There is a very good chance that even if you don't read a lot of manga you've probably heard of Junji Itō, and I will begin by suggesting that this very renown can serve to obscure the finer points of his work.
As some of you will remember, Itō first captured a significant amount of North American attention in the early '00s through VIZ's publication of Uzumaki, a serial about people obsessed, transformed, and mostly destroyed by uncanny spiral shapes; the concept was novel and the execution superb, but 15 years ago, the manga readership was not what it is now. The initial forum for Uzumaki's English translation was Pulp, a magazine dedicated to manga for mature readers, with columns by the likes of comic book writer Warren Ellis; manga had not quite imprinted itself upon big box bookstores, where the audience would prove considerably younger and less male, so Pulp appealed in large part to factions of the existing comic book readership, which had long suckled from publishers' assumptions as to what sort of Japanese comics would fit in with direct market fare. It did not hurt that Itō was upfront about a prominent western influence, H.P. Lovecraft, and that his art -- sleepless characters drawn without significant exaggeration until faced with fabulously detailed horror phenomena, their baggy eyes then blackening and their mouths stretching, drooling; faces sweating until the decay of their bodies usurp the plainness of their skin like underdrawing righteously augmented with pustule shade -- did not look like the stereotypical idea of commercial Japanese comics. In some ways, this perception endures; the shop where I bought this book does not carry much manga, but it always carries Junji Itō, and I suspect VIZ is counting on just that phenomenon for valuable ancillary sales.
Yet Fragments of Horror is not like Uzumaki -- which debuted in Japanese in a seinen magazine for adult men, run by one of VIZ's parent companies -- nor its follow-up in English translation, the similarly-targeted Gyo. What is not often stated about Itō's body of work is that he has frequently published comics in magazines for girls and women, and this new book, a suite of eight short stories, is closer to the long out of print Itō anthologies published by ComicsOne (Tomie vols. 1-2 and Flesh Colored Horror, both 2001) and Dark Horse (Museum of Terror vols. 1-3, 2006) in terms of both story structure and audience presumptions. The earliest pages of Tomie, for example, marked Itō's 1987 professional debut; concerning a gorgeous teen girl who is desired and murdered, only to rise again, over and over, it first ran in Monthly Halloween, a horror-themed shōjo magazine, for girls, published by Asahi Sonorama. Flip to Itō's afterword in Fragments of Horror, and you'll find that these new stories were created for the same publisher, since absorbed into Asahi Shimbun Publications.
Moreover, these stories labored under the burden of history, as most of them were created for the publisher's relaunch of Nemuki, a long-lived supernatural-themed girls' magazine. The new magazine was titled Nemuki+, and its first issue contained the first story in Fragments of Horror: “Futon”, the preliminary breakdowns to which Itō candidly admits (in the same afterword) earned him a call from his editor to inquire as to whether his instincts for the genre had fled him. “I redid the whole thing, but it still didn't quite come together for me,” the artist remarks, and now is probably the time to state that these are not, for the most part, among Junji Itō's better comics, although their arrangement does reveal some fascinating commonalities. Indeed, there is a startlingly cohesive worldview promulgated across these pages, one that does not emerge from other books by the same artist.
It very much has to do with women, men, and horror – how men are consumptive and selfish, but also needy, and how women, through supernatural proximity, can wrest a fleeting satisfaction from an amoral world defiant of human impositions of meaning. Do you think that's scary? I' more frightened than anyone right now, because that these are fundamentally uncomplicated pieces of light genre entertainment, reliant on unexpected twists and shock endings, and they best way I can see to communicate my interest is to do something reviewers are explicitly told to never, ever do: write a review consisting mainly of (a) plot synopses, which (b) spoil absolutely everything. I'm even going to make categories! Ooooh, can you hear my editor's screams? It's too late! I've arranged my back issues of Creepy and Eerie in a protective circle, and only God can judge me.
I. WOMEN - “Futon” and “Tomio * Red Turtleneck”
First, the elementary. Every story in this book deals with an encounter with a character who represents the horrific. Perhaps they are supernatural. Perhaps they are merely eccentric. Perhaps there is a scientific explanation for everything that happens, and the "character" is merely an expression of some fevered and guilt mind. What is important is that they are all blatant and disquieting impositions on the common expectation for order. Also, all of the horrific characters, i.e. those given primacy over supplemental ghouls or spirits or beasties or doodles, are depicted as female. They are a diverse lot, with vivid faces and unique bodily characteristics. In contrast -- at least in the seven stories prepared for Nemuki+ -- Itō draws the women among his protagonists as variations on a Standard Female Character, as if the same exhausted actress has been given different haircuts for individual shoots in which she is playing essentially the same role.
She always exists in proximity to a man, and that man always betrays her.
Twice, the woman is named Madoka, and the man is named Tomio. In “Futon”, the story that caused Itō and his editor such grief, Tomio is most often shown buried under the eponymous bedding, babbling to Madoka, the household's sole provider, about dark spirits that only he can see. Four pages later, Madoka is seeing them too, menaced on her own futon by all manner of viral ghouls and infectious devils, purportedly led into the house by a nude witch with a curvy skin tail: Tomio's extramarital lover! The heroine flees, returning a month later to find her man barely alive and fused to the bedding with hallucinogenic mold; as it turns out, the syphilitic sorceress was only a product of Tomio's guilt over fucking (or just intending to fuck) a presumably non-diabolical partner - a misogynistic scapegoat at which he could point his finger while the rot of his infidelity tainted dear Madoka as well.
The misadventures continue in the book's third story, “Tomio * Red Turtleneck”, which finds its title lout -- his restored health perhaps an effort on the author's part to redo a story he'd not especially liked the first time -- now explicitly sleeping around on his lady with a bona fide exotic and threatening Other: a cloaked fortune teller. But this woman is only interested in Tomio for his head, which she promptly severs from his neck under the proviso that so long as he manages to keep it steady atop its stump with his two hands, he will continue to live. Luckless Madoka must then contend with both an extra-needy Tomio screaming for his mommy and the other woman bursting into her apartment to slide a living cockroach into Tomio's slit neck, among other affronts to cohabitation; the heroine at one point literally wields a frying pan in defense of domesticity, while Tomio suffers a vision of bastard love children decapitating him with playful hugs. The curse is eventually undone, though Tomio is so scarred by the experience that his hands never leave the sides of his head ever, ever again: a Pyrrhic victory for traditional relationships.
This is important. The horror characters, the female monsters -- whether a literal person like the fortune teller or a man's viral divination a la the syphilitic witch -- generally win in these stories, though they're not even aware it's a competition. In fact, they are wholly disinterested in the moral calculus underlying Itō's deployment of generic metaphor; these notional villains don't want to punish Tomio for his betrayals, they just want to TAKE things that they LIKE. It's a pretty basic reversal of gaze, Tomio's lecherous eyes met with something even more intense (one of them, ironically, issuing from his own imagination), which I think encourages readers to identify freely with both protagonist and antagonist, reducing dishonest Tomio to a mere catalyst for the horror characters' performance of free and amoral pleasure in front of the shocked heroine, whose primary desire can best be discerned as a longing for order.
II. MEN - “Blackbird” and “Dissection-chan”
In contrast, the male protagonists of Fragments of Horror do not have a hurtful intermediary through which some relationship with horror is mediated; instead, they can only bear impotent witness to the mysteries of biology. “Blackbird”, via a doomed narrator, relates the story of a lonely hiker trapped with broken legs deep in the woods; fearing starvation, he is suddenly approached by a bird-like woman with bulging cheeks and enormous lips, who feeds him delicious pre-chewed meat and rich, thick blood, as if nourishing a chick. But then she keeps feeding him, even after his rescue, and soon the meat tastes very bad, and ultimately we discover the bizarre truth: the Blackbird has been soaring through time, pecking off the man's skin only a few years into the future so as to stuff his face full of himself when he needs her most in the past. There is no explanation for any of this, no sin the hiker committed to deserve it, and no contract he signed nor deal he cut to suffer billing of Luciferian interest; not to be grossly western about it, but black birds are often charged with transitional meaning, flitting between life and death, and the hiker, it seems, had only stumbled into an allegory for existence, if in both a maternal and rather erotic manner.
These arguably Freudian themes are heightened in “Dissection-chan”, which finds a bland medical student -- Itō is laudable consistent with the dullness of his protagonists -- confronted with a human cadaver which not only proves to be alive, but turns out to be a woman he'd known since childhood. Ruriko was always obsessed with playing doctor, and loved nothing more than dissecting hapless animals with the coerced aid of our narrating non-hero. Now as an adult, she wants to be dissected herself, to relieve the mysterious and lascivious aches in her belly: “Aaaaah! I get turned on just imagining it!” she grins, laying nude in the narrator's apartment. He does not consent, and it is only years later, when he has become a teacher, that they are reunited: her dead on the slab and him unexpectedly tasked with dissecting his old friend before an eager class. All of them are stunned by what they find as her belly is opened – new animals, mutant forms of the critters she dissected as a child, crammed into her body in place of any logical organs, as if having burst from her womb and devoured everything in sight. Ruriko's corpse smiles. It is accomplished.
I need not belabor such evident fascinations. Itō's men are confronted by the process of birth (“Dissection-chan”) and the notion of rearing (“Blackbird”) as dread mysteries akin to the maddening spirals of Uzumaki. It is misogynistic fundament, of course, to freight femininity with such appalling threat -- and, as to the cisgendered conceptualization of dichotomous men's and women's biology, more will be said later -- but I think we are misled to read these elements in isolation. Itō's protagonists may cherish order, but as in Lovecraft, 'order' is understood to be something they have constructed; greater powers are unmoved by such provincialism. And the greater, older, amoral matriarchal powers of Fragments of Horror don't need men at all. The Blackbird's motiveless drive to hunt, raise and feed is accomplished apparently by manipulating time, while Ruriko, armed with a phallic scalpel, both penetrates and is mystically impregnated, obviating men's very purpose in siring new beings; stripped of their virility as studs, they are consigned to oblivion.
III. CONVERGENCE - “Whispering Woman” and “Gentle Goodbye”
I know I haven't been saying a lot about Itō's artwork so far, and that's because it's generally consistent with prior works, if noticeably stiffer than usual; the image of Ruriko's open belly at the end of “Dissection-chan” was so lacquered -- as if drawn from a wooden model -- that I couldn't tell if the critters were stillborn or not. The only real variation I noticed was a slightly sharper look to “Whispering Woman”, the final story in Fragments of Horror; Itō employs a little more in the way of juxtaposing character art against hatched backgrounds in that one, while the other stories rely heavily on tones. Facial expressions are also a bit more varied and lively -- he even pulls off cute panels of a girl laughing when tickled -- and the story's big, booming splash image of scary stuff, an Itō trademark, is a wonderfully controlled riot of ink textures. The book's other splashes seem a little too busy, even haphazardly framed at times: spectacle over fright.
This is probably because, upon research, “Whispering Woman” turns out to be a much earlier story; it ran in 2009 in a different Asahi magazine, Shinkan, and its presence here is basically like that of “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” at the end of Gyo – it's a dessert, albeit one which some might find more appetizing than the main course. Between the creation of the Shinkan and Nemuki+ pieces, Itō drew Yuukoku no Rasputin, a six-volume adaptation of a political suspense novel that ran in the same magazine as Golgo 13 (so, very male-targeted); it's by far the longest sustained serial narrative he's ever attempted, and it could be the grind of production impressed on him some time-saving techniques.
That said, “Whispering Woman” fits in pretty well with the Nemuki+ stories. There's now a narrating male -- a concerned father -- but at its center is still the exchange between a horror character and a heroine, though the horror is more human and the heroine less dull. The latter is a young girl who absolutely cannot make up her mind about what to do in any given situation; it's gotten so bad she stays in her room obsessing over whether to stand or sit, breathe or blink. The horror character is a haggard older lady hired by the girl's father as an attendant; she immediately takes control, lurking behind the girl at all times and dictating answers to the most minute decisions, even anticipating moments of danger like a runaway truck with uncanny accuracy. But the woman has a secret: at home, she is abused by her lover, who controls her life completely. It is ironic enough that the abusive man turned her out to make some money, leading her into this job, but doubly so in that the girl's father is aware of the situation yet does nothing to help her, for she is too good at benefiting his daughter. Two betrayers, then, if now aimed at the spookier woman, who grows desiccated, wraith-like, as if pouring her vitality into her girl charge.
Yet all this serves to do is transform these half-autonomous characters into one fused person. And then, they can do whatever they want.
These concerns are reflected in notably bathetic form via the most sentimental of the Nemuki+ stories, “Gentle Goodbye”. Here, the heroine is confronted with numerous decaying figures: the “afterimages” of deceased relatives in her new husband's family. Zealous communal prayer, it turns out, can restore dead loved ones to life, but only in unaging and passive forms, their personalities keyed to the expectations of the people who revived them; they literally become more difficult to see as the years go by. The heroine herself often suffers dreams of her father's death, so she is quite sympathetic - but her other dreams, in which her dad becomes a toy she puts away in a drawer and forgets about, are more prophetic. After a while, she finds her husband (inevitably!) cheating on her with a woman from his office, which leads to the revelation that she too is an afterimage: she had died just before their wedding, but her husband's family agreed to bring her back to salve his misery, and she is now a toy that has tired him, though of course he will respect societal roles and remain her husband until she is totally invisible.
In other words, the heroine now is the horror character, integrated like the protagonists of “Whispering Woman” at its denouement. Yet though she seems to have no autonomy at all, as her actions are only those anticipated by her loved ones, there is freedom, nonetheless, in constraints – by realizing her situation, the heroine does exactly what is expected, and concludes she is an inappropriate bride, abandoning faithless husband and icy home to embrace the purer, sexless love of her father, whom she now suspects will outlast her. A horror comic fit for your local purity ball!
IV. DIVERGENCE - “Wooden Spirit” and “Magami Nanakuse”
Make no mistake, though: Itō has more to say about fathers and daughters. And for those like me who prefer this artist in the mode of Gyo -- which, you'll recall, concerns the sudden and gaseous emergence of all the fish in the ocean to smother humanity with the wriggling mass of their putrefying flesh -- it's “Wooden Spirit” that will emerge as the best goddamned thing in Fragments of Horror by an empty ocean's length.
There's nothing Megumi's dad loves more than their family house! It's recently become a Registered Tangible Cultural Property, but more importantly it's the site of happy family memories going right back to the heroine's birth, before her father and mother split up. Megumi still lives at home while pursuing Her Studies in unspecified subjects, and thus regrettably answers a knock at the door by Manami Kino: home fetishist. Within seconds, Ms. Kino is holding forth on the sexiness of the house's walls and pillars, the “masculine strength” in the luscious exposed joints of its ceiling. Practically licking her chops, the woman requests to board with the family, and Megumi is stunned to hear her father agree. Ms. Kino, though, proves to be the perfect caretaker, and a peerless domestic servant: cooking, cleaning, and finally marrying the man of the house. But no honeymoon for them, and no relief for Megumi: “I love being in this house,” her stepmom smiles,with severe honesty.
Itō's drawings of Ms. Kino, the horror character, are completely wonderful. Often, she is little more than a curvy outline, her skin nearly pure white, her hair and lips solid black. Traced against a wall of the house, writhing ecstatically at night, she could not appear more different than Megumi, seething in a not dissimilar manner to pious Edward Woodward when tempted by pagan beauty Britt Ekland in the 1973 horror movie classic The Wicker Man – but Ms. Kino (very cinematic!) is not trying to seduce the heroine, nor even really her father. She literally just wants to fuck the doors off that house, and the feeling, ultimately, is mutual.
The smell of breath fills the house. The walls move, quaking. Quivering. Megumi runs downstairs to find her father manically scrubbing at stains on the floor, but the stains are rolling eyes! HAAAAH, HAAAAH moans the house, its handsome sunken tea hearth now a heaving yonic portal, glowing white-hot as tears stream down Megumi's dad's face: “Our house... our house!” And then, from the rafters - “OOOOOH!” Ms. Kino is nude and rude, arms and thighs clasped around a blinking joist, her skin hard all over, and ringed like sturdy wood. The very sight of this obscenity causes Megumi to faint. She dreams of her DEAR MOTHER, and the CLEAN, FAMILY ACTIVITIES they held in that house. Hanging a swing from the ceiling! Marking her height on the wall! But when she wakes, those cherished memories have been burned to ashes by the heat of the afterglow blown between those walls: the vaginal hearth has swallowed the tea kettle, and Megumi is lucky not to be gobbled up herself. Her father is pouring gasoline on the floor, but she pulls him away. Outside, dark and prickly hairs cover the pelvic thatch where they used to live.
“She was a pervert...” dad muses, like a scientist summarizing the monster's rampage. “She lusted after buildings, and they lusted after her...”
There is a good deal of cultural precedence for this story. Simplistically, there is the 1977 Nobuhiko Ōbayashi film Hausu, an uninhibited barrage of experimental terror effects animating its sad story of, among other things, a girl who cannot abide her father marrying another woman now that her mother is dead. Itō's piece is far more single-minded (and not nearly as visually interesting), but the heroine's conflict is much the same: she objects to her father's new union, which she latently understands will annihilate their household. Contrast this with the lover-betrayers of every previously-discussed story in this book involving a female protagonist, and suddenly Itō seems a great deal more conservative.
But more on point, I think, is Itō's great predecessor in horror comics creation: Kazuo Umezu.
Itō has made no secret for his admiration of Umezu, whose blend of gut-punch shocks and seemingly counter-intuitive humor were plainly inspirational. And among Itō's favorite Umezu comics is “The Grave of Butterfly”, aka “Butterfly Grave”, aka “Insects”, which Dark Horse published in English in 2006 as volume 2 of Scary Book, an abortive three-volume anthology of Umezu's short works, typically aimed at girls, sourced from Asahi collections: so, exactly the same situation as Itō's Museum of Terror.
And in “Butterfly Grave”, we can see many elements of “Wooden Spirit”. The villain, again, is a wicked stepmother, who stole the affections of the heroine's father. The older woman is again associated with an innocuous forest characteristic: butterflies instead of wood. The difference is that Umezu's heroine is much younger, as is his audience: myriad EEEEKs accompany the girl's seriocomic phobia of butterflies; the storyline is prolonged and episodic; and the revelation that the heroine's stepmom actually murdered her birth mother is accompanied by a detailed explanation of the villain's psychology. Unusually, the story ends with the stepmother killing herself and the heroine, once grown, forgiving her trespasses, knowing that a hideous butterfly-shaped birthmark had set the woman apart from society to suffer for all her life.
Umezu typically delights in condemning the adult world for its toxic, callous attitudes; Itō is more ambivalent. Throughout Fragments of Horror, the supernatural is presented as a means for women to observe freedom: abandoning husbands and seducing lovers and committing murders. This does not necessarily make them nice people, but in the world of this book convergence with the horror character (or recognition of one's sameness with such) it is the only way any of them enjoy demonstrable happiness – I mean, maybe Madoka is happy too after Tomio gets good and fucked up, but we never know it or see it like we do with the fading heroine of “Gentle Goodbye” or the delighted chums of “Whispering Woman”. And if we continue this reading of the horror character's actions as performance for the heroine, as potential, we see in Ms. Kino an expression of unbridled, transformative sexuality that makes Megumi sick. They communicate, but the heroine's reservations are more severe than those of other stories. She is not physically hurt -- no woman is ever physically hurt by anyone other than a human male in these stories -- but the message cannot connect, and the damage to her personal situation is most deeply felt by her.
And that leads us to our grand finale, in which I will postulate that the curtain is totally ripped back.
Chronologically, “Magami Nanakuse” is the last story in Fragments of Horror; provided Asahi's website is accurate, it is also the most recent short horror comic Itō has published in Nemuki+ to date, with only a trip report from Angoulême 2015 following. Unlike anything else in the book, it is blatantly comedic; I also suspect it may have trafficked in Japanese wordplay, sending chills down the translator's spine.
The heroine in this one is far more lively than usual; she is a fangirl, wildly devoted to novelist Magami Nanakuse, who profits greatly from characters with endearing and easily mimicked tics. But there are secrets behind these acts of creation - summoned to the author's remote villa in response to a fan letter, the heroine discovers that Magami is a man disguised as a woman, and an inveterate collector. Soon Magami has locked her in a dungeon, where scores of hapless victims are kept in confinement until they develop uncontrollable nervous motions, which the author then copies into her works, and which fawning editors and an adoring public then copy from her. “You won't get away with this! You perverted bastard!” The heroine resolves not to move a single muscle, but this only plays into Magami's scheme - she winds up given the ultimate fandom honor: mounted under glass while everybody celebrates the author's greatest success.
Insofar as the sexually devious figure of fun at the center of this story is a man dressed as a woman -- behavior so laughable hardly any detailing of its ridiculousness is necessary -- Itō uncritically trades in transmisogyny. At the same time, I think his intent, for what it's worth, is self-parody. I read Magami Nanakuse, famous author, as Junji Itō, popular mangaka, drawing for a magazine with an extensive history of appeal to girls and women; all of these stories deal with female horror figures, sometimes encountering heroines and sometimes just lording it over men. Gender distinctions are sharply-drawn, and insoluble.
And from this, Itō may draw a concluding joke: he is a pretender, placing himself in the guise of a woman to pillage from women, and profit mightily. If you look at the small excerpt up above, the encounter between Magami and her editor reverses the encounter between Itō and his editor detailed at the top of this piece; that which once began with uncertainty, Itō parodically ends with absolute supplication, throwing any trash at his publisher and winning complete approval.
I will conclude by noting that Itō published another book of horror shorts just a few months after Fragments of Horror was released in Japan: The Melting Classroom, collecting linked shorts which initially ran in the Akita Shoten josei magazine motto!, aimed at women. These are raucous, splattery things starring a pair of demonic siblings who cause people's brains to leak out of their faces; very different from Fragments of Horror.
Naturally, these could be different books simply because Itō didn't want to make the same kind of stories. He does not strike me as a very ideological artist; the only time I've seen him confronted with a political reading of his work, he immediately shot it down. Even the most ostensibly political of his translated works, Gyo, quickly backs away from its initial suggestion of the central horror's origin in Japanese military experiments to embrace looser, more fantastical, biological suggestions. Also, Itō is pretty upfront about following editorial direction, and making changes to his manuscripts as suggested.
In this way, we plunge into great terror for the critic: the uncertainties of attribution. Many cartoonists work with a staff of assistants to enhance the speed and quality of their production (Itō has a small staff, but asserts that he draws most elements on the page himself). Many others who ostensibly "write" their own works do so with significant editorial guidance; the aforementioned Yuukoku no Rasputin was scripted by Takashi Nagasaki, a longtime creative partner of superstar Naoki Urasawa, but rarely acknowledged as such in English discourse. In his afterword to Fragments of Horror, Itō mentions his longtime editor at editor at Asahi passing away; we might suppose, then, that he was working with somebody new. We might also suppose that he would have a different editor at Akita Shoten, which could account for his differing approach in two magazines ostensibly servicing a similar demographic.
And even these distinctions have a way of breaking down. It's not just women who read magazines targeted at women, and audiences for collected editions can diversify yet further. Itō has created work for virtually every audience, because his aesthetic is strong; he enjoys terrific and broad appeal. But manga is a very large thing, and its complexities can encourage subtle evolution, like that of this book which whispers like a worldview. It is probably a phantom, conjured from marketing stratagems and collaborative disposition... but who is it that's drawn so many comics about weird and hidden things revealed...