Master of Japanese Horror Manga: Cassie-la’s Author Spotlight on Junji Ito

Museum of Terror, Uzumaki, and Gyo by Junji Ito
Genre: Fiction, manga, gothic, horror, apocalyptic, not going to be able to sleep for weeks
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Summary: Suburban Japanese town has strange event that eventually pits its attractive main female character in the middle of a horrifying and unhappy conclusion. This could include being so beautiful that men can’t help but chop her up into little pieces, an overabundance of a spiral shape that has disastrous consequences, and being stricken with a horrible disease that involves sea creatures overtaking land.

Contrary to popular belief (specifically what 4chan teaches you) manga is not just about tentacle rape, effeminate boys kissing each other, endless quests- not necessarily for jewel shards, and girls with penises.

One author who does not perpetuate this stereotype is Junji Ito, who writes some of the most entertaining gothic stories I have ever read (Japanese or otherwise). If Poe and HP Lovecraft had a baby, and that baby was inundated with Japanese culture and kept in a small box for a large majority of its childhood, that baby would be Junji Ito. As evidenced from my summary, all three of the manga series I will be discussing have the same basic format, but the plots are so different and strange that the basic structure is anything but tiring and repetitive. Suffice it to say, they’re all fucked up in their own unique way.

Tomie, his first work collected in Museum of Terror volumes one and two, is what I consider to be the least frightening of Ito’s work and is basically what would happen if the Japanese were asked to do a remake of The Heathers. Tomie is an incredibly beautiful, conceited girl who men cannot help but obsess over. This obsession inevitably turns to violence when the men chop her up into little pieces because they can no longer express their love for her in healthy ways like domestic violence. (If that comment offended you, go here.) Luckily, Tomie is like a starfish and the bits and pieces of her always reform into more Tomies.

This series is especially entertaining because it contains short stories focusing on the character of Tomie in various situations with various people. She always has the same face (recognizable by a beauty mark below her left eye) and the same horrible personality prevalent in most popular girls in fiction and real life, but you’re never quite sure where the story is taking place or which Tomie is perpetuating the heinous acts you are reading. The series is also interesting because it allows you to see the evolution of Junji Ito from mediocre artist to creator of nightmares.

The next series (at least the next one published in English) is Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror and deals with the horror of the spiral shape, uzumaki itself meaning spiral in Japanese. I know what you’re thinking, “Liek OMG, spirals, how are spirals scary!?!!!!1!!!!”. Well they are in the context of the narrative, so nyah! The story centers around the town of Kurôzu-cho, which is cursed with an abundance of spirals, and the inhabitants obsession and possession with/from these spirals.

Like Tomie, Uzumaki is a series of different tales, but unlike Tomie they all revolve around the same town and have the same continuing characters, specifically pretty girl Kirie and her crazy handsome (in that he’s handsome but also a little insane) boyfriend Shuichi. The story itself is a lot more visually terrifying than Tomie and more frightening in terms of plot and resolution. I thought my hometown with its three Quick Cheks and no bookstore was boring, but after reading about Kurôzu-cho, I truly know the meaning of dead end.

The final and most disturbing series I read was Gyo: The Death Stench Creeps, in which dead fish taken over by sentient metal legs created by the military arrive on land and terrorize the world. This plot by far was the most ridiculous and the most horrifying, with the beautiful main heroine Kaori being infected with a monstrous disease that results in her body spewing gas out of all orifices, bloating to an unhealthy level and getting covered in pus filled boils.

At first this series was incredibly frightening. Fish with legs walking on land, followed by Great Whites with legs walking on land, followed by giant squids and hammer head sharks, and swordfish, and whales, you guessed it, with legs walking on land. The visual imagery was terrifying, and then the legs that ran these sea creatures began taking over humanity, and attaching themselves to people and cuddly little puppies and the story got down right terrifying and down right nausea inducing.

The most striking and memorable feature of Junji Ito’s work is the artwork he uses to tell his stories. While I was reading my way through the manga I would continually stop on a piece of artwork and pester my boyfriend until he would look at the frightening/disturbing/creepy/visually horrifying image I was showing him. These images often overshadow the text, and you’d be hard pressed to find one that didn’t fascinate you. In Tomie it is an elderly couple sucking on the appendages of beautiful young girls to gain their youth. In Uzumaki it is Shuichi’s father turning himself into a spiral, bouncing reanimated corpses, lovers twisting themselves into one being, boys turning into snails, and demon babies being resewn into their mothers. In Gyo, it is machines kidnapping diseased humans and shoving tubes in their orifices to run off the gas they are putting out.

Another theme, besides that of the repetitive format in his manga, is one which makes me extremely uncomfortable: claustrophobia. In each manga there are images and themes of claustrophobia running rampant. Tomie is encased alive in concrete for decades, people are squeezed into houses to the point where there bodies become entwined, and in a short story at the end of Gyo called The Enigma of Amigara Fault, people squeeze into holes in a rock face and get stuck inside, eventually becoming contorted in impossible positions as they continue walking through these holes they believe to be made just for them. As someone with an extreme fear of confined spaces, it was these oppressive scenes that frightened me the most. They are the buried alive scene in Kill Bill II meets Buried meets Buried Alive times ten.

THE GOOD:
-Absolutely terrifying artwork that will keep you awake at night
-Creepy story lines
-Twisted no hold bars author
-Unhappy endings give perfect finishes to gothic stories
-Snail people

THE BAD:
-Plots have a tendency to get confusing and convoluted
-Some bits border on nausea inducing (I feel like this could also go in the good category)
-Gas spewing decaying corpse cyborgs

Manga, it’s not just tentacle rape anymore.

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