Junji Ito's horror is more than just unsettling; it's the kind that never leaves.
Horror is something we all know and love: it gives us fun frights, it shows us grotesque monsters, it lets us safely explore danger, and in some cases, it deeply unsettles us all. There are many names and titles synonymous with horror itself, but when it comes to horror manga, there is one person that instantly comes to mind: Junji Ito! It’s his birthday today, and he is truly a person worth celebrating. Although he is well-known, what exactly about his kind of horror makes it so iconic? What is it about his stories that makes them stick with us, let’s them be so memorable?
Western and Asian horror ultimately relies on the discovery of something monstrous, how both go about things after that initial discovery differ greatly. In most Western horror, the discovery of the monster is then followed by how to kill it, or destroy it permanently. The protagonist goes through a journey of discovering how the monster works, what its general motives and weaknesses are, all things to lead to its eventual downfall. While in Ito’s stories we learn about the monsters and how they work, rarely are they vanquished for good. More times than not, they’re only driven away. They may not be in a position to harm the protagonists anymore, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still out there, ready to harm some other innocent victim. There may be a brief sense of peace, but the terror is at large, somewhere. You can drive off Souichi, but you can’t kill him, he’s a kid. The town without roads can be escaped, but it can’t be burnt down. There is more of a focus on survival and escape as opposed to being a hero, because sometimes destroying something beyond you is too much to ask for.
It also helps that while Ito’s work may use horror archetypical monsters, those monsters might not hold true to the traditional rules that the general public For example, in Blood-bubble Bushes, there are vampires, but what is more fearsome is the mysterious, branching bloody fruit that grows from people’s bodies. Ghosts are commonly featured, but do they haunt the scarecrows planted in graves, or replay the tragedy that caused their deaths over and over again? They aren’t the run-of-the-mill haunted house ghosts that we’re used to seeing, that’s for sure. Especially Tomie once she starts regenerating—and what exactly is she, anyway? We sure don’t know the answers to any of these, because these monsters are set up as complete unknowns. The characters that encounter them don’t know how they work or how they can be defeated, and neither do we, the audience. Often times, this crucial information is never delivered, even up until the very end. They are complete unknowns, and the unknown is terrifying.
Ito’s art focuses very heavily on body horror and the grotesque. Whatever’s there is entirely horrifying, and all are things you wouldn’t want to encounter in the dark. With limbs too long, too many teeth, or something that’s similar to something you know but twisted; Ito is a master at designing monsters. If the monsters are traditionally beautiful, like Tomie or the Intersection’s Pretty-boy, there’s always something to them that makes them not entirely right. Perhaps it’s their demeanor, that they look human but act a little too outlandish—but whatever it is, once their disguise of normalcy comes off, it isn’t pretty.
Another component of Ito’s horror is the ending of his stories. Taking into account that these gruesome monsters aren’t usually taken down, and are still roaming around, how does that make the protagonists feel? Sometimes they fight back, sometimes they hide away. Sometimes they become the monster themselves. Most of the time, they let things be and don’t look back. More often than not, there’s still a lingering sense of unease and dread. Something happened that can never be forgotten. All they can do is pack up and move on with their lives, even when they’ve been forever changed. There is no happy ending, and rarely is there a feeling of safety, allowing the horror to continue past the page. That most of the horrors take place with the day-to-day as a background further reinforces the stories of forces of nature that prey on normal people. All you have to do is end up in the wrong situation, have a friend who's trying something different, or just be in the wrong place at the wrong time, all things that could happen to anyone.
Horror as a genre isn’t meant to wrap up neatly, but rather get under its audiences’ bones. Sometimes horror that grows from the mundane, something that’s inescapable, that’s what haunts us. An idea that never really resolves, a horrifying monster that’s never really defeated, something open-ended. Through his massive collection of short stories, I’d say that Junji Ito has accomplished just that. Happy birthday to one of the horror masters out there, and may he keep penning stories that frighten us all!