(Episode Five: Careful what you feed that rabbit!)
I first read about Pet Shop of Horrors (Tokyopop) on a web page devoted to horror manga for girls, but in a recent email discussion I also had it recommended to me as an example of how “different” manga graphic novels can be from mainstream American fare. Intrigued, I picked up a copy of the first volume at Borders: from the cover I wouldn’t have immediately grasped that it’s a horror comic. Looks like more something from the Non-Threatening Boys Romance Library. I’ve got a lot to learn about shoujo manga. . .
The very title of Matsuri Akino’s series contains a certain tonal discontinuity: “pet shop” connotes an aura of simple charm and companionship, while “horrors” brings up images of the Cryptkeeper. Once I delve into the first volume, it becomes clear that this seeming conflict is part of the show; the teen girl series (recommended, the cover rating tells me, for ages 13 and up) is as much concerned with themes of love and relationships as it is the well-placed panel of gore. It’s a blend few American publishers would even consider when it comes to Comics for Girls, even if many American teens are as familiar with Stephen King as they are S.E. Hinton or Gossip Girl.
Pet Shop of Horrors revolves around a mysterious shop in Chinatown (who knew that Chinatown was just as exotic in Japan as it is in the U.S.?), run by a strange figure named Count D, who frequently is accompanied by a comical looking rabbit that has horns and bat wings. Count D’s Pet Shop specializes in ultra-exotic pets that each have their own special needs and requirements; failure to meet these requirements, we’re told, can lead to dire results. Volume One contains four chapter/stories (“Dream,” “Despair,” “Daughter” and “Dreizehn”), each devoted to a different pet and owner. As a back story, we also meet a surly police detective named Orcot, who’s investigating the unusual amount of violent deaths that appear to be associated with the pet shop.
To her credit writer/artist Akino openly acknowledges the series’ first influence on page one. As we enter the shoppe, we see a customer leaving with a pet taxi in hand; the proprietor is reminding the new pet owner of the rules they must follow: “Don’t take it into the light. . .Don’t expose it to water. . .And no feeding it after midnight.” Hey, we realize, that guy just purchased a mogwai! Later in the first chapter, the Count receives what appears to be a frantic phone call from the new pet owner: “Those things you sold me have bitten my grandchild’s finger off.” D’s response is to remind the freaked-out owner that he bears no responsibility for what’s happened since the man signed a contract to follow the rules. Pet ownership can clearly be a heavy responsibility.
Story three, “Daughter,” provides a good instance of Akino’s basic storytelling strategy. It concerns a couple named Hayward who come to the shop looking for a pet to ease their suffering after the death of their daughter, Alice. When D takes them into the back to show a pet he’s sure will meet their needs, the two see what appears to be a young girl resembling their late child. It’s not a child, D corrects them, it’s a rabbit: “a rare species that almost died out on a deserted island off the coast of Australia.” The couple takes the pet home, after hearing the rules for pet care (“Do not show her to anyone. Burn the incense you receive on a daily basis. Feed her fresh water and vegetables only.”) Of course, they quickly break them.
One of the themes of the series appears to be that the way we treat our companion animals reflects on us in ways we don’t realize. The doting Haywards, we learn, were incapable of imposing any discipline on their daughter. It was this abdication of parental responsibility that contributed to the young girl’s death. Once their “pet” ingratiates itself into the family, they settle into the same pattern: letting her have chocolates and not stopping her when she begins gorging on sweets. The creature goes berserk and then undergoes a gory transformation that ultimately results in Dad Hayward being devoured and the city attacked by a rapidly multiplying army of killer bunnies. (Fetch the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!) There’s a great scene of kids in the park being surrounded by the cottontailed killers, but Akino changes scenes before the carnage begins.
Silly? Sure. But behind the Night of the Lepus kitschiness lurks a serious theme: in the end, the Haywards’ inadequate “love” destroys both their daughter and their pet. Which brings us back to the blended themes that I noted earlier.
Akino, as I’ve noted, doesn’t stint on grue when it’s appropriate (among the other images in volume one: a partially-devoured bird-person and a man mauled by a Doberman), though a lot of her art follows the more “feminine” conventions of teen-girl manga. Two of the stories feature sad-eyed ingenue heroines who are regularly rendered with flowers or bubbles decorating the panels. Akino’s pages are less rigorously tiered than, say, Junji Ito’s are in Uzumaki (good thing Pet Shop wasn’t one of the first books I picked to read in the “100% Authentic Manga” format), which contributes to the series’ mildly off-kilter moodiness.
Looking at Tokyopop’s site, it’s apparent that the series has been successful. There are at least ten Pet Shop volumes, with five presently available in English translation. Though I’m plainly not part of the book’s usual demographic, I think I can understand the appeal of a series that keys into both the emotional lure and hard realities of pet ownership – even when those animals don’t resemble a member of the family. Still, the series’ occasionally graphic nature can be startling to a newcomer like me. I just don’t expect to see blood spatter in a book with lavender binding.
As a collection of dark fantasy, the first Pet Shop of Horrors is a mixed bag: the closer the stories stick to their protagonists’ longings and the various ways these are manifested with their pets, the stronger the chapter. Still, as a newcomer to the series, my interest has been elevated to the point where I know I’ll be checking out at least a few more entries. I eagerly await the inevitable episode with killer koi. Think it’ll be as scary as South Park‘s toothy goldfish?
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)
Pet Shop of Horrors
(Episode Five: Careful what you feed that rabbit!)