Kosher Kuts: King of Thorns

Survival horror is a genre that seems to be rather underrepresented in manga. Moviegoers and gamers have had their fill over the past few years with moderate success. The trick has been to balance a semblance of a story with enough thrills and chills to make it enthralling. Yuji Iwahara’s King of Thorns brings this unappreciated story type into the light. Is it a B-grade horror flick or a blockbuster page-turner?

The story begins in the present as a virus called Medusa has begun to spread among the human populace. As the name suggests, the virus causes the infected people to slowly become paralyzed and brittle, like old stone statues. A number of people who have been infected are put into cryogenic stasis until a cure can be found. When the group awakens, the laboratory they resided in is in ruins and covered in vines. They quickly discover that the world is down one human race and up one prehistoric dinosaur race. The survivors take it upon themselves to figure out what happened to the world while they were asleep and find a cure for the virus that is slowly taking over their bodies.

As with most manga I read, the characters drew me in pretty quickly. Some of them have a past they’re trying to cope with while others have an agenda they’re trying to implement. Everyone, though, wants to stay alive. They know their time is fleeting and they all feel that the situations presented to them should be handled in different ways. The survivors often argue, split up, and generally look out for themselves. A self-obsessed whiner pops up with about the same regularity as a good samaritan. As a reader, you feel like the characters are making realistic decisions and, as their pasts are slowly revealed, the impetus for making those choices.

Those decisions come at you fairly quickly. A combination of the virus and attacks by prehistoric animals brings a frenetic feel to the series, and the mangaka is willing to let the action do the talking. The result is that many of the pages involve little or no dialogue when conflict escalates. This tactic allows the manga’s beautiful art to stand out and read as quickly as the in-story action.

I got very irritated at all the sound effects used in place of the dialogue at certain points. The use of huffing and puffing in between dialogue and occasionally during running is fine, but there are other ways to convey that the characters are scared or tired. Given the artistic skills of the mangaka, a picture of a beating heart or a heartbeat sound effect in between the huffs and puffs would be a welcome change.

Another problem that causes an uneven pace to the story is the flashbacks. Most of them are done with excellent timing and are an enjoyable length and depth. One survivor, though, continues to have daydreams about her twin sister. These dreams tend to be unnecessarily vague, graphic and slow. They’re peppered throughout the course of the series, but rarely last long enough to become a true nuisance.

The real nuisances, the ones that are fun to watch, do their jobs well. As a survival horror series, it’s imperative that the dangers that threaten the survivors be suitably threatening. King of Thorns puts subtle and not-so-subtle dangers before the survivors. Each survivor has the Medusa virus tracked by a bracelet. A white line on the bracelet slowly darkens as the virus progresses through each person’s body. It becomes a monster that slowly stalks the survivors wherever they go. Creatures that confront the survivors represent the most immediate danger though. The dinosaur-like ones are particularly big, nasty and very tenacious. After a survivor/creature confrontation, the reader begins to understand how much damage these beasts can take. The survivors aren’t trying to kill every beast they confront – they simply want to survive.

It currently seems the mangaka is starting to second-guess whether the characters should die. False deaths are characteristic of many manga, but the threat of the virus would be nothing without the occasional victim. However, some obvious chances for gruesome deaths have been missed and resurrections seem to outnumber deaths for the current survivors.

In King of Thorns, the mixture of frenzied action coupled with an interesting cast standing in the shadow of imminent doom is spectacularly done. Minor breaks in the enjoyment occur from misplaced scenes for one particular survivor and the overuse of sound effects that blanket the mangaka’s art. Even though the series ended several years ago in Japan, it has yet to make a print appearance in the United States. Please take some time to scan the intertubes and check it out. I guarantee it will “stick” you to the edge of your seat. This series has reached its conclusion in Japan; let us hope that there is a body count at the conclusion befitting a survival horror story of this caliber.

The Final Kut

Mazel Tov!

  • Wonderful story with solid pacing
  • The creatures and the virus keep the suspense and action constant

Oy Vey!

  • Survivors don’t get mauled enough
  • Useless dream sequences