Japanese manga is one of the most experimental forms of entertainment. It is, first and foremost, a magazine. Therefore, it is narrative-driven, with the purpose of telling a story. Yet, manga continues to raise a finger at the expected, giving rise to artists like Junji Ito, whose horror works are as visually striking as any classic film in the genre.
His three most recognisable works are Tomie, Uzumaki and Gyo, about an immortal girl whose admirers go mad, a town obsessed with spirals and fish that are controlled by a conscious and reactive bacteria called ‘the death stench’.
Don’t judge a book by its cover is an idiom that is so often true. Ito’s lovely, inviting covers, filled with colour and life, are one such - and quite literal - example. Inside lies something else entirely. Working in black and white, as is the case with the majority of manga, the images had a much more foreboding and intense architecture, structured around semi-supernatural worlds with a strong Lovecraftian bent.
Heavily influenced by one of horror manga’s godfathers Kazuo Umezu, whose early publications Ito picked up from his sisters, to his own upbringing in rural Japan, Ito’s name has become a by-word for the cerebral - more than gory - brand of horror that’s made him become a cult name in the genre.
What most people will derive from Ito’s work is a feeling - that of imminent evil, the kind of which isn’t too picky about when it appears or to whom it does. You don’t have to have done bad to be punished, you just have to have existed. A sense of structure exists, a food-chain of which people aren’t the apex predator, merely beings that can be operated and toyed with for the malicious and sadistic enjoyment of an indescernible entity.
Naturally, the feeling that something bad is going to happen soon has a truly tangible impact on readers, who seem to adopt this imminent chaos and nihilism into their own psyche whilst reading. Ito’s manga aren’t things you read through as much as experience very personally, an immersive episode more akin to playing a video game with a VR headset than what we’d expect from a traditional horror comic.
The macabre outlook and artistic style favoured by Ito has drawn praise from fields outside of manga, which saw him work with computer game designer Hideo Kojima on Silent Hill, before later working on the equally surreal and anxiety-inducing Death Stranding.
As with these two titles, the dreamlike interacts with the everyday. Because of that, nothing makes sense. There is no chaos/order or good/evil dichotomy. The two sleep together in the same bed. Each world that Ito imagines are unique in their horror, but all have similar strains.
They are insular worlds that commentate on something bigger, something that scares all of his readers in some way. Yet, the fear never comes at the cost of the story, and it’s as much his ability to immerse his readers as to scare them, that sets Ito out from the pack.
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