Book review: Junji Itô's Fragments of Horror - erotically grotesque
The Japanese cartoonist's first English-language book since 2006 comprises horror comics he drew for a supernatural-themed magazine aimed at young women.
Over the past decade, one particular work by the Japanese cartoonist Junji Ito kept popping up on blogs and message boards, bootlegged by amateur translators. Often, it would come with a warning. The premise of The Enigma of Amigara Fault was odd, a little unnerving, not exactly terrifying: after a massive earthquake, authorities find human-shaped openings lining the new landscape. Fascinated onlookers start squeezing inside the holes, desperate to find one that will fit them. The Enigma of Amigara Fault ends abruptly, with the implication that it could have gone on for dozens of pages more. It haunted her, a friend told me, because it captured "the horror of being alive … where most horror stories would end at death, he keeps his characters in the hell of surviving".
Ito's work has enjoyed a murky fame outside Japan since the early 2000s, even before there was much of an infrastructure for North American manga publishing. Viz Media did bring over his series Uzumaki, about a city intricately cursed by symbols of spirals, which read a little like a Tales from the Crypt story scripted by Vladimir Nabokov. The images were bizarre: a teenage girl grows a haircut of hypnotic coils, her teacher becomes a humanoid snail, and eyes pinwheel through faces. But Ito's notoriety was more aesthetic than commercial; Dark Horse Comics gave up on licensing his work after three volumes in 2006. The new Viz collection Fragments of Horror is not only his first English-language book since then - it brings together the only horror comics he's published in the past eight years anywhere.
The comics in Fragments of Horror were drawn for Nemuki+ , a supernatural-themed magazine aimed at young women which was revived two years ago. And unlike the abstract or inhuman evils of previous Ito stories, the heroes and monsters here both tend to be female. In one panel of Blackbird, a bird-like woman hovers over the stricken protagonist, feeding him from her mouth.
Wooden Spirit takes place at a historic house tended by a young girl and her divorced father. When a stranger named Ms Kino shows up, dad is all too happy to provide a tour, a room and then, a wedding ring. At the end of the story, as the demonic house opens dozens of eyes, they find Ms Kino's oaken effigy clinging to a rafter, rigid with bliss.
Unless you count that house, Ito's men are all feckless, faithless, or blandly conniving. They only come alive through communion with the grotesque. Those monstrous women almost always prevail, amoral and resplendent.
Like H.P. Lovecraft, Fragments of Horror presents society as a tissue stretched over roiling chaos. But while Lovecraft's existential glower is bound up with his white supremacism, Ito watches at a remove, enthralled yet ambivalent.
But Ito's style tends to strip away any hint of realism. He likes to gawk at things beyond comprehension.
Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito (Viz Media)