Never before have I read a manga that made me so uncomfortable and terrified that it made me want to stop reading. And this is coming from someone who gleefully hunts down Junji Ito’s cavalcade of body horror stories like Gyo and Uzumaki. But Scumbag Loser exists on a whole different level. I haven’t had a piece of psychological horror get so deep into my head since Jacob’s Ladder, surprising me in ways I thought I was too cynical and desensitized to be affected by. With its suspenseful story and menacing antagonists, Miskito Yamaguti’s Scumbag Loser proved to be a really difficult read.
Masahiko Murai is one pathetic loser. An overweight loner gifted with an unusually strong sense of smell (which plays to his fetish of collecting women’s underwear), he takes his inability to make social connections with people and turns it into malice against those he considers to be losers. He holds negative impressions of the pretty and popular girls and boys at this high school and even extends his concealed rage towards salaryman and authority figures. Inventing a social caste system to deal with his issues, he takes pleasure knowing that despite his current lot in life, there’s another student far more pathetic than he and worthy of the title, “biggest loser.” Masahiko’s worldview is shattered when this ugly, filthy, student suddenly shows up to school claiming to have a girlfriend, making him popular with the class and threatening to make Masahiko into the class’ shoe-licking “biggest loser.” This fear sends him into a panic, causing him to blurt out that he too has a girlfriend. When the other boys start to doubt his story, the class gets a new transfer student… which just so happens to be Mizusawa Haruka, the girl Masahiko claims to be dating. The only problem with Haruka is that she has been dead for five years. Who is this woman? Why is she after Masahiko? And why, despite all evidence that something is clearly wrong, does Masahiko beg Haruka to maintain the ruse?
What follows is an uncomfortable descent into madness as Masahiko finds himself at the whims of a monstrous creature that forces him to seek out victims. Haruka’s return functions as a catalyst of sorts as Masahiko’s life takes hard turn after hard turn as his past is revealed, exposing a dark series involving a troubled childhood molded by an extremely abusive father. The book is heavy with themes of bullying and it’s the threat of being treated so harshly by his peers that causes Masahiko to agree with Haruka’s demand to meet with other men and women Masahiko believes to be losers. Things quickly spiral out of control as a monster begins to affect the school, replacing regular students whose personalities dramatically change overnight. Masahiko gets in way too deep and is forced to fight for his life against an unstoppable malevolent force that feeds on humans looked down upon by society.
What is so frightening about this book isn’t so much the story (in honesty, the plot kind of crumbles in the third act due to, in part, a lengthy exposition dump) but the artwork. There’s a thick level of tension that builds in each of the ten “episodes,” an uncomfortable feeling of dreadful urgency as Haruka and the classmates she infects show increasing signs of change. The tension reaches a climax when Haruka and her victims flash unnaturally large and disturbing toothy grins. These reveals almost always happen after a page turn which makes the imagery all the more unsettling and scary. And each time this happened, I slammed the book shut in terror. Yamaguti knows how to draw some truly frightening facial expressions and scenes of violence with so much artistic intensity that I’m convinced that I’m going to have nightmares.
Scumbag Loser is a shocking psychological and psychosexual horror thriller that is most definitely not for children. If the creepy facial expressions won’t disturb young readers, the scenes of messy violence probably will. The majority of the story is gripping and keeps you turning pages to find out what is going on with Haruka and her growing army of smiling monsters. There’s a bonus chapter at the end of the manga that serves as an explanation for Masahiko’s cryptic final line and at first, I didn’t quite understand it. After re-reading it a few times, the realization went off like a bomb inside my head and immediately changed my perspective on the entire story. This new way of looking at the story goes to show that Yamaguti has put together a fantastic piece of fiction. Scumbag Loser is a great addition to a horror collection, but beware that some readers might end up spending a night or two with a light on.
by Mikoto Yamaguti
Yen Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 17+