Successful horror stories scare or repulse, assaulting the audience with an arsenal of jump scares, pulsing viscera and unkillable foes. Prolific mangaka Junji Ito’s work strikes much deeper.
Published widely in his native Japan, but only sporadically in the U.S., Ito moves comfortably from obscene body horror to the existential terror of inevitability (a theme common in the works of one of Ito’s biggest influences, H.P. Lovecraft) to absurd humor. Ito’s characters often find themselves inexplicably driven toward their fates, compelled against their better judgment to find out what horror awaits them.
Inspired by manga horror greats like Hideshi Hino (Hell Baby) and Kazuo Umezu (The Drifting Classroom) but working in a highly detailed style all his own, Ito’s slow trickle of English adaptations have established him as one of the best-known fear-mongers working in sequential art today.
To coincide with last week’s American release of Fragments of Horror, Ito’s latest collection of short stories, Paste compiled 13 of Ito’s most disturbing panels. Much of his work is still unavailable in English, but rest assured: there are images in nearly every single one of Ito’s stories that could qualify for this list.
Big, Big Spoiler Alerts
“The Enigma of Amigara Fault”
An Earthquake exposes human-shaped absences in a cliff wall, and soon people from across Japan are drawn to the holes, convinced they’re shaped specifically for them. As with many of Ito’s stories, the protagonists feel an almost primordial obligation to pursue their horrible destinies.
(On a much less haunting note, this short story saw a boost in popularity on Tumblr after Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe referenced it last season.)
Tomie, Ito’s award-winning first published work, has spawned nine(!) film adaptations in Japan, but is currently out of print in English. The titular Tomie is a functionally immortal girl who inspires relentless adoration in men and intense jealousy in women. Few can resist Tomie’s allure, but when someone does, the results are monstrous.
“The Human Chair”
“The call is coming from inside the house” is a persistent theme in urban legends and Internet Creepypasta. Ito’s take on the trope is “The Human Chair,” in which an author overcomes her writer’s block only when seated in a special chair. The panel above spoils the reveal, but the dread is still palpable: imagine being in a stranger’s embrace for hours on end without knowing it? Even with a premise that flirts at the absurd, this is the sort of story that inspires grown adults to check under the bed at night.
“In The Soil”
The Strange Girl template has been fruitful for horror fiction. As in Stephen King’s Carrie, the true wickedness often rests with the “normal” classmates, not the unpopular girl who displays creepy, unnatural attributes. Ito’s “In The Soil” takes place at a school reunion where the popular kids crack open the class time capsule and discover a nasty surprise.
Inspired by Jaws and Japan’s morally-dubious WWII military experiments, Gyo puts mechanical legs on underwater terrors with deeply unsettling results. Being chased by a shark is scary enough—being chased by a shark in your own home just isn’t right, man. The initial terror of land-bound deep-sea predators eventually gives way to severe body horror, making this a solid twofer of delicious discomfort.
Gyo is one of the three Ito tales currently available in English in a handsome deluxe hardcover from VIZ Media.
This repulsive short is one of the seven standalone stories included in Fragments of Horror, and mixes perverse eroticism with Freud’s dream manifestation of the death drive. The young woman in the title is obsessed with being dissected—she begs for it the way an unwanted sexual partner begs to get into your pants. Does she get her wish?
“Soichi’s Beloved Pet”
The felines in Ito’s work typically fare better than the people, as in this brief Soichi short that sees the demented, Addams Family-esque preteen attempt to foist a curse on the new family pet. Soichi is a recurring character for Ito, often seen chomping on steel nails, and usually signals a perversely humorous atmosphere. For more on Ito’s love of cats, keep an eye peeled for the upcoming Kodansha USA release of the creepily humorous Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu.
“My Dear Ancestors”
In this short story, a young woman meets her boyfriend’s father for the first time and discovers that their family legacy is a very tangible obligation. Ito tweaks the familiar pressure of family expectations (a common theme in Japanese fiction), turning domestic anxiety into hair-raising horror. As Liz Lemon would say, a family like this is a real dealbreaker.
Uzumaki’s threat is abstract: a small town slowly becomes obsessed with spirals. The vagueness of the premise allows Ito to adopt a vignette style and toy with Japanese ghost traditions, cosmic horror a la Lovecraft or Arthur Machen, and pages upon pages of terrible things happening to human bodies. We’re cheating to show you this entire sequence; good luck ever again looking at spirals without a tinge of anxious fear.
Uzumaki is available in a deluxe English-language hardcover from VIZ Media.
“The Thing That Drifted to Shore”
The monster in this short story is dead from the start, washed up and rotting on a sunny beach. It’s the contents of the monster’s belly that provide the horror here, as onlookers discover familiar faces trapped beneath translucent skin. Ito pushes the terrific twist one step past this revelation (we won’t spoil it here, this one’s easy to find online) to bring this tale to a truly disturbing finish.
“Army of One”
Hannibal fans will want to seek out this short about a shocking string of murders that leaves increasingly large groups of people naked and sewn together with no visible signs of struggle or trauma. Ito characters are frequently given a choice: resist the encroaching horror or accept the inevitability of a grisly end. You can guess from the panel above how that goes for the girl in “Army of One.”
“Tomio: Red Turtleneck”
Another short included in Fragments of Horror, “Tomio: Red Turtleneck” features a very subtle, very precise supernatural decapitation, leaving the protagonist holding his head in place. A slip to the right or a tilt to the left would misalign blood vessels, sever delicate nerves, and shatter his tenuous grasp on life. Spoiler: his grip isn’t great.
Take another look at the previous eleven images. Now imagine you work for the Pokémon Company. Is there any part of you that thinks, Boy, this Ito fella should draw official artwork for our all-ages video games series? Thankfully some demented soul answered in the affirmative and Ito was commissioned to do two images for a Halloween series last fall. His Genger is less menacing by virtue of featuring an adult being threatened by the Ghost-type Pokémon, whereas Banette here is creeping up on a young girl. The connection isn’t too crazy, though: according to Pokémon mythology, Banette originated as a discarded doll come to life with a grudge against its former owner. Now if only we could get Ito’s take on Pikachu…
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"Army of One"
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"In The Soil"
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"My Dear Ancestors"
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"Soichi's Beloved Pet"
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"The Enigma of Amigara Fault"
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"The Human Chair"
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"The Thing That Drifted to Shore"