And so, Japanese horror.
Junji Ito is the reigning master of horror in manga. You can trace his place in the annals of horror manga all the way back to classic horror creators like Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino. He was especially prolific during the 2000s, producing over thousands of pages of comics in the form of short stories and several long-form series like Tomie, a series of stories about a seemingly girl who keeps returning from the dead to stalk and torment her victims, Uzumaki, about a girl who moves to a town obsessed with spiral patterns that threaten to swallow the world, and Gyu, about an invasion of dead sealife with metal limbs. There are at least a thousand pages worth of other works of his that were never translated into English, like an adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that introduces a new layer of creepy body horror.
Ito took a break from horror manga for eight years but didn’t stop being prolific. He drew some creepy Pokemon drawings and created a humourous manga about living with cats that still had horror undertones despite being played for laughs. He finally returned in 2014 to produce the anthology Fragments of Horror, which Viz Media are publishing in English this week. Viz sent me an advance PDF, and a new Junji Ito book is an event.
Fragments of Horror is a collection of eight short stories that are like a Greatest Hits of Ito’s familiar themes and visual motifs. A woman has to contend with her husband, who has taken to hiding under his futon in terror after he cheated on her… A man in a red turtleneck pleads with his ex for help, afraid his head would fall off… A woman marries into a family whose dead aren’t laid to rest, but linger in the household as ghosts for years afterwards… A medical student is stalked by a woman who wants to be dissected for her sexual pleasure… A man rescued from the woods tells of a monstrous bird woman who continues to visit him to force-feed him raw meat to keep him alive… A mysterious woman begs to live in a landmark house because her love for its architecture goes past the obsessive and perverse and into cosmic horror…
The common theme here is of everyday Japanese life disrupted by the unknown, by unfathomable horror, like a Lovecraftian eruption of chaos and entropy from beyond. There’s also an almost Cronenbergian sense of body horror: bodies are invaded, mutilated, warped, transformed. Ito even has Lovecraft’s terror of sex and women. Monstrousness and unknowable madness are often in the form of mysterious women, often promiscuous or crazed women who force themselves onto hapless men – and Ito’s men are frequently hapless and the mood is always paranoid. Women are either traditionally, conservatively normal or a screaming, hysterical Other bringing insanity, blood, mutilation and transformation into the fabric of society. Even the cover of the book is model after Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
The Japanese approach to horror is a lot more subtle and insidious than America’s. Where American Horror usually relies on shocks and jump-scares, Japanese horror spends the time to create an atmosphere that’s intensely claustrophobic and based entirely on a philosophy and a specifically point of view. It uses long shots and languorous pacing rather than the more fast action-packed thrust of Hollywood. That way, the reader gets a sense of an entire world enveloped by horror rather than just something that jumps out of the shadows to scare you. In Japanese horror as imagined by Ito and various creators and filmmakers, the horror is already lurking in hidden corners of the world, or from some gateway to another dimension, waiting for an opportunity to invade and overtake our world entirely. It’s an inherently conservative outlook as much horror tends to be, since it’s always about a threat to the status quo.
In the afterword Ito talked worrying whether he still had it after spending eight years away from creating clammy, Lovecraftian horror that scared the shit out of readers.
He’s still got it.
Fearing the Other at firstname.lastname@example.org
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