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Junji Ito’s tortured worlds: horror’s greatest mangaka

Maya Bewley introduces us to Junji Ito’s nightmarish creations, running through her favourite works

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Image Credit: Niccolò Caranti, Wikimedia Commons

Junji Ito’s manga gets under your skin. Reading one is like stepping into a nightmare; complete with all the gruesome body horror and paralysing existential dread of a typical sleepless night. Things happen and we don’t know why. Girls grow slugs instead of tongues, men are driven insane by dreams, and bodies are stitched together like patchwork. And yet, like the protagonists sleepwalking to their gruesome fates, we are compelled by a perverse curiosity to keep turning the page. How does Ito conjure up these haunted worlds? And why can’t we stop reading them?

Ito’s horrors emerge from the fragments of everyday life. We might begin a story with his protagonists shopping for a new chair, or organising a school reunion. Like a parallel universe, everything feels both familiar and yet slightly out of place. But any scrap of normalcy is soon disfigured by a sinister force that encroaches on the narrative and changes its trajectory forever. Less agents of their own will, characters become marionette dolls to fate, forced (at their own demise) to discover what exactly this supernatural entity is. Ito is a master of this slow reveal. Like children, we spend the remainder of our journey entranced by the desire to know more, until we’re finally confronted with the spectacle of horror in all its repulsive glory.

A key instrument in creating this spectacle is Ito’s incredibly detailed illustrations. For those unfamiliar with reading manga (or comics),think of a movie dissected into a hundred individual frames, complete with subtitles in typical storyboard fashion. What makes Ito’s work so compelling is his ability to take an idea and translate it into the most grotesque visual terms. Take the swollen drips of pus oozing from a boy’s face, drowning the gaps of the page. Or the fuzzy nodes of a caterpillar’s back that, on closer inspection, are actually rotten scalps strung together. It’s a kind of work that makes you feel unclean, like there’s something lurking underneath the skin that you forgot to scrub away.

Ito’s breadth of work is huge; spanning heaps of volumes and collected works. Some of his most famed (and longer) creations are Tomie, Uzumaki and an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that eventually won an Eisner Award. Ito cites manga legend Kazuo Umezu and gothic terror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, as some of his greatest influences. But for the purpose of this article, here are some of the artist’s best (and most disturbing) short stories to get you into the master of horror:

The Enigma of Amigara Fault
A strange crack emerges from the ruins of an earthquake, revealing thousands of human shaped holes inside an ancient mountain. Unsurprisingly enough, they soon attract the nationwide bemusement of both scientists and spellbound visitors. Yet, the mountain unearths an even stranger magnetism as people experience a suicidal desire to enter the holes, only to never return. I won’t spoil it for you, but the result is one that channels our deepest anxieties about losing control to unexplainable primal urges with a terrifying twist at the end. Probably Ito’s most famous short story, this is a must if you’re new to his work.

If you want to be truly disgusted (and I’m not sure why), read Glyceride. Unlike the aforementioned story, Glyceride is interesting because its fear factor comes from the manipulation of a simple substance – oil. In this part-house, part-barbecue restaurant, oil is everywhere. It drips from the slick ceiling, leaks along the walls, and saturates the air in sticky grease. And it seems to possess the deranged family dynamics of those who live there. Little sister Yui watches as her family are slowly consumed by that fatty liquid, until it seems to choke the air of any oxygen. It’s impossible not to feel a sense of claustrophobia while reading this. All I’ll say is, it might put you off fast food for a bit.

Long Dream
What if you couldn’t wake up from a dream? Or, if every time you dreamt it felt like eternity? Ito takes this premise and transforms it into one of his most psychologically chilling pieces. Mukoda is admitted to a hospital, because each night his dreams feel as though they’ve lasted years. On waking the next morning, it’s like his body really has aged several decades, while his memory of the real world has withered. With his dreams getting seemingly longer, and his distorted physique reflecting these changes, Mukoda’s story unravels with terrifying consequences.

Other honourable mentions as that are as equally uncanny and deeply unsettling are Slug Girl, My Dear Ancestors, Army of One and The Human Chair. Ito manages to brilliantly balance all the psychological, visceral and surreal elements of horror, while tying them together with grotesque illustrations and meticulously crafted storytelling, proving that he is truly the marionette man of our time.

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