Hey, wanna hear a scary story? The internet has transformed the impulse for expressing affection into a dehumanizing and monetizable force! Well, I didn’t say it was going to be a new story… it’s like Dracula. You’ve heard it before. And, provided you are extremely online, you’ve also heard of Junji Itō, surely among the most internet-famous of horror cartoonists, whose works are passed around — be they full stories or juicy images — on any platform for the dissemination of images you can think of. This is another way of saying that his comics are pirated a lot; enough so that the initial acts of piracy become stock for subsequent excerpts and details, often posted out of affection. “Who drew this?” someone inevitably asks. Junji Itō, of course! Or: I’m sure you’ve heard of the Kristen Roupenian short story “Cat Person” by now. There’s pair of cats named in the story: Yan and Mu. I don’t know if those names come directly from Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu (Kodansha Comics, 2015; emphasis added), but this is an artist at a level of general visibility high enough that I can’t discount the possibility out of hand.
Yet I wonder if this sliver of ubiquity, carved off by the endless posting and reposting of images that drive so much of social media, risks transforming Itō into a type of internet fauna: a Junji Itō that merely exists, ex nihilo, without consideration of the reality inhabited by the artist. The arguments you’ve heard on this topic are generally economic: to pirate manga is to steal money from the creators of manga, so go out and buy a lot of books and support the scene! Yet despite their visibility, Itō’s small works have been slow to arrive in formal translated publication, perhaps because the extent of their piracy has made them a dicey investment for publishers; the big shōnen titles will sell regardless of scans, since that pump is already primed, but 20-year-old horror shorts are a different thing. Moreover, I think this means of seeing art has a way of situating the artist in an eternal present: ever-consumable — because when you are on the internet you are often making money for somebody, be they scan aggregate sites and ad-powered piracy apps or social media platforms that survive on the glamour of their necessity as communication tools — but divorced from the relevant contexts that speak to the evolution, the fixations, the historical situation of the aesthetic project, and the other means by which we might begin to develop a greater literacy. Of course, many serious artists have resisted the quality of empathy and humanness; I bet you all can even think of some successful name that has premised their art on the appropriation and/or recontextualization of manga images not unlike Itō’s – a menagerie of fauna. But I’m not speaking to artists; I’m speaking to the qualities of reading.
So, anyway, here we have Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories, which is VIZ’s English edition of a 2015 Japanese book with the delightfully immodest title of “Itō Junji Self-Selected Masterpiece Collection”. There are nine stories presented across its four hundred pages, eight of which span Itō’s long career in manga, and one of which is totally new (circa 2015). They are:
The Long Dream
Fashion Model: Cursed Frame [new]
All but one of these (“Painter”) have never been formally printed in English. In fact, this is the first time since Dark Horse’s 2006 release of Museum of Terror Vol. 3: The Long Hair In the Attic that any group of miscellaneous Itō short stories going back into the 20th century has been formally printed in English (setting aside his Tomie stories, about which more will be said shortly), and, at risk of repeating myself, it’s not too difficult to speculate as to why – in all of fifteen minutes of basic Google searching, I found unofficial translated scans of every comic in this book save for the new story, most of them under slightly modified titles owning to different translations. However, Shiver has something extra in store: each of the eight older stories are accompanied by a brief commentary from Itō himself, as well as a short presentation of his preparatory notes and sketches for the pieces.
This is both good business, and maybe just good. I think having Itō himself front and center can counteract the phenomenon of his works merely existing as pluckable digital fruits, although the book’s setup is admittedly not ideal to that end. For one thing, there’s no explanation as to when any of these comics were originally published – I’m not blaming VIZ here, since the Japanese edition doesn’t have any information like that either, and for all I know they might be contractually prohibited from adding editorial material to the original work, but it does limit the book’s usefulness as a retrospective. Upon digging around, I was able to find a Japanese blog purporting to list the original publication dates of everything in the book down to the month, the information presumably coming from other Itō collections or the author’s experience; the actual sources, though, are never disclosed. If this information is accepted as accurate, it is noteworthy that the selected stories are arranged in chronological order, starting in 1990 (three years after Itō’s professional debut, and the first year he spent working on manga without a day job) and concluding in 2003, a year after the serialization of Gyo, one of the longform works that helped make Itō’s name in western environs.
Also, at no point is it explained exactly why these stories have been chosen for inclusion. The back of the book states that these are “NINE OF JUNJI ITO’S BEST SHORT STORIES,” though Itō himself never refers to these works like that. Instead, he emphasizes the quality of memory attached to each story: “all kinds of things came back to life from the period when I wrote them,” he mentions, although this appears to be true about any of his works. “I’ve been drawing manga for nearly thirty years, but I’m actually still very attached to my work. Memories from the times I drew them are stuffed into each and every story.” It may be worth noting that the Japanese “Itō Junji Self-Selected Masterpiece Collection” is actually a spin-off of Asahi Shimbun’s “Itō Junji Masterpiece Collection”, which is the current brand name for the Japanese publisher’s extensive line of Itō short story compendiums; in this way, the original book exists in a context of wide availability of its author’s works, perhaps functioning as a sampler for curious browsers, but just as likely presuming some existing knowledge of Itō’s works on the part of readers eager for some one-on-one time with the nostalgic creator.
The comics themselves are generally good-to-superior, and they have the nice quality of getting better as the collection proceeds. The first two works, “Used Record” (purportedly 1990) and “Shiver” (purportedly 1991) adopt the well-worn horror theme of the ‘cursed’ object that brings ruin upon those who covet ownership. “Shiver” even positions its dull narrator as primarily a witness to (rather than much of an active participant in) events, at one point having much of the backstory explained to him via another character pulling a theretofore unexamined book off his bookshelf and reading aloud. The only standout element is the central image of afflicted people covered with innumerable holes, which brings to this old comics reader’s mind a very similar set of images in a 1999 Shintarō Kago story, “Punctures”, as translated in VIZ’s 2000 anthology Secret Comics Japan – but Kago takes the idea in his own hyper-literal grossout joke direction, as an artist can when he’s shoveling pages into a porn magazine. Itō, despite his occasional characterization as an alternative cartoonist, is a firmly commercial, mainstream actor.
“Used Record” is a lot stronger, though – and not just because its opening pages, depicting a girl’s increasing annoyance with her vintage-obsessed outcast friend, suggest an E.C. comics version of Ghost World. The ‘cursed’ item here is an old record of scat singing (making this, improbably, the second short-form comic I’ve read this year to feature scat singing as a plot device after Olivier Schrauwen’s story in Gouffre), which Itō helpfully notes is inspired by the Swingle Singers; the object has a rightly eerie origin that I won’t reveal, but what’s important is that it’s a work of art that offers sublimity to listeners. Some merely want the sublime in art, while some want to own it, positing supreme art as something that overpowers not just the senses, but the thin veil of morality once collectors get involved. That Itō illustrates this power with farcical la la las and dabba dabba daaa dabba daaas emitting from word balloons seems less a failure of concept than simple humility to me.
Interestingly, several other among the selected stores relate to artistry or the artistic process. “Fashion Model” (purportedly 1992) sees a student film crew hire a model with a terrifying look to her, albeit one that only appears to register to certain people, and has anyway not inhibited her success in the fashion game. Fuchi, as this very old-school Itō fansite points out, is one of the artist’s recurring characters, obliterating those she deems disrespectful to her professionalism. It doesn’t make for much of a story here, teetering uneasily between mocking the character and cultivating sympathy, but Itō apparently finds Fuchi interesting enough that she is also the star of the book’s new piece, “Fashion Model: Cursed Frame”, a barely-together eight-pager that feels more like the preliminary draft for a story than a finished work.
Itō is much more emphatic with his most familiar character, Tomie: a beautiful woman who is desired and murdered, but always returns to life. In a most fitting emulation of Tomie herself, “Painter” (purportedly 1995), the only story in the book to have been previously published, is now on its fourth printing, having been previously seen in Tomie: The Junji Ito Horror Comic Collection Vol. 2 (ComicsOne, 2001), Museum of Terror Vol. 1: Tomie 1 (Dark Horse, 2006), and Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition (VIZ, 2016). (The story’s translation, by Naomi Kokubo, originated in the Museum of Terror edition, while all the scans I’ve seen online use Akira Watanabe’s translation from the ComicsOne book; everything else in Shiver is newly translated by Jocelyn Allen.) It’s a good one too, with Tomie manifesting to undermine the confidence of a wildly successful but mediocre painter, only to shack up with a hugely talented and artistically-minded sculptor, who then descends into a hell of perfectionism, faced with the ultimate muse. “I remember working really hard to make [Tomie] as beautiful as possible,” Itō remarks, I imagine with a chuckle, linking himself to the hapless artists in his story.
Indeed, this tale of creative dementia strongly recalls the work of one of Itō’s stated influences, Hideshi Hino – author of comics like Panorama of Hell (1984) (to say nothing of his supremely disgusting 1988 movie Mermaid in a Manhole) that position the Artist as deranged from devotion, and glimpsing, thus, the true state of things amidst the gore. But Hino, despite a considerable body of commercial work, is an older artist with professional origins in magazines like COM and Garo, and his stories are driven by a fervent, even bathetic sympathy for the mutant rejects of the modern and industrialized Japan, respecting nobody’s standard of morality or aesthetic acceptability; Itō, in contrast, emphasizes the plight of the mediocre painter, who knows his success is a trendy lie, and only enjoys satori as a prelude to a bloody undoing. Taken together, these stories posit Art, true Art, as akin to a Lovecraftian god, exacting madness from those who dare understand its unveiled power.
And then, in “Marionette Mansion” (purportedly 1994), Itō prays for deliverance. A family of puppeteers splits apart when their domineering patriarch dies, until the day when the younger siblings are summoned to the estate of their eldest brother, who has devised a means by which he and his family can remain suspended by wires at all times, their bodies controlled by mysterious and unseen servants dwelling in the ceiling. It’s a clever satire of living without pain by embracing a wholly passive role in society, which Itō’s commentary explicitly likens to the trials of drawing comics: “How lovely would it be to leave my body like that and get the work done?” The story is undone only by the presence of a supernatural villain which, through its defeat, can restore normalcy; this feels very unconvincing, given that Itō’s view of the world typically finds a vivid inner chaos poking out through the glaze of propriety.
Speaking of violations of propriety, I do still sometimes look at unauthorized translations. Not long ago, subtitles were release for the Junji Itō episode of Manben, an NHK television series hosted by the manga artist Naoki Urasawa, where small cameras are placed in a manga artist’s studio as they work, and the resulting footage is matched with a process-oriented discussion between Urasawa and the artist. I’m unsure as to the likelihood of something like this appearing on western television or home video anytime soon. In his episode, Itō describes his work in terms of stewardship of horror manga traditions, drawn from the likes of Hino, Shin’ichi Koga, and his idol, Kazuo Umezu; Itō’s goal is to create images that nobody has seen before, and bring them to life.
This desire powers a great deal of what Shiver has in store, including many of its best stories. “Hanging Blimp” (purportedly 1994) is enough of a classic that you can buy official merchandise in anticipation of an Itō television anime series beginning next month; based in part on a childhood nightmare, the premise sees Japan gradually overrun with huge floating balloons, each one identical to the head of a specific Japanese person, and driven to hang that particular person by the neck with its dangling string. The result is often very funny — the first popping of one of the balloons plays out as a masterfully paced sight gag — but also genuinely unsettling from the sense of biological necessity driving these infernal dirigibles; it’s a potent enough sensation (similar to that of Itō’s beloved short “The Enigma of Amigara Fault”) that you don’t notice until late in the game that it’s essentially a zombie story underneath. “The Long Dream” (purportedly 1997) also has roots in Itō’s childhood, based on an unfinished novel from his teenage years – it’s a comparatively elegiac piece, in which a hospitalized young man describes how his nightly dreams seem to last for longer and longer periods, until months and years are passing every night, his body responding with an unusual evolution. It’s about the fear of death, and time. “It’s thirty pages,” Itō says, “but I’m pretty sure it took me two months to do.” You can feel the labor in the meticulous hatching that covers bedsheets, white coats and long hallways, to say nothing of the big moments – as the stories in this book proceed, Itō’s environments become more and more oppressive in their hand-detailing of cracks and shadows, his character faces less clean, bags growing heavy under their eyes, like they can tell what’s coming.
The absolute gold medal winner for spectacle is the book’s final ‘classic’ story, Greased (purportedly 2003), a blow-the-speakers-out pop comics banger about a girl condemned to live in the nasty, sweaty, grease-covered upstairs of her family’s grade-Z yakiniku joint, every smudge and dribble visible on the page as characters stew in palpably stinking agony. This one’s got it all: dismemberment; cannibalism; consumerism; salad oil; pimples so bloated with pus they ooze when popped like long cords of hot toothpaste – the gods of pre-Code comic books are kissing their fingertips in Heaven and Dr. Wertham himself is loosening his collar, because at its heart, friends, this is a story about financial desperation, of teen angst over one’s economically-dictated social position, and adult despair at the prospect of failure, a devastation that nothing will cure. Not even pain. This is a horror comic.
But as lively and gruesome as these stories can be, and as witty and self-deprecating as their artist comes across in his commentaries, there is a sadness in this book that accrues from all the doom sagas that Itō has selected. “Honored Ancestors” (purportedly 1997) is the darkest thing in Shiver, following an amnesiac girl’s interactions with the sunny classmate who insists that he used to be her boyfriend. His impression is that amnesia is good, in a way, because you can relive all the fun things in life for the first time; the girl, though, is overcome with anxiety and nightmares. There is good reason for that, because the boy’s intentions are not pure, and the philosophical conflict of memory loss as terrifying vs. hopeful soon uncoils into a grotesque meditation on women as necessary chattel: wombs incubating the preservation of tradition — cultural ‘memory’ — as physical issue. Nobody escapes from this situation unscathed, including ruminating Itō himself, whose commentary is startlingly frank:
“When I have this kind of very clear image right from the start, the story is easy to create. All I have to do is think about it inductively moving, toward the image. I used to create like that a lot. As the ideas dry up, a lot of times I’ll write the story by forcing some vague image or idea to take shape. In those cases, it really is a lot of work. Lately, it’s been nothing but that.”
All of this is awash in my own biases, inevitably. You cannot build a real person from reading a book like this: you impose yourself onto the idea of the artist. What I am addressing is a ghost I have summoned, but it is not one that is transparent, and to read these words is to feel the weight of carrying all these pages, so otherwise light in the center of a screen: conjured anytime, anywhere.