A Newbies Guide to Junji Ito's Horror Manga
If you opened the door and peered around P.T.s deceptively ordinary hallway, you dont need me to tell you that the Silent Hills teaser heralded a new dawn not just for the franchise, but for the entire survival horror genre, too. The heady partnership of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro was one that fused photorealistic graphics with a gut-wrenchingly distressing premise, and birthed what was (and, let's face it, still is) one of the most terrifying horror experiences ever to grace our screens - be it movie, TV, or game.
But even as we mourned the death of the Silent Hills, what we didn't know was that famed manga artist Junji Ito had also been involved. If you're still miserable about Silent Hills sad demise and have been intrigued by Ito, here are my recommendations to get you started. (Remember: manga panels should be read from right to left. Enjoy. I'm sorry in advance about Glyceride.)
1. The Enigma of Amigara Fault
When the aftermath of an earthquake exposes a sheet of rock along the deep, gaping fault-line on Amigara Mountain, it reveals thousands of people-shaped holes cut into the rock, holes so deep even 30 metre-long fibre cables fail to touch the end. As the world's press report on the spectacle, curious sightseers begin hiking up the inhospitable terrain of the mountain, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious holes themselves.
On-site researchers ponder on the discovery, but cannot ascertain how the holes came to be. With rock so strong, no visible entry point and the holes having been hidden for centuries beneath the soil who the hell created them? And why are the researchers so convinced that they could only have been carved from the inside out? Most curious of all, some visitors are drawn to special holes, convinced that they've found their own exact outlines hidden amongst the thousands of holes embedded into the rock. And even though they're terrified, and many blessed with the unfathomable foresight that entering the holes may kill them, they feel a compulsion to step into them anyway...
2. Hellstar Remina
When Astronomer Oguro makes the chance discovery of a planet emerging from a worm hole, he celebrates the landmark moment by naming the planet after his cherished daughter, Remina. The discovery propels them both into stardom, their names celebrated and revered across the world. Remina - a beautiful, if shy, girl - pursues an entertainment career, featuring in shows and commercials, learning, reluctantly, to enjoy her newfound fame.
But things change when the speed and direction of the planet alarms the experts. As it becomes clear that the unstoppable, sentient star is hurtling toward Earth and destroying everything in its path, mankind looks for something - or someone - to blame. Cue lynch mobs, pitchforks, ritualised murder and burn-at-the-stake sacrifices. As is often the way with Ito, the cast of Hellstar Remina are nothing more than unfortunate souls who happen to be in the very wrong place at the very wrong time, not least leading lady Remina. Theres little justice, little resolution, and little hope but it's a creepy-ass story with just enough insanity to keep you reading until the final page.
Unlike typical tales of spirit, alien or demonic possession, Uzumaki details an altogether different type of haunting: the supernatural forces of a pattern. Uzumaki is a three-part series documenting the small, sleepy village of Kurzu-cho, a peculiar town with an even more peculiar obsession with spirals. The spiral curse manifests itself slowly and stealthily, imprinting itself in the world by way of shells, plants, and patterns in both wind and water, causing the townfolk to become obsessed with, and/or paranoid about, the mysterious pattern.
In case you're sat there thinking this doesn't sound much like Ito's trademark WTF-ness, relax - it's not all subtle. Eventually, the pattern also imprints itself onto people, be in their hair, their homes, or their faces. If this sounds a little familiar, you may have stumbled across the story in one of two video games for the Bandai handheld system WonderSwan - Uzumaki: Denshi Kaiki Hen and Uzumaki: Noroi Simulatio. But given that the system was released only in Japan, chances are you instead happened across the creepy (if a tad unfulfilling) Japanese horror movie of the same name.
You know that terrifying doll from Toy Story? The one that lived next door with a massacred scalp and those horrible, metal, spider-like legs? Gyo is like that. But with fish. Really, really terrifying fish.
At first, it's just little fish. They smell pretty gross, but they're small, so it's okay, right? But then things like sharks and whales get in on the act and seriously - the only thing scarier than a shark is a shark tottering around on sharp, metal legs. A shark with sharp, metal legs standing outside your bloody window. Turns out the fish are controlled by sentient bacteria lovingly monikered The Death Stench, named as such because the bodies scuttling about are, well, dead. And stinky. Cue a terrifying tale of government experimentation gone wrong and a stern reminder that burying stuff at sea may be out of sight, but it's never out of mind. At least, not if there's sealife nearby.
Once upon a time, a Jaws film terrified the world. Then Ito made it worse and gave us Gyo.
Originally published in 1994 - and still with no official English-language release 21 years later - Frankenstein is Ito's own creepy-ass take on an already creepy-ass story: Shelleys Frankenstein. Ito's well known for recycling classic Japanese horror tropes and ideas for his stories, but as his first take on a Western horror story - and a faithful retelling at that - this reimagining of the gothic tale casts this Frankenstein's creation not as Hollywood's shuffling, sympathetic, and child-like fool, but rather as a callous, calculating denizen hell-bent on vengeance.
Ito's Frankenstein is a fantastic opener for anyone new to his work, or even someone new to manga full-stop. It's a tad short, but dont let that put you off. This intriguing and disquieting retelling is the most frightening spin on a Frankenstein story I've ever read. I've never been able to look at that Gene Wilder film in the same way since...
Bit queasy around body fluids and the like? You might want to give this next one a miss. It's okay. I wont hold it against you.
Yui and her brother Goro live above the family's barbecue restaurant, their home saturated with oil and grease. As Goro likes swiggin' that grease straight from the can (ugh, I want to puke just writing this), he consequently develops a rather unpleasant case of acne. Schoolyard bullying and a quick temper mean Goro isn't the nicest sibling to have around, so when Yui hesitates when he yells at her to go and buy him more grease (barf), he flips out and, um, bursts all his zits in her direction (barf x2). To stop him beating the bejesus out of his sister, Yui's dad beats him to death with a frying pan. Then he serves up Goro's greasy, tender flesh to the barbecue punters downstairs. As you do.
The new dish proves popular but as the supply runs dry, so does the patronage and Daddy's left needing to source a new meat supply. Cue recurring dreams of volcanic greasy eruptions, parents force-feeding kids tinned grease and then drowning their sorrows with - yup, you guessed it - grease. Know what? I can't even write about this one anymore. Go read it. Im sorry.
Widely considered Ito's greatest work, Tomie is a series that tells the story of a school girl blessed - cursed? - with the inexplicable gift of causing everyone and anyone to fall madly in love with her. Just like Rapunzel, Tomies beautiful hair takes on a role of its own. Unlike Rapunzel, Tomies barnet is spooky as balls which means this isn't quite the Disney-like story it first seems.
Along with intense desire, the men who fall for her are capable of brutal acts of furious jealousy. But it's not just the guys; driven to distraction by their envy and desire, women too are prone to get a bit stabby when the schoolgirl is around. Even Tomie herself. Weirdly. But you cant keep a good girl down. Seemingly murdered time and again, Tomie - or at least, copies of Tomie - continue to return, a distressing problem for her teacher Takagi, who - along with most of the class - killed her the first time around. Look out for the Tomie-fied kidney that tries to get it on with the doctor. Now theres a sentence I never thought Id write.
8. Army of One
Following a string of grisly murders wherein bodies are discovered naked and inexplicably sewn together with fishing wire (think The Human Centipede, but more violent, and on a much larger, terrifying scale) people are warned not to gather in large groups for fear a terrorist cell, locally dubbed Army of One, will capture and kill them. Curiously, none of the many, many victims appear to have been attacked, abused, stripped, or sewn up against their will.
Agoraphobe Michio dropped out of school at 13, but around the time of his 20th birthday an old school pal drops by with news of a school reunion. Troubled by the recent attacks he suggests cancelling the event - particularly when a friend turns up stitched up - but nope, it goes ahead anyway because people in comics are just as stupid as people in real-life. Cue a tantalising glimpse into the power of paranoia and isolation, and the recurring Ito theme that sometimes you gotta know the difference between fight or flight. It was a bad time for Michio to try to overcome his agraphobia.
9. Dissection Girl
When medical student Tatsuro's corpse blinks up at him, he's obliged to re-assess his initial assumption that the dead body before him is actually dead, and lay down his scalpel. Thats not what the corpse wants, though. Turns out the very beautiful and totally-not-crazy Ruriko has a bit of a fetish for being cut up alive, and has pulled the dead-in-a-body-bag stunt several times across several medical schools in order to trick people into slicing her up.
Turns out Tatsuro shares a guess-who'll-grow-up-to-be-a-psychopath childhood past with Ruriko. They used to spend their salad days chopping up animals and rodents, Tatsuro blackmailed into assisting Ruriko's amateur surgery following a petty theft he didnt want to get grounded for. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive, eh? When Tatsuro declines to participate in her voluntary slaughter, Ruriko commences a crusade to get chopped up. Scathing social commentary on our need to keep improving ourselves with plastic surgery, or just a creepy story about a very crazy gal? You decide, my friend.
10. The Thing That Drifted Ashore
You'd think a dead hell creature would be better than a live one, but as The Thing That Drifted Ashore illustrates with horrifying clarity, that's actually not always the case. Especially when the thing in question is pulled from Ito's magnificently terrifying head.
When the remains of a huge, rotting, prehistoric creature wash up on the shore, scientists are baffled not just by what it is, but what's lying beneath it's strange, translucent skin. Crowd of gawkers swarm the site to check out the gigantic life-form for themselves. It soon becomes clear that some visitors share the same recurring, unsettling dream of being trapped beneath the ocean, terrified but seemingly protected by an invisible wall. Then, through the corpses transparent skin, the crowd realise that the body is stuffed with hundreds and hundreds of people. And they're alive. Well, kinda. It's like the whale bit at the end of Pinocchio - you know, if Pinocchio had been written and drawn by a madman.