections of stories from the writers in Lovecraft’s inner circle that were similar to Arkham House’s catalog. The translations would continue well into the 1980’s, as Seishinsha picked up where other companies left off.
The 1980’s: Roll For Sanity Check
Dungeon-crawl computer RPGS like Wizardry and Ultima were widely successful in Japan and players were hungry for more fantasy. When computer gaming magazines introduced Dungeons & Dragons as the grandfather of these beloved PC titles, they unwittingly caused a TRPG boom. D&D hit in 1983, inspiring Japanese enthusiasts to create the more accessible Road of Rule in 1984.
The paper and electronic markets created a positive feedback loop of borrowed ideas and innovation. Garry Gygax’s Monster Manual laid the groundwork for Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy; video games stimulated youth interest and demand for cheap rulebooks (market standard box sets came with cumbersome literature and a whopping 5000 yen price not reflective of the low production values,) which resulted in pen and paper systems such as 1989’s Sword World RPG that pioneered the A6 sized, highly portable, and affordable bunkobon format.
Cover slip from the first Japanese release of Call of Cthulhu. "A realm of darkness you must not cross into." (Source)
As the isle of Lodoss first materialized in the pages of computer gaming mag Comptiq, so too was R’lyeh raised from the depths via Hobby Japan’s 1986 release of Call of Cthulhu, Chaosim’s horror fiction tabletop role-playing game. The tome brought eldritch horror to a new audience previously accustomed to Tolkien-derived hack and slash style dice chucking. Gamers were all too quick to ingest and internalize the utterly alien worldview held within, and it wasn’t long before the Great Old Ones began to spill over into related media.
Laplace's Demon manifested as Hastur. (Source)A year after Call of Cthulhu entered the playing field, Hummingbird Soft released
Laplace’s Demon for the PC-88, a survival horror RPG that borrowed its system and 1920’s American Midwest setting from the aforementioned TRPG. The player and their posse investigate a haunted mansion located on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Newkham, Massachusetts, where you solve puzzles, battle otherworldly entities, and, depending on your tolerance for torturous gameplay, go insane.
Success or failure relies on the makeup of your team. Gumshoes are handy with guns, spirit mediums can damage incorporeal foes, journalists snap photos of monsters that you sell in the town for cash, scientists create bizarre devices, and dilettantes are ace puzzle solvers. Sadly, the unique concept is bogged down by its unforgiving difficulty, brutal even in an era of purposefully impossible games. The notoriously confusing 1st person dungeon exploration (can’t shake the curse of Wizardry) is made incomprehensible by traps that turn you around without you knowing. Story events won’t trigger without the proper characters in your party, and you die if your sanity meter—which doubles as your magic points—drops to zero.
Ironically, Comptiq, the same magazine that helped kick off the TRPG boom that resulted in Laplace’s Demon, ran six months worth of strategy articles featuring maps and puzzle solutions.
Though the game’s obtuse nature limited its appeal, it made it trendy for computer and console RPGs to cherry-pick Mythos monsters to round out their demonic host. Hudson Soft’s Evil Sacred Sword: Necromancer (1988) featured an all-star cast of Great Old Ones led by Azathoth, and the Megami Tensei series was never coy about where it cribbed Vile-aligned deities from. The TRPG would be buried under the collectable card game boom of the early 90’s, yet titles such as these allowed Cthulhu and his ilk to live on digitally, waiting for their time to once again rise to the spotlight.
Lotte's Fortress of Neclos, Bikkuri-Man cards that you can fight with. (Complete collection found here.)
Even confectionary maker Lotte jumped on the name dropping bandwagon with Fortress of Neclos, a swords and sorcery dice game played with rubber figures (that change color in the sun) and treasure cards distributed within booster boxes that also contained chocolate-coated graham cracker eggs. Imagine HeroClix with Barbarians and Minotaurs instead of Wolverine and Sentinels, made all the more addictive by a sweet candy shell.
The story is a collection of fantasy tropes that were stale even at the time. Long, long ago, the Dark Lord waged war with the Creator for control of the land, only to be defeated by eight virtuous warriors and sealed away. Now, as the Dark Lord’s minions move to revive him, the descendents of the original heroes must stand up and retrace the footsteps of their ancestors.
Cthulhu as he appears in Fortress of Neclos. (Source)
Each series featured eight playable characters and a colorful bestiary brimming with monsters and deities re-appropriated from world mythology and religion. In the eighth and final series, Neclos calls down the planet R’lyeh, and with it Cthulhu and his followers, Tsathoggua, Nyarlathotep, and Innsmouth (a common solecism for Deep Ones or those with the Innsmouth look).
Modern Mythos literature was emerging as well. Kikuchi Hideyuki, better known as the father of the Demon City Shinjuku and Vampire Hunter D series, pens the first Lovecraft parody novel, Great Old One Gourmet (1984). The story features your go-to ingredients of trash literature—snappy dialogue, lavish descriptions of gore, and sexy chicks—while the narrative plays out like an Arkham House edition of mad libs. Structures are cyclopean. Revelations are maddening. And Cthulhu… he hungers.
Protagonist Naihara Fumio is a master chef in the school of disgusting delicacies. The slimier the vegetable, the more rotten the meat, the more vomit-inducing the seasoning, the more brilliant the result. Of course, finding one with taste buds sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle texture of mold soufflé is another matter altogether. Enter Abdul Alhazred, whose master would be very interested in sampling Naihara’s cooking. You can’t bring forth madness and the end of the world on an empty stomach. But time is of the essence. The constellations click into position like a doomsday clock, and Cthulhu isn’t the only God who hasn’t been fed in strange aeons.
Naihara finds himself as the MacGuffin in a globe-spanning adventure with every branch of the U.S. Military and sect of dark cultists vying for his golden spoon. It’s Professor Armitage’s grandson and the U.N.’s Anti-Cthulhu League against the Marsh family’s shipping conglomerate and deprived Dunwich yokels. Can the Whateleys' pickup trucks and shotguns compete against rivers of fish men? Can Dagon punch through the hull of a nuclear sub? And how good does your cooking need to be to make a Great Old One literally eat their heart out?
Listen, hear that brittle creaking sound? It’s the collective sanity of the Mythos, starting to crack.
The 1990’s: Instability in the Mythos
The media mix model of cross-pollinated entertainment guarantees that a successful franchise will bleed into neighboring mediums. With Lovecraft games and books booming, it was only a matter of time before manga and light novels were assimilated into the collective, starting with Juan Gotoh's Alicia Y in 1994.
One hundred and eleven years after Jack the Ripper terrorized London, the city is hit by a similar string of grisly slayings. Demigod Alicia Y. Armitage (or Whateley, depending on which side of the family you ask) knows that something far more wicked than mere foul play is afoot. The Elizabethan magician John Dee has been resurrected and is searching for the entrance to R'lyeh, rumored to be somewhere along the Thames River. The day of Cthulhu's awakening is close at hand, and unless Alicia and her cat familiar Nyarlathotep intervene, the British Isles will be the appetizer for a global smorgasboard of extinction.
Muay Thai fishmen VS schoolgirls. (NSFW source)
Fans begin to head for the hills with the release of Izumi Makoto’s erotic action adventure novel Demon Hunter (1998). The heartwarming story follows Nanamori Sarah, a pert female martial artist with monster slaying blood pumping through her developing body, in the sensual struggle to rescue her bubble-brained best friend from the twisted tentacles of the Cult of Dagon.
Masamune Shiro provides sanity blasting illustrations that reach down deep inside your most shameful of recesses to pull your Cowper’s gland out of your nose hole. It’s worth noting that the publisher, Seishinsha, was responsible for a bulk of Lovecraft anthologies from the 80’s. Works like this are now the publisher’s bread and butter in a genre of young adult literature that still hasn’t caught on in the west: Juvenile erotica.
The Mythos were becoming sexier with each passing year. And once you cross that line and fetishize something, there’s no going back to a platonic relationship.
Notable as the first of many titles to anthromorphise the utterly alien and unknowingly infinite pantheon as rosy-cheeked young debutantes, the dramady romance manga Angel Foyson (1999) follows Kodo Susumu, a high school student whose ying and yang are all out of whack, leaving him chronically anemic though optimistically cheerful. Lucky for him he has a harem of muffin haired cuties (and dreamy femboys) queued up to suck out his bad mojo, including Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, and Atlach-Nacha.
If you thought Oh! My Goddess was great because of the callbacks to Norse mythology, then you'll love Angel Foyson for its ham-fisted Mythos references. After class the kids trip out on Golden Mead to study for the entrance exams at the Great Library of Celaeno. Egyptian priestesses setup fortune telling shops at the school festival. The girls use their extra-dimensional powers to help the protagonist break the school track record. It's all fun and games until grumpy daddy Nodens finds out! Tee-hee.
All of these titles are as awful as they sound, and would normally be curtailed to an eye-rolling footnote, but they must be mentioned, as they are the source of our modern mind rot. They are the missing link between weird fiction and moe, the breaking point when the Mythos officially crossed over from the realm of cosmic horror to the dismal land of self-parodying trope (all while beating plush Cthulhu to the punch).
The 2000’s: Sanity’s Requiem
Sad Great Race of Yith in the Snow. (Source)
Never one to pass up a chance to troll, the Mythos are now deeply enough ingrained in nerd subculture that it becomes worth 2-Chan’s time to take a piss at. Their 2002 Cthulhu Mythos Moe thread has been preserved here for alien archeologists to puzzle over when they exhume the ruins of our doomed civilization.
The thread had a profound effect on people. Its saccharine-coated claws had dug out a hole in our hearts, a hole that could only be filled with more sexy anthropomorphic monsters. The Moe Moe Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia was among the first of these demon seeds to bud in September 2009 and takes the 2-Chan meme to its logical, though no less damning, conclusion.
Everything you wanted to know about Lovecraft light novels can be found here.
Amongst all the bizarre activity in recent memory, none are as prolific and disquieting as The Crawling Cuteness! Nyarl-Ko. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the themes and settings of the series (six books and counting) draw from the well of Lovecraftian lore, but like the Blasted Heath, the source has been corrupted by some poisonous entity outside our graciously finite sphere of comprehension.
Yet all hope is not lost. Just as there are brave investigators working against the malignant forces that conspire to release unfathomable terror into our world, there are artists creating works that help counteract the ever-expanding intellectual blight.
One of the many recent manga adaptations produced by Molice. (Source)
The April 2010 issue of SF Magazine introduced modern Mythos authors to a Japanese audience. Likewise, Japan has its own lineup of indigenous Mythos authors, and Kurodahan Press has released several English language compilations of their work. Molice, leading Lovecraft researcher, has been producing manga adaptations of essential stories including The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Tabletop RPGs experienced a revival with the 2003 launch of the magazine Role and Roll, whose Call of Cthulhu “replays” have drawn fresh blood into the fold.
Lovecraft in Japan is an infinitely fascinating topic, a living organism as mutateable as the Mythos themselves. This article is merely the entrance to a great underground network that honeycombs throughout the bedrock laid by the old boys (and girls) at Arkham House.
If you’re interested, please check out past blog entries that explore the TV adaptation of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the recent light novel explosion, and scans from the Moe Moe Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia. Also, check my notes for the Japanese spelling of titles and authors referenced in the article if you'd like to do some followup sluthing of your own.
Pearl (真珠) was a short-lived mystery anthology that ran from 1947-1948. It featured Nishio Tadashi’s (西尾正) Grave (墓場), a reimagining of The Statement of Randolph Carter. The story has been recently reprinted in his 2nd collection of detective stories (西尾正探偵小説選). (Amazon link)
The mystery anthology Jewel (宝石) ran from 1946-1964. Editor Edogawa Rampo’s regular column, Castle of Illusion (幻影城), discussed speculative fiction. Its two-part must-read list, The Reader’s Guide to Horror Stories (怪談入門), was the big break that many domestic and international authors had been waiting for. (List of titles)
1950’s and 1960’s
Takaki Akimitsu (高木 彬光) was a prolific author of mystery and horror. The God of the Cult (邪教の神) has been reprinted in modern collections, and its original printing is still readily available. (Amazon link)
The Great Tales of the Supernatural and Uncanny (幻想と怪奇2 -英米怪談集) introduced Lovecraft to a new generation, including Vampire Hunter D author Kikuchi Hideyuki and Gegege Kitaro creator Mizuki Shigeru, whose Footfalls from Beneath (地底の足音) is a manga adaptation of the Dunwich Horror. (Amazon Link)
SF Magazine (SFマガジン)
It’s worth mentioning the original Japanese titles of the various games without official translations.
Laplace’s Demon (ラプラスの魔) is officially known as DIABLE DE LAPLACE, though the hacked Super Nintendo ROM asserts the former.
Fortress of Neclos (ネクロスの要塞) should be Fortress of Necros, but I’m respecting the Engrish typo from the product.
Evil Sacred Sword: Necromancer (邪聖剣ネクロマンサー) was first released on the PC Engine (Turbografx-16 in the west). The cell phone sequel was recently ported to the DSi with no news of an English release in sight.
Kikuchi Hideyuki (菊池秀行), author of Great Old One Gourmet (妖神グルメ), has a surprising amount of works translated into English from his Vampire Hunter D and Wicked City series.
Works of H.P. Lovecraft (定本ラヴクラフト全集) are worth hunting down for the amazing Giger covers. (Amazon link)
Juan Goto (後藤寿庵) took a brief sabbatical from drawing pornographic manga to pen Alicia Y (アリシア・Y). This rare entry into the Japanese Mythos cycle was fetching prices of over 20,000 yen before it was reprinted as an e-book. (Download site)
Izumi Makoto’s (出海まこと) Demon Hunter (邪神ハンター) is best avoided and is here for the sake of completion.
Atelier Sibusawa (澁澤工房) is responsible for Angel Foyson (エンジェルフォイゾン).
2000’s and beyond
Replays are records of TRPG sessions that range in complexity from simple play-by-play breakdowns to full blown novelizations. The recent Call of Cthulhu replays from Role&Roll (クトゥルフ神話TRPGリプレイ) may have questionable covers, but the content is reportedly true to the game. (Amazon link)
Follow Molice, leading Lovecraft researcher in Japan, on Twitter. (Twilog link)
Kurodahan Press translated a series of Japanese Mythos tales. (Site link)
Kaoru Kurimoto’s (栗本薫) epic Demon World Suikoden (魔界水滸伝) spanned over twenty books from 1981-1993 and served as the portal to Lovecraft’s realm for many people.
Reader's Guide to Cthulhu Mythos (クトゥルー神話の本) is the premiere Japanese language guide for Mythos trivia and contains a wealth of information about the early translation years.