PARASYTE (Kiseiju), by Hitowashi Iwaaki. First published in 1990. First published in North America in 1998.
PLOT: All over the world, strange spores are falling to earth. They contain equally strange worm-like creatures that burrow their way into the mind of an unlucky human. Once infected, the host becomes a mere shell of their former self, able to shapeshift at will to protect itself as well as provide the means for the parasite to hunt their preferred prey: other humans.
Shinichi is very nearly one of those unlucky hosts, but thanks to his falling asleep with earphones on and some quick thinking, he is able to confine it to his right hand. Shinichi soon learns to live with his parasite, dubbed "Migi," but he also learns that many of the other parasites do not take kindly to the idea of human and parasite living together peacefully, and they are all too willing to kill to keep their secret.
STORY: The concept of body-snatching aliens is nothing new to the world of science fiction, but Parasyte distinguishes itself by not only focusing on an invasion gone wrong, but also by staging the invasion more on the terms of predator and prey versus two opposing forces.
Parasyte's tone is surprisingly innocuous for the first half of the volume, as Shinichi tries to figure just what precisely has invaded his arm and Migi learns to communicate and about Earth culture in general. That summary makes the whole thing sound almost whimiscal, but rest assured that it's not all boy-and-his-alien-parasite adventures. As Migi learns more about Earth, he also explains more about the parasites to Shinichi. To those like Migi, humans are just prey; they do not hate their hosts, they just simply need to feed themselves, so they do not understand why the humans are horrified and consider themselves above such behavior. Indeed, one of the running themes of Parasyte is about what place humanity truly holds on the food chain and just how much (if at all) humanity can be perceived as just another animal, trying to survive.
The second half is where things start going downhill for Shinichi, and the manga starts veering away more from the philisophical musings and more into the body horror. Some of the other parasites become aware of Shinichi and Migi's arrangement. Most are hostile and wish only to attack them, as their only concern is survival. One, though, shows a similiar level of curiosity to Migi. This one, Reiko, has possessed the body of a teacher, and she regards her own host as well as Shinichi as interesting specimens to be studied and experimented upon. Of course, now this leaves Shinichi in a rock-and-a-hard-place sort of situation. He cannot report Migi to the human authorities, lest he become a lab specimen himself. That being said, he cannot rely on the other parasites, as most perceive Shinichi as a threat to their continued secrecy and Migi as something of a failure. Thus, these two seperate beings are outcasts from both worlds, and now must work together if they too are to survive.
The pacing of the story is casual and straightforward. You'd think that such a nonchalant pace would hurt the story's ability to create tension or communicate the horror of the situation, but I find it works rather well. In some ways, the story is just as detached from itself as the parasites are from humanity, and that distance makes the horror of the events that unfold all that more frightening. It places the reader in a situation much like Shinichi's - aware of the true nature of the murders around him, but unable to stop them. That distance also shows in that we get far more character development from those who are possessed, such as Shinichi and Reiko, then those who are not, such as Shinichi's parents or Satomi, Shinichi's friend/love interest.
Parasyte works in many ways. It finds a nice balance between philosophizing on the nature of humanity and brutal alien attacks. It finds a way to make the parasites sympathetic and not just rendering them as a single, mindless invading force, but it also never quites humanizes them - there is always something distant and foreign about them, even those that are more peaceful in their pursuits, and that makes it far more fascinating than the blood-and-gore fest reputation of this manga suggests.
ART: Where Parasyte truly shines is in its artwork. The character designs are simple, but realistic, which only makes it all the stranger when those realistic looking humans can end up having arms stretching like rubber, heads that open up like fleshy, toothy flowers, or a hand that can grow eyes, a mouth, and appendages of its own. It's an especially nice touch that even when the parasites are in their fully human guise, there's always something off about them. Their stares are always a little too hard and cold, or shift and focus just a little too slowly. It's little touches like that which makes the parasites unnerving, even when they're not attacking.
Once they start attacking, though, their bizarre limbs and stretchy forms flash across the page in a blur of short speedlines. Here the mangaka doesn't linger so much on the attack itself as he does on the bizarre transformations and the horrific damage they inflict. There's also a subtle shift in the composition during the action, as the panels grow nice and spacious to accomidate all the flying limbs. Aside from that, the page and panel composition are rather standard, but this is not a manga that needs a lot of flashy panel layout to make its artwork stand out. The backgrounds are neatly drawn, even if most of the larger vistas are rotoscoped, but they're not present all that often. Most of the time our characters drift through blank space, but for once I can't say I mind. The mangaka puts the most detail and focus on the real draw of the work: the parasites and their transformations. Putting any additional detail in would just detract and distract from the strange forms he dreams up. This is one of those cases where less really is more.
PRESENTATION: This was originally put on by Tokyopop in single volume releases, back in the days when they were still Mixx. Unfortunately, those copies are long out of print, so I can't speak on how they were presented there, although according to Wikipedia it did suffer from their early trend of changing characters' name to make them sound more American.
Thankfully, this was rereleased by Del Ray in 2-in-1 omnibuses, which is the version I read. There are comments from the Japanese readers after each volume, along with the usual Del Ray extras such as the honorifics guide, translation, notes, and an untranslated preview of Volume 2.
Parasyte put a lot of visual imagination and philosophy into the tired old concept of body-snatching aliens, and it's those qualities which make it well worth a look.
This was first published in the USA by Mixx (Tokyopop), then by Del Ray/Kodansha. The 12 single volume Mixx volumes as well as the 8 Del Ray volumes are all out of print.
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