Junji Ito's Smashed stretches from body and psychological horror to the out-and-out disturbing and absolute disgusting. It's in ‘disturbing’ and ‘disgusting’ where Ito makes his bones. Look no further than the mess on the cover, a woman’s head with a stylized gash across her face, a trepan for an unwelcome spirit perhaps, set in a miasma of red and taupe, an upside down face with chiclet-style teeth appearing like a smear in the offal. It’s an instinctual image that says, ‘hide this from impressionable children and nosy co-workers.’ Viz knows their American audience. Horror breeds believers like a soggy sponge harbors mold and is as subjective as any art. Smashed says damn subjectivity and makes a case Ito’s brand of horror is objective as hell.
Some of that objectivity gets lost in the deliberate transgressive nature of Ito's art: call it ‘gross Ito.’ It's why the discerning disruptor can stroll into Hot Topic and buy licensed Ito merch without thought or care about where these images originated like some kind of horror misappropriation. For the innocent encountering Ito for the first time as accoutrement, the horror is as plain as the many eye stalks and appendages of … Jesus. What does that cat have in its mouth?
The cat and its quarry come from “Soichi’s Beloved Pet” one of Smashed’s offerings, albeit one of its weakest. As an image, it epitomizes Ito’s brand in full and is likely how he’s cultivated a portion of his fans who look to shock as long as there are no follow-up questions. The cat and its catch represent an Ito ideal, much like the insectoid great white shark from Gyo—short on laughs and long on terror— just another supplier of nightmare fuel from his gallery of grotesqueries. But look past the prize and focus on the cat itself, at how its teeth appear to grow from the muzzle, with sweat or some unholy glop oozing down its brow. If it wasn’t so sickening it might be funny: more Miyazaki, less Ito. The cat is creepy (and bizarre) on its own without the Lovecraftian abomination it holds tight in its teeth; and yet neither the cat nor the blasphemy locked in its jaws feels like horror, just gross, a t-shirt … at best.
Ito’s affinity for the gross-out betrays the craftsmanship of his cartooning and storytelling. It's 'flash' without the cash or in other (Lear’s) words, “that way madness lies; let me shun it.” The temptation with Ito is to mistake appearance with substance. Ito wants to hit readers upside the head with his gross-out ghouls, ghosts and gibbering witnesses, but he's persistent and painstaking storyteller. He'll still hit you, but his best work buries the reader in horror that's objective as hell. Ito’s shock value cuts both ways, but the best of it, those darker gifts, dwell deeper than the gross anatomy of his mark making.
Smashed features three stories showcasing a recurring character and Ito favorite, Soichi: ‘The Mystery of the Haunted House,’ ‘The Mystery of the Haunted House: Soichi’s Version’ and the aforementioned, “Soichi’s Beloved Pet.” The two eponymous tales are all appearance, opting for explanation over interpretation or imagination. ‘The Mystery of the Haunted House’ maintains the on-brand nastiness while it also rages with substance and succeeds where the other two disappoint because it’s built by withholding information before letting go in all its gory glory.
The story begins with an impresario—Soichi (although his name is never used)—and his troupe of performers. They appropriate an abandoned house “on the edge of the town” and voila, haunted house. Admission is 10,000 Yen (nearly $100 USD). The impresario promises if visitors aren’t scared, not only will he refund their money, he’ll also leave town. When two boys, Satoshi and Koichi, witness a man run screaming from the attraction, they’re hellbent to get inside even though they can’t afford tickets. So they do what any self-respecting horror protagonist would: return after hours and hope to sneak in under cover of darkness. The impresario catches them, but instead of sending home he lets them in “free for as long as you want.” Deals with the devil were never better (or worse) struck.
Like any carnival haunted house worth its creeps, the scares ratchet up as the boys venture further inside. The first frights—a severed head that talks and a nearly-toothless crone—are so much strawberry jam, but once they reach the crucified man shot through with arrows the Ito-ness of it all opens to full flower. The crucified man tells the boys his brother, the impresario, has cursed his family and enslaved them to perform in the haunted house. And if that’s not bad enough, “up ahead … my brother’s child is in chains.” When the boys (and the reader) reach this “bastard” Ito goes from withholding to unloading. The impact of Soichi’s “boy” is an image not worth spoiling, but know this: Ito is in that select handful of cartoonists who appreciate the power of a page turn and know how to use it to maximum effect. And yes, he’s worse and more gruesome than the cat. Lesser creators would allow such an abomination serve as the denouement and send the boys screaming to their deaths. Not Ito. Now is when he reveals Soichi’s signature trait: nails, long, sharp spikes that he holds in his mouth. The nails look like the sort a mason would use to secure concrete. Soichi rolls them across his lips like toothpicks when he’s not firing them from his mouth as projectiles. For a time, Ito worked as a dental technician and various dissertations could be written about oral and dental fixation in his manga as well as his love for the cruciform. The nails create an instant iconography, a detail, so sick and worrying, it’s no surprise there are You Tube tutorials demonstrating how to nail perfect Soichi’s look.
Lovecraft’s influence is paramount in Ito’s images as it is in his narratives (sans the racism). ‘The Mystery of the Haunted House’ ends by sparing the messenger—Ito twists this, so sp(e)aring the messenger might be more on point—and allows loose ends to dangle. Several of the stories conclude in a similar fashion, often adding insanity as a top-off. In an Ito story a character is better off being the protagonist than a supporting player, whose lives (and deaths) incline towards the nasty, brutish and short. Like Lovecraft, Ito’s main characters survive and/or go insane or bear their doom like descendants of Cain, a fate worse than death or insanity for that matter. What Ito shares with Lovecraft (and, in a sense, the Old Testament) is their resignation towards the unknowable be they powers cosmic or the mind of God. So when Ito reveals anything about Soichi or the origins of any of the evils he devises, his power (and Ito's) lessens. Uncovering any of Soichi’s backstory like his favorite pet, his age or how he developed his iconic appearance is like Patton Oswald’s routine explaining the Star Wars prequels are about getting to know Darth Vader and Boba Fett as little kids.
With all this talk of crucifixion and the implements thereof perhaps it’s best to enter into the kingdom of Ito not as a ‘doubting Thomas’ desperate for the proof of nail holes and wounds, but as a disciple, blessed for believing without seeing. Blessed are those who get Smashed.