Junji Ito

Midnighters posts are still on hiatus since I don’t have much free time recently, so let’s talk instead about my favorite horror writer.

Junji Ito is a prolific mangaka specialized in short horror stories, though he has a few longer series under his belt as well, including his magnum opus Uzumaki. While most of his works aren’t connected and don’t form any coherent whole, there are certain themes and aspects that can be found in the majority of them. Specifically, Junji Ito relies heavily on the fear of the unknown and incomprehensible in his stories, defying common sense in doing so.

As you know, fiction follows rules not present in real life. It has structure: ideally, every element of a story serves a purpose in a greater narrative, be it contributing to the main conflict, reinforcing a theme, revealing a character or something else.

Real life, by contrast, is filled with random occurrences. One day you may witness a beautiful sunset, on another you may be stopped by a policeman for speeding and on a third you may take a shortcut you’ve never used before and discover it’s not any different from the rest of your town. What these events have in common? Nothing. They are… just random events you’d probably forget a month down the line. If ever your biography would be written, they wouldn’t appear in it even as footnotes.

Such events are normally absent from fictional works. Indeed, it’s considered a good writing practice to eliminate any scenes that don’t advance the plot or reveal a character, and for a reason. They are meaningless. Just as you would forget such events happening in real life, so would you forget ever reading them, unless you were really annoyed at wasting your time.

And yet Junji Ito found a use for them. Quite a few of his stories are such events. While more profound and unlikely to be forgotten by characters involved, they still can be described as random occurrences without proper beginning or end.

A perfect illustration of it would be a short story about a couple going through woods and finding a woman hanging from a tree. As they walk closer, they hear grass rustling and see something falling on it from the woman, spooking the couple. They leave then to call the police, and as they walk away, woman’s face never turns away from them.

Who was that woman? What happened. What’s happening now? What is going to happen to them?

These questions are never answered.

Not all Junji’s stories are like that. Many do have a proper beginning and exploration of supernatural elements, with protagonists learning more and more about the phenomenon even as it threats to consume them. Many, however, lack proper climax. They just stop before we can find out the truth, or something happens that causes the supernatural phenomenon to stop, or the protagonists move away, never to return to the source of their fears.

Normally, it would be a writing flaw, a sign that the author is unable to come up with a proper ending and cops out. Here, however, in this horror stories it enhances the experience. There is no explanation, there is no catharsis, there is no release: the stories stop, the imagination continues to run with them.

Breaking away from the established rules of fiction denies the readers a sense of control over it. In that, they become closer to the characters, immersed in a world the rules of which they don’t truly understand, confronted with an impossible situation beyond their understanding.

That approach goes farther than the structure of the story. While many Junji’s stories rely on good old body horror or insanity* as a source of horror, some of them are… just… weird. For example, one of the stories involves an attack of giant balloon heads that strangle people.

*Though, of course, insanity also fits in it as it leads to a world where only you and the protagonists find anything wrong with the horrifying situation, contributing to the sense of alienation and powerlessness.

Let me repeat: Giant. Balloon. Heads.

No, seriously, I’m not joking here.

When I type it here, it’s clear to see the absurdity of the concept. It’s something I would expect from a particularly uninspired Goosebumps books, not from a master of horror.

Yet, it works.

Why? Well, by writing about such things, Junji goes against another established rule, this one mostly concerning horror rather than fiction as a whole: monsters must be scary. And to be scary, they need to invoke human fears, for obviously the readers would be mostly humans or at least similar enough to pass, which involves understanding human fears.

In other words, monsters being scary reveals the human mind behind their creation: they are designed to be scary, which shows. Even Lovecraftian monsters, for all they are incomprehensible and alien, are often repulsive in a very convenient manner. Cthulhu is an octopus with bat wings and humanoid body. He combines things we find disgusting with humanoid shape to make it more creepy by invoking the sense of wrongness, revealing in the process that he was shaped by human mind that wanted us to be disturbed by his visage.

It is not the case with Junji’s works: he presents us with a world where even our fears have no power. Human mind, human reason has no sway over events transpiring there, making them all the more terrifying for their defy any attempts at comprehending even on conceptual level.

Granted, it also helps that his art style can make even cute kitties terrifying. I’m not joking, by the way:

These tricks are coupled with boundless imagination capable of giving birth to more and more unique horrors defying description.

And that is why Junji Ito is a master of horror.

So, go read his stories. I would recommend starting with Uzumaki, as it’s his magnum opus. It’s a story about a village struck by a spiral curse: mysterious events transpire there, the only evident connection between them being that every one of them involves spirals in some capacity. At first the story seems to be episodic, connected by the motif of spirals and the main character, bu telling different stories each time. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that these events are parts of a greater whole. Elements introduced in earlier chapters come back, taking on a new meaning, and the town spirals down into a mouth of madness.

It’s a great story that reveals just enough to understand there are underlying rules guiding the town’s doom, but not enough to comprehend it. It’s also probably the most ambitious story of Junji Ito.

I would suggest skipping Tomie, though, as it has issues I’m not sure I can tackle. Really need Farla on that one, as I trust her opinion more than my feelings in this case.

There are also stories focused on Souichi, a boy with a habit of chewing iron nails and spitting them at people. They are typically more comedy than horror.

Other than that, you may pick any story, they are all pretty good.

Well, that’s it for now. In conclusion,

ALL HAIL HYPNOHAIR!

27 Comments

  1. SpoonyViking says:
    Giant balloon heads. My love of trashy horror films demands satisfaction! Where can I find that story? Is it in a stand-alone manga, or is it part of a series?
    1. illhousen says:
      It’s a story appropriately named The Hanging Balloons, from one of the collections of short story manga by him.

      Here is a general index of online translations of Junji’s works: http://junji-ito-index.tumblr.com/

      It doesn’t list individual stories, though.

      The story itself can be found, for example, here: http://www.guromanga.com/read/itou-junji-kyoufu-manga-collection/7189/p1#.Vd8jLZePWNc

      (It seems the latter site has some pornographic content around, though, so be warned. Alas, a better and clearer site containing most of Junji’s works seems to be closed.)

      1. SpoonyViking says:
        Aw, I’m quite disappointed its name isn’t “99 Head Balloons”. :-P
        Thanks for the links!
  2. BDsprite says:
    I remember reading the entirety of Uzumaki at like four in the morning, thinking it was bizarre and stupid but also weirdly compelling. I finished it and thought ‘well, that wasn’t exactly scary’, and it wasn’t until the next morning when I realized that the story had traumatized me so bad that I couldn’t even eat noodles without feeling sick because of the mildly spiral shaped patterns they made in the bowl.
    I got over it in a week or so but still, I think it must take a really good horror story to leave someone that shaken without even realizing it. Junji Ito’s work definitely gets under my skin like nothing else does.
    1. Elisabeth says:
      I read Uzumaki a year ago, and I still can’t look at a spiral without thinking of that story.
  3. actonthat says:
    Is his stuff violent and gross, or just unsettling? I can’t handle the gore porn that makes up most horror, but I do love some good-quality subtle creepy.
    1. illhousen says:
      Case by case. A lot of his works do include gratuitous gore, but there are also the ones relying exclusively on creepy. I may look over his stories to find the ones lacking the gore if you are interested.

      Off the top of my head. Enigma of Amigara Fault relies on creepiness. It does have one gory picture, but it’s blurry.

      1. actonthat says:
        Okay, so I took a dive and read Uzumaki. It’s about the upper end of what I can handle in terms of grossout horror.

        So SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

        I don’t read a lot of horror, obviously, so I don’t know how it fits in with the genre, but some thoughts:

        – I liked Kirie a lot.

        – I thought, even for episodic fiction, the pacing was bad. At first I thought, okay, starting right with the action, but then it turned out every story was “introduce character no one mentioned before, HORROR HORROR HORROR, everyone dead,” with no room to really build suspense. I was a bit disappointed that the stories seemed to rely on grossout and jumpscares right from the get-go and then just kept shooting from the hip at about the same level of horror as opposed to slowly escalating situations and feelings of desperation.

        -It fell victim both to the whole “introduce throwaway character just for something to happen to them, and then spoil plot by making it obvious who the victim is” syndrome that plagues a lot of serial fiction. You pretty much always knew who things were going to happen to and exactly what was going to happen. There wasn’t much suspense because of that. Her brother was dead as soon as he was randomly introduced.

        – Didn’t like the ending. I get that it was ~~literary~~ and shit, but it always feel cheap when stories deny you answers in an attempt to be deep. Anyone can be profound by being purposely vague and having events be nonsense. It’s weaving a logic behind seemingly disparate events and pulling them to a conclusion that’s artistry. Refusing to provide an explanation as to the curse just makes me feel like he doesn’t know and wasted my time. I could understand a serial in which there’s never any answers provided by the episodic nature, but implying there’s an end and then literally having the protagonist go, “Eh, I don’t feel like finding it,” just felt lazy.

        – It irritated me that the beginning implied the story was being told in retrospective given the end made that not really possible. It contributed to the feeling of nothing being planned out.

        – The spiral motif was cool, straight-up, and the ways he found to use it were inventive and intriguing. The ways in which the curse manifested were the highlight of the story for me.

        – I really liked the art. The realistic style was super cool and added to the creepy factor.

        So0o0o… IDK. I guess as like, horror straight-up it was good, and I definitely felt invested in watching the events unfold and seeing how he used the setting he created, but I found it unsatisfying as a whole story and lacked emotional investment in the setting or characters as they came and went so damn fast and the ones that stayed, including Kirie herself, were pretty flat. Someone with more proclivity toward the genre itself would probably get a lot more out of it than I did; I can’t really read for straight horror. I need something else to get me seriously invested, and I’m not sure I found that.

        1. illhousen says:
          Hm. Well, I can see the flaws you’ve outlined, and yeah, the story would benefit from establishing the town’s population earlier rather than introducing a new character per arc. The consequence of Junji mostly writing short stories, I guess.

          I would disagree with you on the ending. At this point we know that the curse is guided by an alien design, and providing more explanation would probably just destroy the fear of the unknown. Explanation is needed in a mystery, but in horror providing an answer often comes at a cost of terror build through the story. I feel that the ending works: the spiral curse is something beyond our control and our understanding, so explaining it can only diminish its gravitas.

          It’s probably just the difference of genre preferences, though. (On that note, really, read Umineko. It’s actually a relevant theme there.)

          You may try some of Junji’s short stories if you want to give him another chance since they wouldn’t have the problems with introducing new characters just to kill them and such.

          For example, here is a nice one: http://bato.to/read/_/183050/itou-junji-kyoufu-manga-collection_v10_ch4_by_slug-chicks

          Second-hand Record.

          Or this one: http://bato.to/read/_/75933/itou-junji-kyoufu-manga-collection_v4_ch2_by_no-group/1

          Scarecrows.

          No gore or body horror, though there is some violence and murders.

          If you don’t like this two, chances are good you won’t like the rest of his work.

          1. actonthat says:
            I’d be interested in more of his stuff. I liked Uzumaki overall, I think, if only because it was creative and provided great food for thought. Also the art.

            I’ve been trying to put my finger on why the ending bothered me so much aside from genre preferences, which I def think are part of it, and I think it boils down to the way the narrative changes as it starts to come to a close.

            We move from a very episodic tale of interconnected stories centered around Kirie to, suddenly, an ongoing story. That’s a huge narrative change, one.

            Secondly, the way this change is demarcated is by a switch in our POV character to a reporter. All of my analytical instincts told me, I think, that this was purposeful — in a story characterized by mystery and the unknown, you don’t just switch to a reporter, whose job it is to uncover answers, without purposely trying to signify that answers are forthcoming. There are so many different people coming and going and becoming trapped in the town that this choice for the change in storytelling style felt like it must have some meaning.

            Finally, the chapter title of “Labyrinth” really stuck out to me. The Labyrinth is a maze designed to hold something inside itself (often depicted as spiralling, obviously). But the thing about the Labyrinth is that it does have an exit. To have these kind of fatalistic characters trapped in this horror world and kind of not realize it except the protagonist(s), and then to bring up the Labyrinth implies to me that there is a way out of the maze and that it’s going to be found.

            So for me, going into the falling action in the last arc of the story, I was seeing all of these narrative clues that led me to believe we were going to get some kind of underlying explanation, which I think made it very frustrating when that didn’t happen. Maybe I was reading into things too much, maybe it was coincidence, but I was left with the distinct feeling going into the final chapter that we were going to be at the very least presented with the Lovecraftian monster behind it all and be able to go, “Oh. So that’s that.” Having the protagonists literally lie down and give up in the face of all the narrative promises was supremely unsatisfying.

            I think had you taken some of those elements out — the reporter, most importantly, but also the change in narrative style — the ending would not have bothered me. In fact, switching from “episodes” of horror in normaltown to horror in spiraltown ending with Kirie and whatever her boyfriend’s name was finally meeting something they had to surrender to could have worked really well. We see them brush up against death time and time again; it’s only logical that eventually they wouldn’t escape. Alternatively, an ending where they find the source (whether a hellbeast or evil stone or portal or what) of the curse, realize they can’t beat it, and give up to watch the whole cycle endelessly repeat would have been pretty good too, I think. Or! Something with all these narrative clues to the answer only for Boyfriend to lose his sanity and Kirie start to, too, so that right before she looks into Pandora’s box she dies or complete loses her mind, and we’re left knowing the answer was there but that no one will ever see it. I think my real issue with it was the narrative building to something only to fizzle out for seemingly no reason except Kirie needed a nap.

            …so, yeah. It left me with a lot to think about, which is definitely really nice. It had a depth to it, in a way, I really enjoyed.

            I was driving to the supermarket today with Boyfriend. All around the Greater Boston Area, the electric boxes on the street are painted with these fun images and patterns, and it’s a really cool way to turn ugly infrastructure into neat street art. Anyway, there’s this one I see all the time that I really like.

            http://www.maldenarts.com/images/Stigliano_SB2010_2_sm.jpg

            I did not like it today. In fact I stared at it in a kind of weird trance for as long as we were stopped at the intersection.

            So if nothing else, it’s a damn effective story.

            1. illhousen says:
              Ah, so the problem is that instead of denying us the answers via narrative you see it as the author denying us answers by a fiat. OK, I can see it, and the protagonists losing their minds right before the final reveal would probably be a stronger ending.

              And yeah, the story is pretty good at forcing you to notice the spirals everywhere.

              As for other Junji’s stories, since you’ve managed to tolerate the hospital arc of Uzumaki, there shouldn’t be too many problems with content, I don’t think. I would warn you against Lovesick Dead, which is fairly bloody, Sound of Grass, which has a realistic depiction of a hanged woman, and Hell’s Dollies, which is based mostly on grossout.

              Tomie is both violent and has issues, so approach with caution.

              Otherwise, I don’t remember anything that would top imagery in Uzumaki.

              Here is the index of all online translations: http://junji-ito-index.tumblr.com/

              Reply
            2. Farla says:
              Secondly, the way this change is demarcated is by a switch in our POV character to a reporter. All of my analytical instincts told me, I think, that this was purposeful — in a story characterized by mystery and the unknown, you don’t just switch to a reporter, whose job it is to uncover answers, without purposely trying to signify that answers are forthcoming.

              I think that it was meant to be the opposite.

              Every one of his millions of stories follows the format of “something horrible, why something horrible? no clue/oh god investigating just made it worse.”

              The final chapters are just ramping that up. We spend most of our time in the town, but we know stuff is okay outside and simply leaving appears to be an option. Things eventually get bad enough they attempt to flee but find they can’t. Finally, we see the outside world trying to help and understand, only to discover that the full power of human civilization is exactly as impotent as our two ordinary characters, exactly as helpless as we were every time in the past and as we’ll be utterly helpless each time in the future. ALL IS FUTILE BEFORE THE SPIRAL.

              Reply
              1. illhousen says:
                At first I was going to say that at least they aren’t going to rebuild the town on the same place now that they know there is some weird shit, but then I remembered people do exactly that on sites of natural disasters even when they know there is a good chance of Mother Nature fucking them again, so…

                ALL HAIL THE SPIRAL!

                Oh, wait, that’s futile, too.

              2. Farla says:
                Oh, it’s explicit – remember, the “old” row houses?

                The final effect activates when the people inside rebuild enough to complete the spiral and the town empties. A new generation then arrives and rebuilds, knocking down most of the structure. The spiral actives and they end up crammed into the few remaining ones, twisting up, beginning to build outward for space…until the houses connect again and the spiral is complete.

              3. illhousen says:
                Yeah, I know. Thought that now that we are better at keeping records and remembering just how many people have disappeared there, the cycle won’t necessary continue, but it probably will in a few generations.
              4. actonthat says:
                Yeah, I imagine genre ignorance played a key role in my reaction. I’m going to attempt to force it on Boyfriend, who actually reads horror stuff, and see if he has thoughts.
        2. illhousen says:
          Oh, and also there is Cat Diaries: http://www.mangareader.net/ito-junjis-cat-diary/1

          It’s a collection of humorous stories about Junji, his wife and their cats. Done in his usual artwork style and complete with dramatic horror-esque narration.

          That you should totally read.

    2. Socordya says:
      In my experience, the gross stuff and body horror is generally geared more toward weirdness than gorn, if it helps.
      1. illhousen says:
        Generally, yes, but then you have stuff like Lovesick Dead with its hordes of bloodied corpses with sliced throats.

        While the gore is very rarely the point of Junji’s works, he does use it pretty freely.

        On the other hand, you have stuff like Drifting Spores which has zero bloody scenes or body horror.

  4. EnviTheFool says:
    Hurray for more Junji Ito awareness.

    Also worth mentioning that despite of how his works tend to get all kinds of freaky, his adaptation of Frankeinstein is surprisingly close to the source.

  5. Farla says:
    Actually, I think his stories are marginally more comprehensible than they first appear. (I think that’s why they also work better than just random horror.)

    The balloon heads one, for example, first seems like it’s just HOLY SHIT WHY, but someone online pointed out that it maps onto how suicide begets suicide:

    It’s the extension of the rash of copycat suicides at the start of the story. It’s taken for granted that the suicide of a celebrity will spark a rash of copycats, and that the nation as a whole will be morbidly fixated on the gruesome details of the story: the protagonist speculates if the ragged edge of her neck came from the noose nearly tearing her head off. The story simply asks, what if the cycle doesn’t stop, what if every subsequent suicide sets off a new wave until the whole thing hits critical mass.

    The floating heads are clearly suicidal urges made flesh; they speak to you with your voice urging you to kill yourself. The protagonist is able to resist them when she can cling to the hope that her brother might be alive out there somewhere. It is the revelation of his death that leads to hers.

    And they further explain here.

    When you try to view stuff in this light, a lot of his stuff becomes more comprehensible, even if it’s nightmare logic. There’s another one that seems to be a bit similar, where a gravestone marker grows out of everyone who dies and the town finds itself tripping over the memories of the dead. Or how Ice Cream Bus or Slug Girl connect to normal things but play out in bizarre and horrible ways. The short Hell-o-Dollies, which at first glance is just Junji Ito punishing you for reading one of his stories when we should all know better, seems like it’s really about dealing with any child death, possibly with a side of parents who care too much about their children’s appearance over their actual child.

    I’m not sure if this is true for everything he writes and it’s just more difficult for non-Japanese people to make sense of or if some of his works are just horrible things happening for no discernable reason and that’s the point.

    1. illhousen says:
      Hm, that’s an interesting angle. I’ve heard that Town without Streets is a metaphor for the Internet as well.

      And, from that perspective, Enigma of Amigara Fault can be interpreted as a story about the concept of social fact, which basically states that our lives are predetermined. The society at large defines what is and isn’t acceptable, what we do as adults is defined by our upbringing, which is defined by our parents who, in turn, were defined by similar factors in the past. So in the end each of us has a hole made just for us, and we can’t help but slide down it.

      Obviously, it’s not the only sociological theory, but I would assume it would resonate with Japanese people, given the focus of their society on collectivism and the “tall nails get hammered down” attitude.

      I don’t think it applies to all of his works, though. Sometimes there is just a horrible kid who likes spitting nails at people.

      1. Farla says:
        Hm. That would fit with wearing masks in response to the invasion of privacy. Maybe more like modern information culture in general. Possibly partly about a breakdown in regular channels too, since people found themselves initially forced to go through the houses, and only became voyeuristic eyemonsters afterward? But the main character’s family spying on her fits fine, so perhaps the mechanism for the town losing its streets isn’t important. I’m going to go reread that one.

        Not sure about Amigara Fault, since we do get that out of nowhere dream explanation about it being an ancient punishment. I feel like that’s probably important since it’s so jarring with the rest of the story.

        1. illhousen says:
          Well, the holes obviously couldn’t literally be just the ones built as ancient punishment since they perfectly fit modern people, down to haircuts. I do think it’s a metaphor for the past reaching and defining the future in a way they never intended.
  6. Act says:

    So I just read Tomie.

    As a horror piece, it was quite good, and it went in some interesting directions.

    More to the point of this blog, though, the impression I got was that Ito started out wanting to do a commentary on the femme fatale trope, and as the vingettes went on kind of got caught up in the horror aspect and didn’t really bother to follow up on the social commentary part. When we were just seeing the men reacting to Tomie, it was a lot more powerful because all we knew of her tends to be what we know of all  women that ‘deserve’ violence — she’s attractive, sexual, and unashamed. But when it tried to shift over to her and didn’t quite make her a real character but more a cartoon villain purposefully hurting people, she stopped being a victim, and it slid off in another direction as a result of that, more of a commentary on how men prize looks over personality, which would be avalid tack to take, but it’s not the one the story started out on, and that makes the whole thing muddled.

    Tomie needed to be either a regular person with the worst superpower ever trying not to be murdered by men, or an evil person taking advantage of toxic masculinity. It felt kind of like Ito got bored with the first bit (which — understandable, there’s less to do with it plot-wise) and just went for the hard pivot, but as a result it just doesn’t feel like a coherent piece that really means anything.

    But yeah, as horror, A++.

    1
    1. illhousen says:

      That is a valid interpretation, yeah.I’d actually be more critical of Tomie. When I read it, it really felt that the blame for everything was placed solidly on Tomie’s shoulders. It comes across less as social commentary and more just using femme fatale trope straight, just giving it a horror twist (look at what she drives men to do).

      More generally, Ito’s main weakness as an author is character writing. Character in his works are more archetypes or narrative roles than actual people. He’s great at coming up with short story concepts, with drawing readers in by presenting them with an absurd and horrifying reality, but his longer works suffer for it.

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