The Beautiful Harrowing World of Junji Ito

In 3rd grade a couple of my classmates explained to me quite vividly how snakes tasted like. Just like fish, they said. I don’t recall how we got to that topic – or the truth of their supposed personal accounts – but I was already deathly afraid of snakes at that point in my life and I spent the rest of the day terrified of those creepy reptiles somehow slithering around the dark crevices under the stairs or in the secluded girls’ restroom. Every time I had to go down the creaky wooden stairs (tragically our classroom was on the second floor), I was convinced that something slimy would wrap around my ankles so I had to leap down several steps as fast as I could, cold sweat dripping down my neck. It was only by pure chance that I didn’t slip and fall at some point. Such was the effect of a simple lunchtime conversation.

I was always an imaginative child. However, my imagination often lead me to dark places where snakes and other awful creatures were forever plaguing an introverted girl like me and doppelgängers were hiding in every corner, ready to kill and replace me at a moment’s notice (how I got that weird, dark idea is another story). Looking back on it now, I spent so much time exploring the depths of my increasingly macabre imagination that that was probably why I hadn’t any lasting friendships throughout elementary school. I was that strange, quiet kid that kept to herself most of the time, lost in her own world.

When I developed a strange fascination with all things horror, nobody could understand why. My parents were baffled (and a little concerned) as to why I spent so much time watching ghost shows and documentaries about murderers. Honestly, I couldn’t explain it either. I was a complete coward when it came to horror and thriller movies – I’d seriously spend 80% of the film with my eyes firmly shut and my fingers plugged in my ears – yet give me true crime or “true” ghost stories and I’d be begging for more.

Just as I was slowly growing out of R.L. Stine’s campy horror/thriller novels, I was introduced to Junji Ito. I was in my freshman year of high school and my friend, the same one who dragged me to the never-ending hell that is anime (unsurprisingly enough), suggested I read this bizarre little manga that had a pretty haunting art style. The manga was  Ito’s famous Uzumaki (Spiral) and, reader, I fell in love instantly. What followed was weeks of obsessively searching for all of Junji Ito’s available works and devouring each and every short story (he’s mostly known for his one-shots). I read all of his Tomie volumes, all of his anthologies, and scoured the web for any uncollected stories that I might have missed. I just couldn’t get enough. In hindsight, it’s actually quite appropriate that I read Uzumaki first since I was sucked into Junji Ito’s beautiful harrowing world in the same way a spiral draws people in.

Let me describe to you a typical Junji Ito story. A character is introduced. This character encounters something strange. Not necessarily scary or dangerous, just strange, maybe just a bit off. They attempt to either ignore it or learn more about it but it is persistent and inscrutable. In the climax, the character is pushed to do something drastic, resulting in the enigma transforming into its true self, a striking horror that claims the life of the character and quite possible the entire town. The ending often leaves you with more questions than answers. Some stories follow a different route but majority follow this one.

One might think that reading stories like this would get repetitive but I assure you, each of Junji Ito’s stories is beautiful and unexpected. You never know what you’re going to get when you turn the page, even if you do know how the story is going to end. Trust me, after reading countless of his stories, I’m still floored by the unexpected twists. A simple story about a girl with beautiful long locks could lead to several grisly deaths caused by sentient hair. A mysterious kid could be the unsuspecting victim of his family’s obsession with human flesh. An awkward love story might end with one of the characters paranoid of his head falling off. Really, there’s just no preparing for them.

Also, quick note, Junji Ito’s masterful artwork is unsurpassed but I won’t dwell too long on the technical aspect of his work as it’s not my area of expertise. I’ll focus on his stories.

In every Junji Ito story, there’s a lingering ominous feeling that increases with each passing panel. I love that but couldn’t explain exactly how he does it. I learned later on that Ito’s works fall under the sub-genre of cosmic horror (or Lovecraftian horror), a type of horror that delves into the fear of the unknown, often highlighting just how insignificant humans can be when faced with the unknowable. In almost all of Junji Ito’s stories, there is a visceral sense of hopelessness. Characters are doomed from the start. No matter how hard they try to fight or escape their ruin, they just can’t. How can they when the monster or the being is too omnipotent? Too incomprehensible to the human mind?

Junji Ito’s type of horror has fascinated me to no end. Unlike typical horror stories where there’s often a motive or an explanation behind the enigma/threat – whether it’s paranormal or psychological – Ito’s monsters often don’t have a reason for killing. They just do it because they can. While in a regular horror story, the final act is spent explaining or unraveling the mystery, to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, Junji Ito’s works simply reveal just how horrifying the antagonist is and the terrible fate of the protagonist. Bizarre and horrifying phenomena happen just because they do. Mysteries and curiosities are never resolved. Characters can try to understand why it’s happening but it’ll be all for naught. It’s that aspect, the impossible to understand or rationalize, that is Ito’s main allure. At least for me.

Fear of the unknown is man’s primary fear. Junji Ito’s stories are great horror stories because the unknown stays unknown. Readers are kept in the dark, we’re left in the same position as the characters: confused, terrified, trapped in an unwinnable situation. As much as I love learning about the psychology behind a serial killer or the origins of a malevolent creature, there’s just something endlessly enjoyable in seeing a spine-tingling bloody mass of pure dread wrecking havoc for no other reason than the fact that it’s powerful while the humans are powerless against it.

To this day, I still can’t truly understand why I’m obsessed with horror. Maybe it’s because I’m always imagining the worst case scenario in just about anything and with the tragedies in horror stories, my worst pales in comparison. I mean, what’s snakes hiding under the stairs compared to huge decapitated heads relentlessly out to hang you by the neck? At the face of hopelessness in horror stories, especially Junji Ito’s, I’m forced to confront how my reality is full of hope and it’s… a bit comforting, I guess.

Or maybe I just have this sick obsession with seeing people suffer in the most gruesome ways imaginable? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

In closing, I’d like to share this lighthearted (yet still expertly creepy) page from Ito’s comedy, slice of life manga (based from his own life), Cat’s Diary.

jitoh_junji_s_cat_diary_v01_c01_006-neuquant.jpg

 

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