I recently watched a video essay on how media scares us, which compared movies to animation to comics, with a loving description of the works of Junji Ito. This video immediately sent me on a bender, in which I quickly devoured as much of Ito’s manga that I could get my hands on. Here’s a bit of that fantastic journey. (Sorry for the crappy cell phone pics.)
Uzumaki (subtitled Spiral into Horror in the three-volume VIZ Media edition I read) is considered to be Ito’s classic and most famous work, having been adapted into two video games and a feature film. A town in Japan begins to be slowly and inextricably taken over by the shape of a spiral — a simple geometric shape that twists the town and the people in it into distortions of themselves. Some of this is physical, some mental or spiritual.
The central characters are Kirie and her boyfriend Shuichi. They are our grounding point as we see the events unfold more and more horrifically, with bodies being distorted in a variety of way and some people even welcoming the distortion.
At first each chapter feels like an individual story. Scary, weird things keep happing, with the effects of the spiral unfolding in new ways — some resulting in death or worse — but they don’t feel connected. However, these connections become more obvious as the volumes unraveling the growing multitudes of horrors that this town has to face as the story builds to its terrifying conclusion.
It’s a phenomenal work and I’m interested in seeing the movie adaptation (although I don’t see how it could possibly hold a candle to this amazing book).
Shiver: Short Stories
About halfway through finishing Uzumaki, I immediately went online to see how I could get my hands on some of Ito’s short stories, which make up the bulk of his work. There are several collections out there, but I zoned in on Shiver because this set of stories was selected by Ito himself as some of his personal favorites and includes commentary from the author as to what inspired them.
Each of these stories is phenomenal and frightening in their own way. A mysterious music record creates an obsession to hear it so intense that people will kill for it. A sick neighbor girl reveals she is being eaten away by holes. A man begins to have long dreams that feel like months or years have passed that begin to distort his physical body.
Almost none of these stories have anything close to a happy (or even content) ending — the horror presented often bizarre and inescapable. Take for example the tale “Hanging Blimps,” in which giant balloons shaped like human heads begin to fill the sky. Some of these heads look like actual people. All of these balloons carry nooses… and I think you can infer from there. “Hanging Blimps” unsettled me in a way no story has in a long time, bringing me to lower the book and take a break before I moving on.
In Gyo (subtitled The Death-Stench Creeps in the two-volume VIZ Media edition) a young couple vacationing in a seaside town are suddenly accosted by a fish that seems to have grown legs and wandered onto land. Before long, more fish begin walking out of the sea — and not just fish, but sharks, squids, and other creatures — resulting in catastrophic circumstances throughout Japan.
Although I delighted in the beautiful artwork and imagery of a great white shark charging down the hallway of a home, I was not as enthused by the first volume of Gyo. I kept thinking that the story would make a perfect SyFy channel movie, ala Sharknado — at least until I launched into volume two.
The second half of Gyo reached proportions of body horror I don’t think I could have ever imagined. I found myself cringing away from the images on the pages, while at the same time drawn to their incredible detailed beauty. And I was awed by the time I was done reading it.
This edition of <i>Gyo</i> also included a great surprise — two bonus short stories at the end, one of which was a story that I’ve was trying to track down as soon as I learned of Ito’s work.
In the short story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” after an earthquake a fault line reveals human-shaped holes in the side of a mountain. As people come from all around to explore the fault, it is quickly discovered that the holes are the exact silhouettes of living people — and when those people find their hole, they are compelled to enter and are drawn into the mountain to some unknown end. I’m so glad I was able to read this story, even though it’s the one that disturbed me the most, the one that is increasing my heart rate and anxiety even as I’m sitting here writing about it. I don’t want to say anything more, but damn, what an incredible story.
Junji Ito is a master of horror — from weird, cosmic horror to body horror, and everything in between. His drawings are so rendered with such careful, intricate, and beautiful precision, so that even as the image horrifies, it also draws the reader in to explore more of the details.
Combined with the artwork is Ito’s skillful use of space, the measuring out of story through the size and spacing of the panels. In the video essay, the narrator Super Eyepatch Wolf notes that one of Ito’s key skills is the use of the page turn, the space of time between when the reader finishes one page and turns it to see what is revealed in the next — an effect that can only really be achieved in comics. Ito is able to use that moment to unveil a singular, terrifying image like a guttural shock. On more than one occasion, these moment had me audibly saying, “Screw that,” over and over again as I mentally processed and absorbed the images I was seeing.
All I can say is that I am now, officially, an avid fan of Junji It — someone who would gladly read every single thing he has ever created because, damn, this is fantastic stuff.
Edited on 8/16/20 – Speaking of his amazing work. I just finished reading No Longer Human, which is phenomenal.