Junji Ito

I may not have mentioned this before, but I’m a great big chicken.

My adolescence happened to coincide with rise of the slasher film, where scores of attractive teens were dispatched with imaginative glee in bloodbath after bloodbath. I tended to avoid these movies, and I wish I could say it was because I found them unsophisticated or objected to their creepy psycho-sexual morality (go, virgins, go!), but the truth is I was just too much of an easy mark.

I knew there was a cleaver-wielding maniac in the closet and could time precisely when he would burst out and split the skull of a sexually active young person, but that didn’t matter at all. I’d still jump a mile. And yes, that’s kind of the point, but I didn’t find the sensation pleasurably escapist. It was more unsettling than that, and my subconscious could always be relied upon to come up with even more unpleasant variations in subsequent nightmares.

Horror and suspense in comics were less of a problem. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a soundtrack, but two-dimensional renderings of horror never had the punch of films. They were diverting but not upsetting.

Then some sadist pointed me in the direction of Junji Ito.

My first exposure to Ito’s manga was Uzumaki (Viz). I was immediately struck by Ito’s richly detailed illustrations and his facility for the horrifically absurd. Informing the visuals was an imagination that could make the mundane and the benign genuinely terrifying.

In the first volume of Uzumaki, the residents of a picturesque seaside town find themselves menaced by spirals. A young man’s father becomes destructively obsessed with them. The scar on a beautiful young newcomer’s forehead becomes both hypnotic and repellent. Clay from a local pond becomes sinister pottery. (Yes, I said “sinister pottery.”) There’s a grotesque riff on Romeo and Juliet, and the young heroine of the story experiences the ultimate bad hair day.

Ito manages to mine a rich variety of chills out of an otherwise innocent bit of geometry. In the process, he manages to capture the unsettling nature of dream logic in a graphic novel. The citizens of Kurôzu-cho gape in astonishment not just at the horror of these events, but at how ridiculous they are. They’re almost impossible to process, but they’re clearly happening. How can something be so absurd and so disturbing at the same time?

In the second volume, Ito substantially raises the stakes. Comforting, predictable places – school, a lighthouse, and a hospital maternity ward, for pity’s sake – become the setting for a string of progressively more terrifying events. They strike at some of the most reliable, soothing elements of life – history, safety, learning, renewal – and twist them into something grotesque and menacing.

The third volume takes things to the local conclusion of Ito’s spiral metaphor. To be honest, Ito loses me in the process. It’s not that the scale of events becomes ridiculous. It’s just that events are overwhelmed by inevitability. It’s an excellent realization of innocence distorted by outside forces, but the inevitability becomes fatalism. It loses impact.

That might be why I actually prefer Ito’s cruder, earlierTomie (published as a part of Comics One’s Junji Ito Horror Collection). Uzumaki is a parable of unrewarded virtue, but Tomie is all about sin and consequences.

It’s also much more episodic in nature than Uzumaki. It follows a beautiful, mysterious young woman who brings out the absolute worst in the people she encounters. She doesn’t inject that darkness into them, though. The protagonists of Tomie are already prone to envy, lust, greed, anger, and a variety of other failings before the title character ever sashays into their lives.

But she makes things convincingly, satisfyingly worse. There’s a nasty kick to the stories in these volumes, a “you asked for it” punch that makes for admittedly unhealthy vicarious thrills.

It’s never entirely clear precisely what Tomie is. Physically, she’s the image of innocent beauty, and she can hold up the illusion that beauty is more than skin deep for a while. Ultimately, her viciousness and guile emerge, though. She’s manipulative, wheedling, and cruel, but by the time her victims realize that, it’s too late.

My favorite story is in the first volume, where schoolgirl Tsukiko bites off considerably more than she can chew. An amateur photographer, she uses her hobby to earn some extra yen by taking photos of classmates for others who have crushes on them. Unfortunately, she runs afoul of new student Tomie, who coyly questions the morality of Tsukiko’s behavior. Things go from bad to worse when Tsukiko’s pictures of Tomie reveal Tomie’s true nature.

Tsukiko isn’t at all admirable, but Ito spikes these chapters with Tomie’s hypocrisy and vanity. It’s a nice illustration of the lesser of two evils – greedy, cynical Tsukiko versus vicious, manipulative Tomie. It’s the longest episode in the two volumes, and it’s easy to see why Ito made it so. Ito builds elegantly on the characters’ natural antagonism and his title character’s unnatural underpinnings.

Being episodic, quality varies somewhat from chapter to chapter. The art isn’t as lushly realized as it is in Uzumaki, but it has pulpy energy. It delivers the tone of the story just fine.

Ito might very well be the perfect practitioner of horror for my tastes. He finds the grotesque in the everyday, and he has a very potent sense of emotional context. Ito can capitalize on human weakness even as he romanticizes human strength, doing so with a rich and disturbing visual imagination. His work shows up in my nightmares, but it’s worth it.