I’ve looked at two great horror artists already this month, Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino. Both have had at least one must-read story translated into English (Drifting Classroom for Umezu, Panorama of Hell for Hino), and both are quite famous and worth exploring for different reasons. But for my money, you won’t find another horror mangaka as consistently good as Junji Ito. When he’s good, he’s terrifying. And even his most mediocre stories are still pretty great reads. Sadly, we haven’t seen a new Junji Ito work in English since 2006, but we were very lucky before that. Two of his series are must-reads, and the other two series I’m going to talk about are story collections.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of Junji Ito, but I can talk about his style. To my knowledge, unlike Hino and Umezu, Ito did not get a start in drawing horror manga for children, but he was influenced by both of them. His early stories appeared in the late 80s in horror magazines aimed at female teens and women. They feature female protagonists and some truly horrifying situations. One of his early trademark characters is Tomie. Tomie is somewhat immortal, though her exact nature changes from story to story as the protagonists and situations rotate. Stories about cut hair coming back to life and killing the protagonist, ghosts that ride their beloved hard, hornets that shelter children, and all manner of other oddities. Like Umezu, his premises can be strange, but unlike Umezu, he makes them work, and he makes them terrifying.
Gyo – 2 volumes
Gyo was one of the most haunting manga I’ve ever read, and it has imagery I’ll remember for the rest of my life. The plot is one of the stranger among Ito’s work. A horrible stench begins rolling off the ocean in a small town. Soon, fish begin walking up onto the beach on spindly mechanical legs and invading the town, bringing the horrible smell with them. The smell turns out to be a kind of rotting disease that begins to infect humans, and just when humanity begins to fight back, the walking machines that serve as the fish legs begin taking over humans as well as larger fish such as sharks. The horrible stench, the vicious dead-fish machines, and the bloating, rotting human corpses menacing the main characters throughout the two volumes are rendered with a grotesque amount of detail. The thought of the rank, dead fish trotting through the town on their metal legs still turns my stomach years after having last read it. The trade-off is that the plot is a bit nonsensical. While an explanation for the fish and the metal legs is offered, it’s a bit harder to swallow than the walking fish and human monstrosities are. The second volume is rounded off with a pair of short stories, the first is the semi-popular Enigma of Amigara Fault, about cracks in the side of a mountain that irresistibly compel local residents to enter, then keep walking until they get smaller, even after the point where the body can no longer fit. The last story is a bizarre 4-page black comedy. I prefer Gyo to the more popular Uzumaki for the horrifying visuals, but admittedly Uzumaki has it beat in every way. The original 2-volume edition came out in 2003, but Viz re-released it in 2007 in a somewhat nicer edition. The latter should be readily available, including as a digital edition.
Uzumaki – 3 volumes
In Ito’s most famous work, a town gets an unlikely infestation of spirals. The first victim is the main character Shuichi’s father, who becomes obsessed with spirals on snails, on the noodles in his soup, and eventually crams himself grotesquely into a washing machine, twisting himself to death in a rather graphic way. Shuichi’s girlfriend Kirie afterwards finds her father obsessed with spirals as well. A potter of some note, he begins incorporating spiral motifs into his work, then begins to only make spirals, and meets a gristly end by twisting his body into a spiral. Eventually, the whole town begins to succumb to spiral madness, and when Kirie and Shuichi, the only sane people left, try to flee, they find that all roads out of town are twisting back on themselves, and the whole town is warping and bending towards a vortex in the center. This premise also sounds kind of silly, but in this case, Ito pulls it off. There’s not a whole lot of reason that the spirals take over, but it’s like a haunting in that way, and as the series goes on and things get stranger and stranger, you don’t really have time to call anything into doubt. This series is also a story that I feel just doesn’t work outside a visual medium like comics (it was made into a movie, but the manga is better), so it’s a rare treat in that way. Ito’s cramped, dark, and very precise and detailed art is best here when he’s drawing hundreds of claustrophobic spirals, and things bending into spirals that should not bend. It’s fantastic, both in terms of art and story, and contains some truly scary stuff. It’s very much worth checking out, and can be read in four different ways. For the truly ambitious there’s the original serialization in individual issues of Pulp magazine, though those can be hard-to-impossible to track down. The original graphic novels appeared in a 3-volume Pulp edition, and the series was reprinted later in 2007 with covers that matched the new editions of Gyo. Just in time for Halloween, Viz re-released it again this year in a very nice 1-volume edition that includes the original color pages.
Museum of Terror (3 of 10 volumes published in English)
Dark Horse tried their hand at releasing several horror manga around 2006, but most of the series were cancelled, presumably due to lack of sales. Some of them were very good, but none of the cancellations was quite the tragedy of losing Museum of Terror 3 volumes into its 10-volume run. Part of what made this series so nice was the big 400-page volumes, but for the true Ito fan, much of the content had already appeared in English 5 years earlier, and volume 4 would have been a lot of new material. But for a reader wanting to dabble in Ito’s short stories, this is the best source. The first two volumes contain the entire run of Tomie, his best-known work after the two above series. Tomie is a girl that cannot be killed, and is continuously resurrected in various ways, though she usually bears little resemblance to a zombie. The Tomie stories are interesting because Tomie is a motif as often as she is a character. In her introduction, she comes back to school after she was thought to be dead, and we later find out that her teacher and classmates killed her and she’s come back for vengeance. Sometimes the plots hinge on a single piece of Tomie, through which people (usually women) can become ageless, eventually becoming a kind of Tomie-clone. Sometimes Tomie is a lover that drives men to homicide or suicide. The stories show a surprising amount of variety, though reading two big volumes back-to-back can be a little much since Ito does cycle through some of the same themes. Also unfortunate is the fact that Tomie was among Ito’s first work, so the art in earlier stories is very rough, though the later ones were drawn post-Uzumaki. The third volume in Museum of Terror is Long Hair in the Attic, which contains short stories from various points in Ito’s career. Themes include haunted hair, insane baby-stealing sirens, video tape obsession, food gross-outs, and others. The artwork ranges from early and rough to later, polished artwork, and all the stories manage to pull off sometimes absurd premises in suitably horrifying ways. While I’m not the biggest fan of Tomie, the stories are at least worth looking at, and the third volume is one of the better horror manga anthologies you can find in English. Volume 2 looks to still be stocked new at online retailers, but volumes 1 and 3 are experiencing price creep, especially volume 3.
Junji Ito Horror Comics Collection volume 3: Flesh-Colored Horror (1 volume)
Gotta love that cover. Similar to the Museum of Terror, the Junji Ito Horror Comics Collection was cancelled by ComicsOne after 3 volumes (or ComicsOne went out of business, I can’t remember which). The first two volumes are Tomie stories, and you’re better off checking them out in Museum of Terror, which includes newer Tomie stories. But Flesh-Colored Horror is another collection of Ito’s short stories, and another worth checking out. One story is repeated between Flesh-Colored Horror and Long Hair in the Attic, the title story to the latter collection. Themes this time include creepy headless sculptures and the artists and students that work on them, merciful hornets, shockingly spiteful dead lovers, badly behaved little boys that like to peel things and the mothers that drive them to it, and the secret to teenage girls staying beautiful. It’s another pretty long anthology, and these stories are all from the beginning of Ito’s career, so the art is rougher, less detailed, and character designs are less streamlined. But it’s another one of the rare horror manga anthologies we’ve received in English, and with Ito writing, the stories are again fairly compelling. This one’s been out of print for some time, and is experiencing some price creep online, with used copies currently hovering around $20.