by C. Noël Rivera
It’s not going too far to say that Matsuri Akino’s Pet Shop of Horrors has remained one of my favorite manga series of all time. When, exactly, I learned about it is a subject for debate. I’m sure it was during or just after the Dark Ages of Manga – that is, when all you could get your hands on in America was X/1999, Inu Yasha, Dragonball Z, and Sailor Moon. Maybe, some Video Girl Ai and Banana Fish if you were really lucky. Oh, and scanlations? We had no such thing. If you weren’t buying Animerica Extra, you were just out of luck.
But I do remember having a fit of excitement in 2003 when I realized the first volume of Pet Shop of Horrors was finally being released by (the then just expanding) Tokyopop.. A mad dash for the bookstore? You bet. While reading that first volume I experienced a number of interesting reactions. But I’ll get to those in a moment. First, though some may consider it out of order, I want to address the anime.
I was mortified to learn a year or two ago that all American editions of the Pet Shop of Horrors anime were discontinued. You can compare that with the elation of recently discovering that ADV Films had gained the rights and re-released it under their Sentai Filmworks title on February 10th. Did I buy it immediately? Heck yes, I did.
Now, I’ve seen this anime before (on VHS at that. Go ahead. Laugh), and something you have to realize is that it’s not a remaking of the entire manga series. If you go in with that expectation, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The anime is only four episodes long, and it focuses on the manga stories Daughter, Delicious, Despair, and Dual. Out of those four, the last two are probably my favorites, but each one has something to offer.
That said, I should probably set up the scene. There’s a pet shop in Chinatown run by the enigmatic and eccentric Count D. He offers pets of many kinds but, most of all, he offers what his clients most desire. There are rules to purchasing his pets, however, and, when those rules are broken, there are consequences (for which the pet shop will not be held responsible). Leon Orcot, a police detective, has determined that a number of unsolved deaths in the city have links back to Count D’s pet shop. He’s determined to prove D’s involvement in some fashion, be it drugs or human trafficking or the sale of dangerous animals, but, so far, he’s not having much luck making his accusations stick. No surprise there.
In the anime, the episodes are standalone stories, with the exception of Detective Orcot’s interest in D, which is a running point through each of them. Tucked within each of these stories is a message. You can see them pretty plainly and, though I wouldn’t say they’re over-moralizing, you’re clearly meant to think about them within and beyond the context of what you’re watching.
This anime (and manga) is categorized in the horror genre. Given the title, you might have guessed. This is with good reason. There’s an awful lot dying involved. Dying and very creepy things. Creepy things made creepier by the way Matsuri Akino draws expressions.
Speaking of drawing, I should point out that the animation is extremely loyal to her style. What’s different is the color palette. Anyone who has seen an art piece by this artist, particularly a piece of cover art from the PSoH manga, knows that she paints in a watery style with light colors, which gives a sort of ethereal quality to the Count D images. By contrast, the anime is dark and subdued. It fits very well into the sort of expectations you’d have for a “horror” anime, and I don’t think the departure from the watercolor look is at all a bad thing for the animated version. After all, we wouldn’t want anyone mistaking it for happy shoujo-time when a monster could potentially eat your favorite character.
But let’s talk about the “horror” label for a moment, because what you believe that label to mean will greatly affect how you perceive these stories. Now, I’m no aficionado of the genre, but I’ve seen my share of slasher films, scary movies, and thrillers. What I can tell you is that Pet Shop of Horrors is creepy at times. Really damned creepy (or maybe you don’t consider evil babies ripping their way out of their mother’s womb to be especially creepy. I don’t know…). If you’ve ever seen a Japanese horror film, you’ll know that, unlike their American counterparts, they’re subtle (okay, maybe the babies thing not so much). They’re subtle to the point of getting under your skin. I can watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and leave the theater sighing and rolling my eyes. But I watch Infection, and I leave my friend’s house terrified to ever go to the hospital again.
This is the same effect that Pet Shop of Horrors can have. You’re not going to be startled out of your seat, and I doubt you’ll start screaming, but you’ll get this strange, oppressive feeling in your chest. You might even make an appalled face or two. And I’m pretty sure you’ll never buy a rabbit. Just sayin’….
This is all extremely effective in conveying those messages I mentioned. Back them up with some disturbing imagery and the idea that, yeah, if you do those things there will be terrible consequences. Hey, I’m paying attention.
Now, the manga is ten volumes long, and each book typically has four stories and a pet catalogue (with the occasional extra). As you can imagine, the characters are more interesting because there’s time to develop them (not to mention there’s just plain out more of them), and the plot is more cohesive in the long-term despite the episodic nature of the series. There’s also quite a lot of humor, believe it or not, especially after the first volume.
And let me tell you about that first volume…. This is what I meant when I said I had “interesting reactions” to reading it for the first time. The very first story in Pet Shop of Horrors is somewhat shocking. I’m not saying you’ve never seen anything more graphic, and I’m not saying you’ve never encountered a plot more tragic, but this was tragic enough for me. Tragic and futile. If you’re not making the same capital-D-colon face that I was making when I first read it, well, then I’d like to know what you were doing, because maybe we weren’t reading the same story.
One of the fun aspects of the books is the relationship between Count D and Detective Orcot. Leon isn’t himself if he isn’t griping. The Count tolerates it fairly well, but there are times when even his very considerable patience wears thin. Then there’s Orcot’s younger brother, Chris, (who doesn’t make an appearance in the anime) who can, in fact, see the animals in their human forms. Some of the animals also make recurring appearances as well (and if I might add, they’re awesome). But what you don’t see in the anime that you definitely see in the manga is that Count D, while mysterious and dangerous and mischievous, is also someone who feels deeply.
There’s an entire story involving Count D’s lineage that starts closer to the end of the series. I wouldn’t really say it’s at the forefront of the plot – it’s still couched in the episodic tales – but it’s definitely there and serves to satisfy some of the curiosity readers might have about the Count. I say “some” because I’m still not entirely clear on what’s happening with that – I’m not sure Count D is quite sure himself, which would explain a lot – but it’s definitely interesting to read about. And every once in a while someone appears who has met one of the previous Count D’s, which is always fun times.
As I said before, this is one of my favorite series. Sadly, I haven’t met very many people who’ve read it, and I’d like to encourage manga readers to at least give the first couple volumes a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed as there’s a lot to appreciate, both in the stories and in the characters. And I can’t stress enough just how humorous this series can be – that’s probably one of its best features. Fans of the manga will likely enjoy the anime, of course, but I believe that it’s accessible even to those who haven’t read the books beforehand.
And if you do like PSoH, there’s always the new follow-up series, Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo (or, for you purists, Shin Pet Shop of Horrors) to keep you up on the Count’s latest mischief-making.
Matsuri Akino has written a number of other manga series in addition to Pet Shop of Horrors. Currently available in the USA are Pet Shop of Horrors: Tokyo, Genju no Seiza, and Kamen Tantei.
C. Noël Rivera is a freelance artist and reviewer with a (borderline unhealthy) obsession with books and, lately, fountain pens. She has a degree in animation which, apparently, isn’t enough because she has returned to the academic sphere to pursue a second degree in English literature and publishing. In her spare time she runs the book review site, The Reader Eclectic, which has been running since 1999 (previously under the name SpaceDragon Reviews). Her interest in the science fiction and fantasy genres began when her father introduced her to the original Star Trek and she fell head-over-heels for Mr. Spock. This blind genre devotion is eclipsed only by her love of sleeping and her mother’s chicken casserole.