Manga panels restrict an artist from portraying an observable passage of time, challenging the adaptation of the Lovecraftian style of lore in the medium. This invites artists to invent eccentric solutions for building tension and dread in the horror genre. Junji Ito’s approach to creating horror in panels relies on the quotidian nature of human lives. Through his exploration of cosmic horror, Ito creates transgressive art that is unexpectedly relatable to the human experience.
1. Junji Ito’s Exploration of the Collective: Uzumaki (1998)
Uzumaki is set in the fictional town of Kurouzo-cho. The manifestation of a curse occurs sequentially and methodically in each panel. Readers observe sporadic occurrences of spirals in plants, clouds, and other inanimate backdrop items, which gradually metastasize and infect larger areas of the panels, much like a growing infection. At first, the fixation on a snail covers an entire page. Eventually, spirals become ubiquitous: clothes, posters, décor, with the human body being the final frontier. The progression of spirals provides readers with a linear passage of time as an unsettling dread rises out of the relatability of everyday life.
The hypnotic nature of the omnipresent spirals incites a comparison to varied forms of larger collectives such as hive minds, blended realities, and obsessive group behaviors that are mimetic in nature. The excellence of Ito’s body horror gradually climaxes into the cosmic reconstruction of Kurouzo-cho as a palatial singular organism. Others may view the curse of the spirals through the lens of individualism with the notion of spiraling through emotional instability or obsessive introspection. In both interpretations, Ito masterfully creates a void for readers to behold his art by veiling the source of the curse in the unknown.
2. The Dangers of Interactions: Dissolving Classroom (2017)
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Dissolving Classroom is set in a school, with the narrative frightfully focused on human interactions and their disastrous consequences. An adolescent boy’s connection to the devil is thematic to Ito’s poignant critique of Japanese culture. He posits that human interactions produce paranormal reward systems in the human psyche via certain behaviors, such as submission through apologetic behavior. Ito further dives into societal taboos such as the sexualization of adolescent girls, acts of zoosadism emanating from child abuse, and the need for validation in society.
Like most horror artists, Ito relies on the unknown and other eldritch components. The grizzly method of death is a literal dissolution of a person, starting with the liquefaction of the brain. Furthermore, Ito’s self-taught ink style creates a distinctive ambiance for anxiety despite the absence of macabre. His illustration of human anatomy, such as eerily detailed eyes on an asymmetrical face with disproportional lighting, portray this artistic phenomenon distinctively. Dissolving Classroom leverages this distinctive approach as characters portray the embodiment of submission, wonder, and terror while building connections.
3. Horrors of Psychological Anguish: My Dear Ancestors (1998)
Body dysmorphia, in subtle and heavily exaggerated ways, is not the only avenue of exploration in Ito’s work. Recurrent motifs include generational trauma and psychological anguish in works such as My Dear Ancestors from The Face Burglar Collection. The central concept focuses on the transference of societal demands from generation to generation and the need for human beings to create a legacy. Ito proficiently illustrates a ghastly humanoid caterpillar where the scalps of older family members are attached to living descendants for immortality through memories. There occurs a transference of mental pressure to continue their bloodline through marriage and children while the receiver of this responsibility, loses his free will.
Another aspect of psychological anguish is explored through the female protagonist, Risa, being traumatized into wedlock for birthing. The unsettling ordeal causes a profound amnesia wherein she loses her autonomy alongside her fiancé. Despite being deep in metaphors, readers quickly mirror the inchoate characters. Finally, the relatability of coerced responsibilities creeps up on us, much like the parasitic relationship between older and younger generations.
4. The Dread of Isolation: The Liminal Zone
Ito’s most recent work, The Liminal Zone (2022), does not shy away from the overt expression of COVID-19’s disastrous impact on mental health and the plight of women in society. Unlike his previous work, The Liminal Zone is a more experimental approach, as mentioned by Ito in the afterword. As his first digital platform publication, the panel layout and page count restrictions are no longer an impediment. Ito unleashes grander perspectives and more detailed panels with more extraordinary lighting and reduced negative space. However, Ito’s narrative style is far more experimental than his illustrations.
There is a correlation between Ito’s experience of lockdown isolation, his perspective on womanhood, and his feelings about Japanese culture. His authenticity is conveyed through folklore with a slow-burn approach that invites readers on a journey of analysis. The exceptional religious glorification of women, which leads to exploitation, forms the crux of the first two tales. Ito explores women’s roles in non-consensual mourning rituals and their coerced status as puritanical beings. While there seems to be a disconnect with the following tales, Ito still provides female characters surrounded by morbid concepts like suicide and dissociation. While in no way thrilling, The Liminal Zone still contains unique stories in a highly evolved illustrative rendering of pages.
5. The Decline of Humanity: Gyo
Ito takes to addressing artificial catastrophes in the bewildering panels of Gyo. The ghastly mutated creatures that begin to crawl out of the ocean and attack humans resonate with Dali’s most bizarre dream caricatures. On the surface, Gyo seems like an ordinary tale, but it is in Ito’s experimental approach to the sense of smell where its uniqueness shines. The reader is forced not only to imagine the movement of characters, the passage of time, and the impending doom but also viscerally experience an odor that evokes fear. This omnipotent smell is compared to rotting corpses and seems to stick to a character in a paranormal fashion.
Gyo is about the human desire to succeed in the domination of nature and the apocalypse that follows when a man believes he is not part of nature but instead its prisoner. The terrifying narrative has twofold objectives: our inability to take responsibility for our actions and the dissonance between our actions as a collective and an individual in this world. Ito brings realism to his art through intricate and heavy lines that provide a sense of texture, whether hard or slimy. Through his shading of corners and use of the negative space as the clean spots, Gyo’s unsettling creatures raise a viewer’s disgust.
6. The Fatality of Womanly Charm: Tomie
Arguably Ito’s most controversial book is Tomie. The violence against women and the portrayal of a multiplying succubus is illustrated with a scathing vengeance. Tomie’s art explores a woman’s compelling, immaculate beauty in a horror setting. Compared to his other work, the panels in this graphic novel are mostly minimalist but often use a higher threshold for impactful line art. The controversial aspect of Tomie lies in Ito’s unabashed portrayal of a vile woman, created from every stereotypical villainess, and men’s inclination for violence in the face of humiliation.
Tomie’s art focuses intensely on desire and Ito illustrates men at the edge of their obsession. Tomie is not asymmetrical in any of her regenerated states, and her eyes carry a sense of innocence bordering on manipulation throughout the panels. In the absence of Ito’s dialogue boxes, one would not be able to look at Tomie and judge the character as evil but rather as a playful and charming woman. Nevertheless, this artistic expression of innocence slowly transforms into brazen expressions of body horror encapsulated in the feminine form.
7. The Doom of Mob Mentality: Junji Ito’s Remina
In a futuristic timeline, Remina investigates a mysterious celestial body headed toward Earth. The doctor who discovers this object names it Remina after his noticeably beautiful teenage daughter. As panic begins to set in with Remina’s closing trajectory towards Earth, the hysterical humans begin to blame the teenage girl as its source of attraction.
Unlike Ito’s other work, the art in Remina is very dark, with a substantial amount of shading. At times, the disturbing events unfold through two-page spreads of a seemingly cartoonish, retro art form. There is a uniqueness to Remina in comparison to his other works, as Ito creates fantastical science-fiction elements. However, the true horror of Remina comes from its larger narrative rather than its underdeveloped characters.
The gargantuan planet of Remina is grotesque complete with pulsating veins, a sinister eye, and a ravenous tongue. Its disturbing appearance has the most significant impact when the diseased object becomes the focus of everyone’s psyche. Other elements of Ito’s cosmic masterpiece include his portrayal of lynchings, crucifixion, and the terror of mob mentality. Some cults form a close resemblance to the massiveness of Remina.
Despite the largeness of these subjects, Remina also builds space for the girl undergoing persecution. She becomes objectified as everyone seeks to punish, sacrifice, love, or save her. With a complete lack of control, Remina remains an object of interest and the focus of everyone’s declining psyche. Undoubtedly, Remina has the most incredible climactic sequence in Ito’s body of work. Both the Reminas survive as everything else comes to a complete standstill. The commotion, the anxiety, and the vanity of human nature disappear in a few final panels. The girl stares into the abyss as the abyss continues to stare back into her.