One of my absolute favorite stories by Junji Ito is “The Mystery of the Haunted House” (in America, it’s been published in the collection Smashed). It’s a pretty simple story, following two young boys who save up enough money to go to a traveling haunted house that’s set up shop in their hometown. This being a horror story, it turns out that the house holds some very real threats; the man who runs it, Soichi, has a pretty messed up extended family who all serve as the main attractions. One of his brothers, for instance, has been put up on a cross and shot through with arrows. One of the big reveals comes in the form of his son, with an extreme close up of his wild face and multiple rows of teeth.
“The Mystery of the Haunted House” was right up my alley. The characters are incredibly strange, and there’s a real sense of dread that permeates the whole thing. It builds to a really disturbing climax, with a feral child killing the narrator’s friend and Soichi being carried off into the night by his wife, an abnormally tall woman with shark teeth that frequent readers of Ito will recognize as a demonic fashion model. It’s gruesome and well-illustrated, and it really stuck with me.
The thing is that Smashed immediately follows that up with “The Mystery of the Haunted House: Soichi’s Version,” where we find out that Soichi, the ever-grinning man who spits nails out at people, is actually a mischievous young boy who was dreaming up this gory scenario out of boredom. Soichi is a recurring character Ito uses a couple of other times, and despite the downright odd wrinkle of him sucking on nails due to iron deficiency and some creepy illustrations of him, I felt that this revelation retroactively ruined the impact the original “Mystery of the Haunted House” had on me. I still love the former for just how disturbing it gets, though, and that mixture of frustrating storytelling and impactful art is what I want to discuss today.
The term “horror” can apply to so many things that it’s tough to pin down an exact definition. Hearing about a tragedy where people die is certainly horrific, but not in the same way that hitting a patch of black ice on the highway and doing a 180-degree spin is horrific (that’s a true story, by the way). For Junji Ito, horror is very much a feeling that’s difficult to describe. It’s a reaction to something so outlandish, so downright odd that you don’t even have time to think about the circumstances surrounding whatever it is he’s showing you on the page.
And here’s the thing—I love Junji Ito. I own most of his works that have been published in America and stand by them as a shining example of what a comic book/manga can do that something like a book or movie can’t. Other people have gone into this before, but he is a master at building suspense through the way he organizes his panels. He also follows up on all that build up with images that are so perverse, weird, or downright disturbing that some part of your brain reacts in shock and despair.
Most of this impact comes from one simple fact: the man is a simply outstanding illustrator. His one-page pictures of whatever nightmare he’s currently telling you about are so chock full of detail that it taps into the uncanny valley; body horror is very common in his work, and the ways that he twists the human form taps into something very primal. It’s revulsion, disgust, a refusal to accept what you’re looking at. I think one of his more infamous stories, “The Rib Woman,” does a great job at this. In the final stretches, it reveals that its antagonist, the eponymous woman, has ribs that stick out and are barely held together by wire.
Not only does Ito completely flip human anatomy on its head, but the eponymous woman’s face conveys a deep sense of despair and terror. Even though she’s the villain in the story, she’s also quite tortured (the reason her ribs look like that is because of a botched surgery—who knew?), and a single-page illustration conveys her entire troubled past and current terrifying present without a single word. Then the story just sort of…ends. The main character, who was in danger of having her own ribs stolen by the woman, manages to get away, and the rib woman lives on to haunt another day. There’s no real resolution, just an abrupt ending.
In most other mediums, I don’t know if Junji Ito would be considered a horror superstar. This plot structure from “The Rib Woman” is pretty common in most of his work. Typically, the narrator (who almost always has almost no development) either hears a rumor of something strange going on or sees something for themselves. As they investigate, they stumble upon an inexplicable phenomenon that has no real reason to exist. Most of the time, they are consumed by whatever they are investigating, often being killed or twisted by it. I have yet to read an Ito story that offers an explanation for its weird goings-on, excepting Gyo, which goes off into sci-fi territory in its latter stages.
I find this particular brand of horror story more frustrating than anything. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat through an entire horror movie trying to figure out how the protagonist is going to escape or overcome the evil they’re facing, only for them to become a victim too. To me, that’s a cop-out ending, a big old shrug that lets the viewer know they wasted their time. There are exceptions to this (higher-end found footage movies such as The Blair Witch Project or Noroi: The Curse come to mind), but most of the time I feel cheated like there was no point in getting invested in the story in the first place. That lack of catharsis is something I mostly detest.
The thing about Ito’s work, though, is that not only are the illustrations fantastic, but his stories almost always feel like night terrors where you’re unable to control your own body. His protagonists are about as flat as they come, mostly just serving as excuses to bring the reader into the story, but that self-insert nature lets the reader really immerse themselves in the tale. Their typically short lengths (most are about 30-40 pages, excluding his multi-chapter works) mean that the reader needs a way to quickly get invested before having the rug pulled out from under them by the inevitable single-page revelation followed by the often scary fallout of that revelation.
These stories often play on some very basic anxieties, too. Another one of my favorites from the collection Shiver is “Honored Ancestors.” It’s about a woman meeting her fiancé’s family for the first time, only his reclusive nature and unwillingness to discuss his family make her nervous to do so. And she should be: it turns out that all of the ancestors in her fiance’s family actually live on by forming a giant centipede made out of their scalps. It’s viscerally repulsive and so downright strange that the first time I read this one, I had to do a double-take to make sure I was seeing things clearly. The story ends with the protagonist going catatonic due to the traumatic experience.
In “Honored Ancestors,” Ito takes a very real and relatable fear (meeting your loved one’s family for the first time) and stretches it into something that is so absurd and over the top that it actually grounds the story in an emotionally realistic way. Sure, the revelation is horrific and unpredictable, but that’s why it works. If you’re meeting your significant other’s family for the first time, there’s anxiety that you might not be good enough for them, or that they won’t like you, or even worse, that they’re hiding something that your SO hasn’t told you about. So even though the scalp centipede thing in “Honored Ancestors” is just insanely over the top, the unpredictable nature of that secret is an extremely effective way to drive home that sense of unease that comes with meeting someone’s family.
And I think that’s something Ito doesn’t get enough credit for, mostly because his theming is often overshadowed by his outstanding artwork. In his best stories, though, he uses very relatable themes and mixes them with his own twisted imagination to deliver horror stories that, from a purely narrative perspective, should not work as well as they do. But if the goal of a horror story is to, well, horrify you, then he succeeds by blending simple but relatable storytelling with outlandish but beautiful art that taps into some dark corner of our brain.
There are a couple of instances where Ito actually does deliver satisfying stories, though, and the most recent example of this that I’ve seen is in the recently published collection Lovesickness. The eponymous story has a great hook; there’s a town where people meet at crossroads when the fog rolls in and ask one another for their fortunes. Things go well until the protagonist moves in, and we learn that as a kid, (long story short) he caused a pregnant woman to kill herself by giving her a bad fortune. The town starts experiencing a strange phenomenon where a hauntingly beautiful teenage boy appears on foggy nights and gives them fortunes that drive them to bloodshed.
Lovesickness is a more formulaic story on the surface, kind of a classic ghostly yarn with that signature “rumor based horror” Ito loves using thrown in for good measure, but as it goes on, there’s an actual narrative arc for the protagonist, and it becomes surprisingly emotional and heartfelt as it continues. It also contains some of Ito’s most atmospheric and downright nasty illustrations that he’s ever done, with early chapters being hauntingly beautiful during the foggy scenes and later ones going for the gore. It’s possibly my favorite of his long works since there’s more to the story than just a weird incident that no one can escape from.
Ultimately, I think that manga is the perfect format for Ito. In a book, he wouldn’t be able to tap into the reader’s more primal fears like he does with his shockingly great illustrations. In a movement-based medium like TV or movies, he wouldn’t be able to let the viewer really take in all the excruciating detail he puts into his monstrous creations, which means that the somewhat unsatisfying ways he wraps his stories up would leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. But with manga, the reader is in control of how long they spend on a page, meaning that they can take in all of those little touches and really understand the sense of uncontrollable horror he goes for. It’s why he’s rightfully a global superstar in the horror scene and why even his lesser stories still manage to send chills up readers’ spines.