Japanese horror films have long been popular in the States; remakes of movies like The Ring and The Grudge have led people to seek out their scarier Japanese counterparts, while fans claw and cringe for ultra-violence like The Audition and Battle Royale. It’s a wonder that there hasn’t been a greater clamoring for Japanese horror manga, but if there’s more like the fabulous, fantastical works of Junji Ito, there should and will be demand. Fragments Of Horror is a cross-section of Ito’s versatile, gross, spine-tingling, and even silly work—a sampler, if you will, of his twisted and terrible imagination.
The cover tells you everything you need to know: a feast of madness and mania with monsters sprinkled in for good measure. Images from each of the stories form a swirling, impressionistic landscape with a Edvard Munch-esque screamer at the center. The screamer—from the tale “Tomio–Red Turtleneck”—clutches his head in terror as an evil fortune-teller has decapitated him and informed him that the only thing that will keep him alive is holding his head just so. Like in many a good scary story, as preposterous as this setup sounds, the tension builds until readers are mentally grasping the character’s head in white-knuckled terror of an inevitably gruesome outcome.
Many of these stories feature a comparably ludicrous premise: a woman makes love to a house, a man survives a month stranded in the wild as a blackbird-woman feeds him human flesh. Ito’s expertise in depicting disturbing monsters and grotesque scenarios makes these potentially laughable set-ups truly affecting. His moon-faced, puffy-lipped blackbird woman is not someone you would want to meet on a dark night in the forest—or anywhere, really. Similarly, the monsters haunting a physically and emotionally paralyzed young man in “Futon” are a delectable cornucopia of the inner workings of madness.
These supernatural, somewhat ridiculous stories are interspersed with mournful, thoughtful tales like “Whispering Woman” and “Gentle Goodbye.” In the former, a woman takes on the instruction of a young girl who is unable to do anything without being told exactly how to do it; the Whispering Woman is able to direct her constantly and help her control her neuroses, but in doing so, she slowly wastes away to nothing. In “Gentle Goodbye,” a young woman takes up residence in her husband’s family home, where she finds his great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents haunting the home as kindly but fading shadows of their living selves.
Perhaps the most haunting stories are those of human mania: “Dissection-chan,” about a woman who schemes and begs to be dissected while she’s still alive, and “Magami Nanakuse,” in which an eccentric and cruel transvestite author keeps his fans in a basement prison to discover their “tics” and write about them. As wacky as they are, the cruelty and strangeness in these stories are all too recognizable and relevant to real life.
Though many of the stories are fairly straightforward with plots painted in broad, simplistic strokes, Ito’s illustrations are so strange, delightful, and unique that it makes each story feel meaningful and memorable. Some say that Ito goes for spectacle over true horror, and perhaps that is true; his stories often build up to a moment or two of grotesque climax. Yet he finds glee in setting up that moment, and his willingness to go over-the-top usually makes it worth it. Even when his wacky gambles don’t pay off, they can still elicit an uneasy, haunted laugh.
Having read a few of Ito’s books, I am hungry for more. Uzumaki–Spiral into Horror had a terrifying premise that drew me in, much like the spiral in its title, while Gyo—a story about biological weaponry in the form of fish robots that moved by passing gas—was just a bit too ludicrous to be frightening. Fragments of Horror should have some bite-sized treats for every horror enthusiast. Readers will find themselves laughing at its weirdness and then shaking uneasily at how deeply it’s gotten under their skin.
Fragments of Horror
by Junji Ito