Integral Fear: the Monsters of Junji Ito

Most children are afraid of the things around them, real and imagined, but I was worse than most. Halloween was a trauma that repeated every year–I couldn’t turn on a television, listen to a radio, or even follow my mother into a grocery store without being faced by some terrifying monster or another. Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula adorned doors and windows in the form of stylized cartoon cutouts, and I often had the imprint of weekly circulars on my face from pressing them against my eyes as my mother led me around stores. But the thing that chilled me most was hardly a monster at all: it was a basic component of human life. My biggest childhood fear was the human skeleton. There was something about the proportions of it, the incompleteness of a creature full of holes and open space that gave me chills. The skeletal figures in films or cartoons moved with distorted, jerky motions that made my skin crawl. It was a monster I imagined at the end of every dark hallway, in every ill-lit closet, under every proverbial bed. My mother thought it would calm my nerves to tell me that we each hid our very own skeleton inside, but it only made things worse. That only meant there was a monster inside of me, hidden just beneath the surface of my own skin.

image by Shigeru Mizuki

image by Shigeru Mizuki

Perhaps this is why, when fear turned to fascination, I found myself obsessed with Japanese horror. There was a certain psychology to their hauntings and invasions that I was taken in by, and a sense of poetry to their direction that I couldn’t find in Western horror. As an artist, I was drawn to manga, the comic culture of Japan, and was pleased to find a decent amount of horror titles available to import. I loved authors like Senno Knife and Eiji Otsuka, but they weren’t being translated at the time and I had to rely on my own working knowledge of written Japanese to get a general feel of the stories. Luckily, I was able to find a good body of Junji Ito’s work translated for me. A true master of Japanese horror, Ito has produced about a dozen titles, some series spanning numerous volumes in length. Best known for Uzumaki and Tomie, two serials that later became films by the same name, Ito’s sense of the uncanny coupled with his distinct drawing style makes his work easy to recognize. But what drew me to his work above others was the idea that our own fear can turn us into the very monsters we try to avoid.

Ito's Mimi no Kaidan

Ito’s Mimi no Kaidan

Ito’s antagonizing forces are usually mysterious and unexplained–creatures that surface from the depths of the ocean, holes in the earth millions of years buried, plants that bear impossible fruit. Certainly, the uncanny situations in and of themselves are unsettling, but what makes his stories truly horrifying is the reaction seen in the characters and the people that surround them. Amigara Fault might be the title enigma, but the chilling part of the story is what the characters feel forced to do. While we find ourselves intrigued by the cursed village in Falling, we realize we don’t really care what happened to the sleepwalking townspeople or where the abducted group goes. What we’re really concerned with is the irrational reaction of the family members left behind to gang up on the sole survivor. In each of these stories, like so many of his others, the disturbance we are presented with is not inherently evil or bad as far as we can tell–instead, we watch the characters begin a complete psychological breakdown as they face the fears that arise within them. Their own sense of doom is what does them in–no one forces the residents of Amigara into the holes, they simply feel as if they must.

Ito's Thing that Drifted Ashore

Ito’s Thing that Drifted Ashore

Of course there are plenty of stories where the characters do face actual monsters: the Thing That Drifted Ashore is certainly monstrous, alien in its appearance and function. It might seem as if the most horrifying part is its belly full of hardly-digested human bodies, but one girl’s distant memory of a strange dream suggests that there’s much more at play than we immediately thought. The Thing itself is really just an object, like the carving in the Chill, that through some mysterious process transforms the ill-fated characters into monsters themselves. Through curiosity, or greed, or lust, or paranoia, the characters are changed into the worst possible versions of themselves with horrifying consequences. The Slug Girl seems to morph into the object of her revulsion simply through her fear and hatred, the same force that drives privacy-obsessed Saiko into the claustrophobic Town with no Streets.

The terrifying thing about all of Ito’s monsters is that they all began as human. We could easily have been any one of them, at the wrong place at the wrong time, equipped with the wrong set of phobias. I find myself obsessed with the imagery, the ideas he presents, and therefore find myself afraid of meeting the characters’ fates as a result. Like so many of the writers who imagine apocalyptic situations, Ito does not see a sympathetic and helpful population. Instead, he imagines our own fears will devour us, render us inhuman and transform us into monsters deserving of annihilation. His most terrifying forces are the fears within the human soul, as basic a component of life as the skeleton that hides inside every single one of us. And that thought in itself is downright chilling.

Brought to you as part of the May Monster Madness Blog Hop —


9 thoughts on “Integral Fear: the Monsters of Junji Ito

  1. What fear can do to us is indeed one of the worst monsters in horror, it certainly makes me very uncomfortable when watching or reading about it, because in some ways it is so inevitable and in others so unnatural. The Mist centres around the horror of man on man even more so than the monsters in the mist and it was a well constructed movie, but it disturbed me too much to ever watch again,

  2. The human psyche can be such a dark place. I am a J-horror fan, but mostly of the movies. I do enjoy a good manga, but they tend to be so pricey most of the time that I only ever buy one or two. I tend to go more for the vampire titles with pretty boys in them.

    It’s funny, I often don’t enjoy Western horror where the whole film is one downward spiral, but somehow I love it in J-horror. There usually tends to be no escape as monsters and people alike all change.
    Tasha’s Thinkings

  3. Junji Ito is a GOD of Japanese horror!
    I just love the use of human-kind manifesting our own worst nightmares… awesome.
    Cool post!
    Here’s my day IV MMM at Design du Jour.

  4. You got me very curious about Japanese horror manga. I never thought of it before. I guess I’ve been damaged by the internet, thinking it’s all gonna be full of misogynistic porn.

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