Junji Itō’s best known manga is probably Uzumaki — a series of connected stories about a town cursed by an obsession with spirals. The coil or whorl at the slowly revolving center of that book is a good metaphor for Itō’s horror style. Though he often gestures at more conventional EC Comics narratives with last page shock reveals, his most affecting creations are built on imagistic repetition, in which the horror is not that you’ve hit a dead end, but that you never reach any end at all. In Uzumaki, or in Itō’s Tomie stories, a ghost, or an obsession, or a lust, or a death, keep returning slightly mutilated or altered. His bland, blank, sweating characters spin lazily around, devoured in the whorls of their own cancerous dreams.
It takes some time to roll those dreams around again and again until you build up the requisite nausea and disgust at each reiteration. As a result, disconnected short stories don’t necessarily showcase Itō’s talents to best effect. It’s not a surprise, then, that several of the briefer tales in VIZ’s new collection Lovesickness come across as hurried or unfinished. “The Mansion of Phantom Pain” and “The Rib Woman” barely establish their supernatural conceits before they’re over; the spiral from normality to despair happens so fast you barely have time to feel vertiginous. “The Strange Hikizuri Siblings” is a two-story set which still doesn’t really have enough time to develop its tale of an unpleasant gothy murderous group of cohabitating siblings. Or maybe Itō doing the Addams Family just wasn’t that great an idea to begin with. (VIZ unfortunately does not provide publication histories for these stories, but original printings were mostly in the late 1990s.)
These slight stories are all just make-weight, however. The real reason to buy this collection is the 240-page title novella. It is one of Itō’s masterpieces, and a brilliant example of how his best work slides into the abyss by going nowhere with great deliberation.
The novella’s main character is middle-school student Ryusuke, one of Itō’s typically secretive, passive protagonists. Ryusuke is returning to a nameless, mist-ridden Japanese town after eight years away. The townspeople have an old folk superstition: if you go to a crossroads, and ask the first person to appear to tell your fortune, the prediction will come true.
On the night before he left town, six-year-old Ryusuke threw a tantrum and went running through the mist. A woman pregnant with the child of a married man stopped him at a crossroads and asked him if she and her boyfriend would live happily ever after. The page showing the confrontation is overwhelmed with text, as the woman pleads for a good fortune, her words floating against Ito’s scribbly, ominous patches of dark mist. The town, and the future, close around her — and after Ryusuke tells her the boyfriend will not love her and runs away, she kills herself.
That’s the novella’s primal scene of guilt, desire, despair, and self-annihilation. Itō doesn’t so much develop it as he just keeps restaging it with slightly different characters in slightly different poses. Every time you turn a corner in that town, you come upon the same drama of needy love, casual cruelty, and blood.
Most of the blood is spilt by a beautiful bishōnen boy dressed all in black who haunts the town to tell fortunes. The boy, or ghost, both is and is not Ryusuke, and the futures he predicts are always cruel. Those who hear them are possessed. He tells one girl she will never find love, and she kills herself. He tells another to fall in love with her friend’s boyfriend, and she pursues him with desperate, hopeless obsession. He tells another girl to devote herself to hate, and she does. The future comes out of the mist, the image assembled out of the ink lines of fog. The supplicants look with the perfect, frozen attention of readers and believers, each drawn into the same story, which is death.
The Beautiful Boy is similar to Itō’s siren Tomie — a stunning icon whose physical perfection leads admirers to violence and destruction. But unlike Tomie, his power is not just in his appearance, but in the combination of words and image — which makes him an analog for Itō himself. It is Itō, after all, who meets these characters on the street and speaks their fate into being. It’s his sadism that nails their future to the present, turning the time sequence of comics into a repetition of the same past, present and future, every panel border the same crossroads. One wonderfully ominous panel shows a street in the mist with wavering shadows standing at every corner. Is it one evil fortune told over and over? Or is every dark future replicated at once in a single space? The curving lines of the fog create upright walls and borders. In comics, in mist, you can’t tell a spiral from a straight line from the stasis of dread.
Unusually for Itō, “Lovesickness” has an at least provisionally upbeat ending — which is one of the manga’s few missteps. You don’t come to an Itō story for optimism or to hear a happy fortune. On the contrary, his greatness is in his ability to capture the sense of possibilities closing down — of a past that is a present that is a future, nattering on and on about the same banal doom, like the woman who keeps climbing into Ryusuke's window to beg him to tell her what to do about her unborn baby — just like the other woman who begged him to tell her what to do about her unborn baby.
In “Lovesickness”, as in all of Itō’s greatest spirals, no misery or heartbreak is ever left behind. You can always tell what the future will hold by looking over your shoulder. Or, if you’re afraid to do that, Itō will tell you himself at the next corner. He draws those beautifully cruel lips, and the words that come from them say, “You will find horror again.”