The Horror of an Uncertain Future: An Interview with Revered Manga-ka Junji Ito

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

A disturbing panel from Junji Ito’s Cat Diary

In 1987, Junji Ito submitted a story to a contest run by the manga magazine Gekkan Halloween. The panel of judges, which included horror manga creator Kazuo Umezu, gave it an honorable mention.

The ongoing series that grew out of that story, Tomie, ran in the magazine for 13 years, launching Ito’s career as a manga-ka.

Since then, he has provided bone-deep chills and viscersal thrills to a generation of readers in the U.S. and Japan with short stories (collected in the books Fragments of Horror, Shiver, and Smashed) and longer-form works Gyo, Uzumaki, Dissolving Classroom, and the unexpectedly endearing Junji Ito’s Cat Diary. Last fall Viz, which publishes most of his works in the U.S., brought out his adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a surprisingly stark and powerful vision of that legendary novel.

Ito was a guest at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May, and we had the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on horror manga and the people who read it.

I know you grew up reading horror manga. Did you draw manga as a child? What was the first manga that you ever made?
I have two older sisters, and because of their influence I started reading Kazuo Umezu sensei. I guess I would have been in preschool at that time, like maybe 4 or 5 years old. Reading that made me want to write my own manga, but it wasn’t till I started elementary school that I started writing myself. I wanted to write scary manga, so I was writing scary manga.

As to the story, I wrote this story about a monster that had an eye in the middle of a hand, and it attacked the protagonist of the story. I figure this is probably the influence of Shigeru Mizuki, because at the time there was the TV show Kappa no Sanpei that as based on Mizuki’s work. I think I copied that and drew this manga.

How has your view of horror changed over the years? Are there things you used to think were scary that you wouldn’t use in a story now? Are there things you think are scary now that wouldn’t have been 30 years ago?
Basically I think my perspective of horror, my view of horror hasn’t really changed at all. As always, ever since I started writing, I have struggled for story ideas and I am always working to try and look at the world and turn it into something, and some of those things don’t fit the idea of “horror,” but really, I will use anything I can. As for things that didn’t used to scare me, but scare me now, I can’t say there are really that many things.

But as for things I used to be afraid of that I’m not so much now, I guess that would be other people’s eyes—their gazes. I used to be quite scared of that, and so when I would be walking down the road and people would look at me, I couldn’t meet their eyes. It was just a scary experience. I think I don’t have that so much now. And I think in horror the eyes are really important. How you draw them can totally change how scary a story is. I think the scariest part of the body is probably people’s eyes.

Why do you think people like to read horror stories? What do you like about writing them?
I think a lot about why people want to read horror or look at horror and what is the value of seeing something scary, why do we want to write something scary? I do think about that, and my thinking is that life is kind of uncertain. The future is uncertain; we don’t know what is going to happen. Maybe something bad is waiting for us, like, we don’t know, and there’s that uncertainty and that anxiety that comes from that. So if we see something scary, if we look at these scary things, then maybe we can prepare mentally for that. Maybe it’s some kind of readying our minds for possible future terrors. That’s the theory I have, and I think that’s the value in horror and seeing something scary. It’s just my personal thinking on that, though.

When I was little, all the horror was stuff like ghosts and monsters and creatures like Frankenstein, Dracula and things like that. I had a lot of contact with things like that, and I still really like that stuff. I think that basic horror stuff is really to my liking. I like it.

I have read you get your inspirations from everyday life, so I wonder, are you always thinking about how things could go crazy? Like when you’re eating breakfast, do you imagine the eggs and toast getting up and walking off the plate and strangling the neighbors? Is this always in your mind?
In the past, I was always thinking about that sort of thing, always seeing the world going crazy, but lately, in recent years, I have a wife, I have these kids, and so I have stopped thinking about it that much. Maybe I have gotten a bit lazy about it, but I don’t think about that kind of stuff in daily life too much any more.

Maybe I should apologize for this impulse, but I am always thinking of horror as  something that can’t happen in the realm of daily life, like what’s going beyond that boundary, reaching outside of that to find the horror, so I’m looking for those things.

Explore the works of Junji Ito here.

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8 Truly Terrifying Books of Asian Horror

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

This week, HBO debuts Folklore, an anthology series focusing solely on Asian horror. And while it feels reductive to lump so many different cultures under a single classifying term, there is something markably different about these distinctly non-Western tales. The way they incorporate lingering atmosphere and building tension; the long, eerie stretches of silence; the sudden bursts of visceral violence and explosive supernatural activity; the intense focus on cerebral themes: the psychological, the existential,  the twisted interior landscapes of its characters. The varied field of Asian horror has had a profound effect on Western writers as well, especially over the past two decades, where its influences can be plainly seen in both literature and film), and it continues to be an enduring and unsettling subset of dark fiction.

If Folklore has given you an appetite for more of these types of tales, we’ve selected eight of our favorites—both by Asian authors and by Western writers influenced by them—below.

Gyo, by Junji Ito
In this classic work of Japanese horror manga, Ito demonstrates his flair for body horror and existential terror in an apocalyptic tale of mystery and mad science. Dead fish begin washing ashore, connected to odd mechanical legs that allow them to “walk.” At first a curiosity, the fish gradually become more of a problem as larger sea life wanders on to land, infecting humans with a gas-virus and eventually threatening to overrun the land entirely. It’d be weird to describe any of Ito’s work as “grounded,” but compared such macabre books as Uzumaki (about a supernatural curse that manifest via the appearance of spirals around a city) Gyo is even wilder, with such horrifying set pieces as a chase sequence featuring a land-shark and an infected octopus. There’s also a macabre “circus” where the infected perform tricks at the behest of a deranged ringmaster. While bizarre visuals may be the order of the day, the story is a deeper exploration of human impact on ecology and the lingering karmic debt of a country’s misdeeds, potent themes rendered in Ito’s painstakingly detailed black-and-white illustrations.

The Graveyard Apartment, by Mariko Koike, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Blending an eerie locale—an obviously haunted apartment building crouching next to a graveyard—with the very idea of hunting for the ideal place to live, Koike’s novel begins with the death of the Kano family’s pet finch, just the first sinister act of a supernatural presence lurking in their building’s basement and growing in power. The building’s residents weigh their options: moving out of their choice apartment complex and finding other housing, or sticking with their comfortable digs despite the presence of a malevolent supernatural terror that keeps disappearing utility workers. Amplifying the atmosphere of unease are the dark secrets harbored by the Kanos themselves, which add another layer of intrigue and complexity to the plot. While some elements of the plot seem too far-fetched even within the confines of the odd premise, the creeping dread and the ties to grounded, modern concerns make this a fascinating, unnerving work.

A Perfect Machineby Brett Savory
Taking numerous visual cues from Japanese cyberpunk films (particularly the Tetsuo trilogy), this breakneck thriller depicts the lives of the “runners,” a cult of seemingly immortal people chased through Toronto by their gun-toting “hunter” handlers in the hopes of getting shot up enough for their bodies to reach vaunted “100 percent metal content.” But as one of the runners gets close to his goal, his body begins to change in unexpected ways, triggering a different sort of chase through the city—a race to stop his terrifying transformation before it reaches its final phase. Savory’s slick prose is relentless, and the weird body horror and the plot’s weirder mysteries only help to strengthen the book’s surreal effect. While the unsettling transformations and unusual worldbuilding might not be for everyone, A Perfect Machine is entirely fearless in its commitment to going way too far, and that’s what makes it stand out.

Popular Hits of the Showa Era, by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph McCarthy
Popular Hits of the Showa Era skews more towards dark horror-comedy than outright horror, but as with all of Ryu Murakami’s works (which also include Audition and In The Miso Soup), there’s a sense of the absurd that makes everything that happens all the more terrifying. After a sociopathic young college student decides to murder an old woman, her surviving friends (who call themselves “aunties”) get together to dole out vigilante justice on the man and his group of friends. This cycle of revenge quickly spirals out of control, becoming more twisted and dangerous as the two opposing sides plot out ever more obtuse and bloody schemes during their nightly karaoke parties. While all this is going on, numerous bystanders, hangers-on, ghosts, and other equally weird characters are pulled into the orbit of the war between the young men and old women. While the main appeal is seeing exactly how insane the conflict will get, and goggling at the horror it derives from putting everyday people into a situation out of a bloody Warner Bros. cartoon, this one manages to swerve back and forth across the line between horrifying and hilarious so many times that you won’t be able to put it down until you reach the explosive, apocalyptic, completely over-the-top finale.

The Hole, by Hye-Young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Pyun has a way of turning situations as simple as a doctor’s office visit into scenes of surreal existential horror, and The Hole is a masterpiece of the form. After a car accident leaves Oghi disfigured and paralyzed and kills his wife, he is released into the custody of his mother-in-law (his sole living relative) and left in his bedroom to slowly recover. But in her grief, there’s something… off about Oghi’s mother-in-law, especially the way she digs up his wife’s painstakingly maintained garden into a series of large and ever-larger holes. This odd behavior only reveals more dark events in the lives of both Oghi and his mother-in-law: a history of abusive neglect and disturbing actions. Pyun makes Oghi’s situation feel stiflingly claustrophobic from page one, the feeling of helplessness made palpable by a narrator unable to do anything but describe what’s happening to his body in horrid detail.

The Day the Sun Died, by Yan Lianke
In a small village, a young boy notices that his neighbors are wandering around and carrying out their waking routines at night instead of going to bed. While this is curious and mildly disturbing at first, it soon becomes clear the villagers are trapped in a series of waking dreams, acting out their inhibitions and desires as their dream-states become more surreal and they vanish deeper into their subconscious. What follows is a nightmarish, occasionally offbeat novel, as Li Niannian and his family must find some way to get the sun to rise and stop the madness as the dreams become more unsettling—never mind that the family’s funeral business is suddenly booming as the dreamers turn on each other in chaotic ways. It’s a sharp satire of repression and a culture that clashes with the will of the people living within it.

The Girl with Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson
Setting itself in 19th century Chinatown, Boroson’s tale of warring Taoist sorcerers, gruesome monsters, exorcism, and gangsters borrows as much from Hong Kong action films as it does Chinese mythology and monsters. But the author’s clear love of the material and reverence to the systems, magic, and culture helps elevate the story beyond the tropes, and adds depth and color to the martial arts-flavored fantasy. The story follows Li-lin, a pariah twice over in Chinatown, both for being a widow and for her strange “yin eyes,” able to glimpse he spirit world. When her father is attacked and left comatose by an evil sorcerer with horrifying plans for Chinatown and the world as a whole, Li-lin must take up the peachwood sword and talismans of her family’s trade and defend her father and her town. The action is kinetic, the fight scenes are slick, and the ending involves an absolutely terrifying running battle through the streets of San Francisco. With the sequel coming out near the end of the year, it’s a good time to experience the first Daoshi adventure.

Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn
A journalist by trade, Hearn is probably most known for his writings about Japan, a place he had some fondness for and lived in for over a decade. While he was an accomplished cultural writer (though very much a product of his time and a little prone to exoticism), his best-known mainstream work is this collection of Japanese horror stories translated into English from older texts and stories he was told, along with his own anthropological notes on superstitions, and a recollection of something that happened to him in his youth. Hearn’s “strange stories” do a good job of preserving the tone and distinctly Japanese flavor of the works, enough so that the book has endured into the modern day and was influential to the point of even getting its own film adaptation. It’s a good jumping-off point for both fans of Asian horror and mythology in general, even if, again, it’s a product of a different era.

What Asian horror titles would you recommend?

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All Treats, No Tricks: 6 Creepy New Horror Manga

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Horror manga sounds like a straightforward concept, but the stories vary widely: in Junji Ito’s Gyo, Uzumaki, and Shiver, bits of everyday life suddenly go haywire in horrific ways; things with teeth haunt the vampire saga Happiness; tension sustains the zombie-survival epic I Am a Hero; and a streak of humor runs through the assistants-to-the-dead series Kurosagi Delivery Service.

This year’s new horror manga range from classics to comedy, with a side of history. If you’re looking for something new, check out these recent releases.

Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection, by Junji Ito
Junji Ito turns his considerable talents to the most iconic monster story of all time, depicting the tale of Dr. Frankenstein in gory detail—literally. Ito’s style has an old-fashioned quality that works well with the subject matter, as he shifts back and forth from staid scenes of 19th-century life to dark, dramatic images of the monster and the horror of his creation. This volume also includes six short stories about a high school student who lives in an old house that’s also a portal to another world.

Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, adapted by Stacy King and various artists
This volume collects manga-style adaptations of four classic Poe stories—”The Telltale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Masque of the Red Death”—and the poem “The Raven.” Each is adapted by a different artist but all five stay close to the full text of the originals, so they retain the power of Poe’s words and add the emotional impact of the visuals. It’s a great way to revisit some of the scariest stories of all time.

Versailles of the Dead, by Kumiko Suekane
Zombies come to the court of Louis XVI in this crazy historical mashup. Marie Antoinette is on her way to Versailles when her entourage is attacked by zombies; her twin brother, Albert, is the sole survivor. He takes his sister’s clothes and her place at the court, all the better to battle the undead who are descending on them from all sides. History class was never like this!

Dementia 21, by Shintaro Kago
Kago is a master of both body horror and the sort of surrealistic stories in which something unremarkable suddenly goes haywire in a terrifying way. In each of the short stories in this collection, a bright-eyed health aide goes to the home of a patient with dementia only to watch the situation slide from normal to mildly unusual to downright bizarre: sentient false teeth try to take over the world, dead people ride in cars on a special highway, and a house fills to bursting with abandoned senior citizens dumped by uncaring relatives. Each of these stories is a small but very weird masterpiece.

Terrified Teacher at Ghoul School, by Mai Tanaka
The plot is right there in the title: Haruhaku Abe, who is timid to the point of being a quivering jellyfish of a man, unwittingly takes a job at a school for yokai. Ironically, it turns out that Abe is one of the few humans with the power to tame yokai, although he can’t really control it. Also, his obsession with sailor uniforms gets in his way from time to time. With a wide cast of miscellaneous yokai students and teachers, this manga is good seinen slapstick fun with a side of dark magic.

Zo Zo Zombie, by Yasunari Nagatoshi
Let’s wind up this roundup with one for the youngsters: Zombie Boy is a friendly zombie who can live on tomato juice instead of blood and eats people’s clothing rather than their brains. He also dies in weird ways (such as flying apart while doing exercises to the radio) and then comes back in equally weird ways (when dance music comes on, the body parts dance back into place). Fifth-grader Isamu’s adventures with Zombie Boy are like a stream-of-consciousness shaggy-dog story, with Isamu as the straight guy and Zombie Boy foiling him at every turn by detaching body parts or changing shape. This is an all-ages manga with the sort of humor that appeals to fans of Captain Underpants—zany with a side of fart jokes.

What horror manga do you recommend?

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