Junji Ito is one of the most successful horror writers/illustrators in Japan (and the world). The mangaka (manga author and artist) is perhaps most famous for his focus on body horror and cosmic horror, with extremely detailed and visceral illustrations to be found throughout his works. A lot of Ito’s inspiration is either from his personal fears, dreams, or other horror writers such as Kazuo Umezu and H. P. Lovecraft. Disturbing visuals, mental illness, absurd events, and destructive jealousy are all themes in Ito’s works.
Although he might not have stated it directly, I feel that there is a common theme of ecocriticism across a few of Ito’s stories. Ecocriticism is concerned with environmental issues and the way in which nature is represented in literature. This can involve depictions of natural landscapes, the idea of man vs. nature, natural disasters, and pollution or nuclear power. Ecocritical analysis has been applied to a few forms of Japanese media, including Studio Ghibli films and Kaiju films. Here I’ll be discussing how some of Junji Ito’s manga involves aspects of ecohorror via the theme of nature taking over or reclaiming itself. Beware: spoilers ahead for Uzumaki, Gyo, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, and Smashed!
One of Ito’s most popular mangas, Uzumaki, is about a town called Kurouzu-cho that becomes plagued by spirals. Everyone in the town eventually becomes obsessed with or possessed by the curse of the spiral, causing many bizarre deaths and transformations to occur. One way in which the spiral affects people is first seen in Chapter 8: ‘The Snail’. Katayama, a classmate of the protagonist Kirie, starts acting strangely and is found to have a giant spiral on his back. The spiral becomes a snail shell, and Katayama gradually morphs into a snail. Another classmate (Tsumura) and the teacher (Mr Yokota) both turn into snails shortly afterwards, and Kirie’s own brother (Mitsuo) does as well towards the end of the story.
It’s unclear why particular people turn into snails, but the spiral affects everyone differently, after all. Having humans metamorphose into slow creatures that live a simple life represents a return back to the basics of nature. It’s noteworthy that the ‘mollusk people’ seem relatively content with their new state of being; Tsumura previously bullied Katayama, but as snails they actually mate and end up laying eggs. Later on, some people start eating the snails to survive, so Kirie has to hide and protect her brother once he becomes a snail. The threat here isn’t the snail creatures themselves, but the humans destroying life and consuming them out of their own greed.
As the whole town crumbles towards the end, turning to rubble. The only structures that remain are row houses (Nagaya), old Japanese houses occupied by working class communities. At this point in the story, any sudden motion or loud noise summons tornados, supposedly from the force of the air pressure from Dragonfly Pond, a powerful body of water in the centre of Kurouzu-cho. Newer buildings get destroyed easily by the tornados (a natural disaster), whereas the old row houses stay intact. A very basic structure made entirely of wood instead of newer materials, by the hands of people rather than machines is protected by the ancient force of the spiral.
In the final segment of Uzumaki, the row houses are extended to form a giant spiral covering the area of the whole town. Overcrowding inside the houses has caused people to merge into grotesque, spiral creatures who get emptied down the Dragonfly Pond well. Underneath Kurouzu-cho is a spiral city made of ancient ruins, constructed from the people who had turned into spiral creatures that become stone over the years. It’s revealed that every hundred or thousand years, the power of the spiral permeates the surface and builds itself by taking over people and the town. The curse seemingly can’t be broken, as Kirie ends up trapped down there with everyone else, mentioning how the town will rebuild itself amongst the ruins.
The powerful force of the spiral has an unknown origin, but appears to be an almost natural entity existing down below. Its influence is so strong that it can override human instinct and an entire man-made town. Everything becomes more basic and stripped back, as if the spiral city is reclaiming its environment, taking back ownership for itself. Although everyone in the town meets a tragic fate and the place is obliterated, the return to this impressive spiral city feels earned. Kirie and her boyfriend Shuichi are locked in an eternal embrace that, despite being devastating, seems oddly peaceful.
When asked about what the monsters in Gyo really represented, Ito apparently didn’t have a pro-environment commentary in mind, only thinking sharks are scary and that they’d be even scarier with legs. So it’s quite funny writing an ecocritical analysis of the story knowing it wasn’t even the intention, but, you know, death of the author and all that. Gyo involves all types of sea creatures walking out of the sea on legs and attacking citizens of first Okinawa, then Tokyo and other areas of Japan. The imagery of this is reminiscent of the classic textbook evolution diagram of a fish growing legs and emerging from the water, so there are already visual inclinations of nature expanding and taking hold.
These sea creatures take over the land and kill many people, overrunning cities and in a way reclaiming the land. It’s later revealed that their legs are actually machines that have attached to the fish. The protagonist’s uncle, Koyanagi, is a scientist whose own father designed the ‘walking machines’ as part of the Japanese army’s biological experiments during World War II. An unusual strain of bacteria causes its hosts to produce a deadly gas that infects those who inhale it, and this gas powers the machines. This in turn allows the bacteria’s hosts to spread the infection further. Enemy aircrafts bombed the ship carrying the machine prototypes, which is what caused them to attach to the fish.
The inclusion of Japan’s military experiments is an obvious criticism of the country’s war crimes; Ito has self-confessed anti-war feelings due to frightening war stories told by his parents when he was a child. In WWII, Japan created Unit 731, a facility that conducted biological experiments on prisoners of war and civilians. As with any weapon of mass destruction, the death-stench bacteria in Gyo is indiscriminate and ends up causing extensive destruction across the very country that created it. Ito’s narrative here acknowledges that military weapons are not the answer, and that they destroy life and nature in excess.
Due to the bacteria, the sea creatures decompose rather quickly, and in their place, humans are compelled to attach themselves to the machines instead. Their survival instinct is overridden and they are reduced to a puppet-like existence based around the natural bodily functions of decomposition. They are essentially at the mercy of their nature. Although the machines are assumed to be a man-made experiment, they’re revealed to be “a machine created by mother nature”. They’re “self-replicating machines” that were formed from the bacteria fusing with the wrecks of the battleships in the sea. So, the story comes across as both a warning against man-made institutions building mass weapons, and a cautionary tale of what would become of humanity if nature could strike back.
The Enigma of Amigara Fault
Perhaps Ito’s most famous story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault is certainly memorable in how disturbing it is. An earthquake (another natural disaster) occurs and unearths a fault in Amigara Mountain as well as devastating nearby towns and villages. In this fault are a multitude of human-shaped holes with an unknown origin. As more people gather and witness the landscape on the television, they gradually start noticing one of the holes is “made for them”. Once this happens, they’re compelled to walk into the hole, never to emerge—until they do from the other side, twisted and stretched beyond recognition.
At one point in the story, it’s said that the holes are the work of ancient people who used them as punishment for criminals. However, this brings up the question of how they would have the technology to create the holes. This ambiguity perhaps suggests some kind of natural occurrence. Once again, human survival instinct is displaced in favour of an irresistible compulsion from a potentially natural structure, leading to people’s gruesome deaths. I’m aware this one is a bit more of a stretch (no pun intended), but the fact remains that a natural disaster exposed the fault, regardless of whether or not the holes were naturally formed.
Smashed (or Splatter Film) begins with a man called Ogi having returned to Japan from a trip to South America with a jar of nectar he got from some natives there. The nectar is so significant to them that they worship the plants it comes from, and some would even risk their lives to retrieve it. Word soon spreads as Ogi gives his friend some nectar to eat, who tells their other friends. It’s so delicious that everyone quickly becomes obsessed with it. However, Ogi is found smashed into a pulp by some unknown force, and this gradually happens to everyone who eats the nectar.
In the end, one of the friends (Kameda) travels to South America to get more nectar. He locates the source, which is a weird-looking tree, and cuts into it. Of course, he gets smashed into the ground, and we discover that the branches are what was smashing people, as they can reach to any part of the world. The fact that Kameda is killed right as he cuts into the tree, a natural entity worshipped by natives, is a direct portrayal of nature fighting back against disrespectful humans. The tree is protecting itself, and its reach is far greater and more powerful than the measly humans stealing from it.
There also appears to be a colonial theme here. People who aren’t native to South America travel there and take something of value, completely ignoring the warnings from the actual natives. Their material greed overpowers any ounce of respect for the nectar’s cultural significance, and they’re punished for it by the land itself. Historically, there is also a link between Japan and South America, as many Japanese people immigrated to South America in the late 1800s. It’s quite hard to ignore the historical relevance and environmental theme in this story.
The idea of nature taking over or reverting back to its natural state before humans intervened crops up frequently across Junji Ito’s works. Even if he didn’t intend it, it’s still interesting that it’s such a common theme. Stories involving the environment reclaiming the land or overriding human instinct are compelling from an ecocritical perspective and often psychologically as well. I’m sure there are more examples I’ve missed from Ito’s manga that I haven’t read yet—I’d love to hear other people’s interpretations!