Human Clock: A Horror Manga Classic

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This article contains information about suicide which may be upsetting to some readers. Discretion is advised.

Not all media immediately become cult classics. It might take years, decades even, for obscure works to gain that appeal. Such was the case of Seiichirō Tokunan’s short horror manga, Human Clock

A panel from Human Clock

Originally published in 1962 for the kashihon rental market, Human Clock tells the story of a high school dropout who spends his days in his family’s clock shop. Though the premise seems simple, the manga itself is far from mundane. Told through distorted imagery and convoluted writing, Human Clock chronicles Tadashi’s descent into extreme isolation and eventual madness.

Whether it was its disturbing contents or simply the throwaway nature of rental manga, Human Clock was quickly forgotten upon its first release. It wasn’t until a small reprint of the manga years later that people really began to pay attention. But to understand what awarded Human Clock its cult status, we need to look not only at the manga itself, but at the man behind the work.

The Story of Seiichirō Tokunan

Born on June 1, 1934, in a suburb of Osaka, Seiichirō Tokunan (徳南晴一郎) was one of eight children. When he was young, a horrible case of diphtheria weakened his pituitary gland, eventually stunting his growth. Because of his short stature, he was bullied at school. He often blamed the cruel treatment by his classmates as the root of his distrust and aversion to others. 

After graduating high school, Tokunan enrolled as a student at the Tennoji Art Research Institute in Osaka but left in 1955 to work in the kashihon manga market. His first two manga, The Samurai Who Cut Through Shadows (Kage wo Kiru Samurai 影を斬る侍) and Swordsman of the Storm (Arashi no Kengō あらしの剣豪), were published by Maruyama Tokodo. Tokunan’s art within these early works took cues from the cute cartoonish style popularized by early children’s manga.

The kashihon cover of Human Clock

The kashihon cover of Human Clock

In 1957, Tokunan traveled to Tokyo in search of better opportunities. While there, he visited Dr. Tomozaburō Ogata, a pathologist and professor at the University of Tokyo, to seek help for his medical condition. However, Tokunan was told he couldn’t receive hormone treatments due to his age. Broken by the news, he attempted suicide by gas poisoning but failed, as his landlord had closed the main gas valve that day.

In order to make a living, Tokunan continued writing manga for the rental market. He made a few mystery stories for Akebono Shuppan, but none of them were hits. For a while, he adopted the pseudonym Seiichi Ichikawa and created gekiga works for Akebono’s Teenager anthology series, but his increasingly messy artwork and gloomy plots turned many readers away. 

Tokunan’s dark style—and growing contempt toward the manga industry—culminated in the summer of 1962. During this period, Akebono Shuppan published his manga “ghost stories,” Human Clock (Kaidan Ningen Tokei 怪談人間時計) and The Cat’s Mourning Suit (Kaidan Neko no Mofuku 怪談猫の喪服), for the rental market. Both were flops.

With so many failures throughout his career, Tokunan knew his time as a mangaka was coming to a close. His last work, One-Eyed Dragon Masamune (Dokuganryū Masamune 独眼竜政宗), a loosely accurate biography about legendary warrior Date Masamune, was published in 1963. 

After that, Tokunan returned to Osaka and took on different jobs, each marred by misfortunes. He was a film developer, but an automated printing machine made him redundant. He was employed at a bakery, but a rival shop drove them out of business. Finally, he found work in sales. In his free time, he created oil paintings. For many years, it seemed the world of manga was behind him.

Rediscovering Human Clock

During the decades following Tokunan’s retirement from manga, the kashihon industry sharply declined as weekly manga magazines took over. Many kashihon titles fell into obscurity, though some received a second chance. In 1979, Komae Kobo reprinted just 450 copies of Human Clock as part of their Inō Manga Sōsho (異能マンガ叢書), or Extraordinary Manga Series. More information about this edition is hard to find. 

Then something happened during the 1990s. In an early issue of Quick Japan, a magazine specializing in subculture media, nonfiction writer Mitsunari Oizumi published a piece on Tokunan and Human Clock as part of his “Disappearing Mangaka” column. Oizumi attempted to interview Tokunan to find out more about his life and work, but the former mangaka refused. This led to Oizumi dubbing Tokunan as the “Phantom Mangaka” (Maboroshi no mangaka 幻のマンガ家).

A panel from Human Clock

Fascinated by the mystery of Tokunan and his Human Clock, manga enthusiasts fervently sought his old work. Copies of the original rental market edition sold for as much as 100,000 yen (approximately $1,000 USD). In 1996, Ohta Shuppan republished Human Clock and The Cat’s Mourning Suit in one volume. The book’s success helped launch the QJ Manga Selection label, a series of reprinted manga from the Showa era.

This interest in Human Clock seemingly drew Tokunan back into the public eye, though not for long. In 1998, he published a poignant autobiography that detailed a lonely life. Then, he disappeared once more. On December 24, 2009, Seiichirō Tokunan quietly passed away. News of his death spread a month later following a simple post on Kunio Nagatani’s blog.

Despite Tokunan’s insistence on burying his manga deeply into the past, his legacy lives on through Human Clock.

Dissecting the Manga

By first impressions alone, Human Clock is disturbing. Japanese readers refer to it as a “reading drug,” (読むドラッグ) a manga that alters one’s senses. Just by looking at the art, it’s easy to see why. 

Every page is an unrelenting collage of black and white. Rhythms of monochrome give certain panels a hypnotic aura. Handwritten sound effects wail from the paper. Forlorn characters with deformed proportions and blank eyes stare deeply at the reader. Their arms flail, their heads turn backward, owllike.

Tokunan’s style appears to be influenced by expressionist art, a movement that gained popularity in Germany around World War I. Expressionist artists aimed to depict a subjective expression of their inner emotions rather than objective reality. Pieces often featured grotesque figures and desolate scenes drawn from the turmoil surrounding the time period.

Comparing Human Clock to such a profound art movement is almost laughable, given the manga’s origins as humble rental fare. Even so, there’s something about Tokunan’s drawings that conjures an atmosphere of existential dread seen only in the darkest expressionist works. 

Tadashi in the land of the clocks.

Appropriately, Human Clock’s chilling art lends itself well to the equally unsettling story. With almost no exposition and very little dialogue, it’s difficult to determine where exactly the plot will go. Everything unfolds through a series of fractured vignettes following the protagonist Tadashi Koe, the son of a clockmaker. 

The opening pages reveal that ever since Tadashi was hit by a bicyclist, he developed a severe hatred toward humans. His intense misanthropy convinces his mother to hire a private tutor instead of sending him back to school.

Soon, the new tutor arrives, though in an unexpected way. Tadashi goes to answer a knock at the door, only to find an old clock lying on the ground. He places it by the shop’s counter. When he turns to look at it, he finds a bizarre old man standing in the clock’s place.

A few months pass. Tadashi’s parents have gone away on business, leaving him with the eccentric tutor. Tired of studying, Tadashi storms out of the house. On the street, he passes two ominous figures clad in black. The pair calls out to him, saying they’re his parents. Tadashi’s mother reveals that she has grown two horns from her head shaped like the hands of a clock. His father attempts to remove them with a saw, but they immediately grow back. 

Tadashi's parents return.

During one of their study sessions, Tadashi’s tutor presents him with a new wristwatch. But this isn’t an ordinary timepiece. When Tadashi puts it on, he enters a nightmarish world. As he wanders, he notices everyone has clock hands protruding from their heads. Tadashi runs away from fright, tripping past trees with clocks hanging from their limbs before waking up.

The final segment informs us that for the past two years, Tadashi has been entering the strange world of the clock people whenever he wears the mysterious watch. His parents believe he’s been studying, but that isn’t the case. It seemed his tutor’s only intention was showing him the watch’s secret.

At dinnertime, his parents compliment the tutor on Tadashi’s progress. Frustrated, Tadashi threatens to reveal the man’s secret. In that instant, a swarm of rats rush into the room and attack him. As Tadashi’s body hits the ground, it shatters into a pile of clock parts. The manga ends with Tadashi’s final line: “Papa, mama, please don’t be surprised. A year ago, my organs turned to gears and springs.”

Tadashi's body turns into a clock

Defining a Horror Manga Classic

So, what’s it all about?

Based on our knowledge of Tokunan’s circumstances during the manga’s creation, it’s easy to assume that Human Clock, like expressionist art, was a reflection of his own experiences. Like his ill-fated protagonist, did Tokunan believe he was a shell of a human, a machine that churned out manga just to survive? Had his motivation to create manga, his “organs,” been reduced to gears and springs after years of commercial and personal failures?

We could also argue that Human Clock is a commentary on Japanese society at the time. In 1962, the country was in the midst of its “economic miracle,” a period of rapid growth following World War II. Naturally, some people would be swept away under the wave of modernization. Tadashi’s family, who built their wealth through a traditional trade, may have represented those left behind. Tadashi himself is a recluse, choosing to withdraw from society entirely, only to emerge again in a completely unfamiliar world, alone and misunderstood. 

A spread of pages depicting Human Clock's dark atmosphere

But honestly, who knows? Part of Human Clock’s lasting appeal among cult manga fans is that there are no clear explanations. Prior to his death, Tokunan never offered any information about the manga’s intent, leaving everything up for individual interpretation. Readers now and in the future will scrutinize the bizarre story of Tadashi, ascribing their own meanings as time moves on.

One thing is certain: Human Clock remains an exceptional entry in the horror manga canon, haunted forever by its phantom mangaka.

Human Clock is available in Japanese for purchase at BOOK☆WALKER.

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