Review: The World of Junji Ito Offers Both Psychological and Physical Terror

Hello, hello! This isn’t your typical plant or kid lit post, it’s true. But since this is my personal blog, I might as well fill it with stuff that I like, right?! I’m hoping to do more one-off author universe posts as well as style ones. Here’s a little write-up about a newfound obsession of mine: Junji Ito’s horror manga. I will accept any derision because I am so late to the Ito train!

Y’all, I did it. I plowed through two Junji Ito collections this week — Frankenstein and Smashed — and I’ve gone down a spiral *laughs weakly*! I don’t consider myself an avid manga reader, but I’m absolutely enamored with Ito’s work. My first encounter with Ito came in the form of a gallery at last year’s Crunchyroll Expo, where he headlined. His illustrations are both physically detailed and conceptually unbothered by conventional logic. Going through a brief horror anime bender, I took a deeper dive into Ito’s art, seeing as he’s the most revered horror mangaka and all. 

Now, Ito isn’t best known for Frankenstein (2014) and Smashed (2019), but they’ve both served as gateway reads for me to further explore works like UzumakiTomie, and Shiver. They just happen to be the reads readily available at my local library. I don’t think either is perfect, but they both kept my attention long after I read the creepy “The Enigma of Amigara Fault.”

So here are general things that I admire about Ito’s style. Ito crafts each frame so meticulously to reveal the terror and anxiety that characters experience. Through the comic book medium, he uses the page turn to generate suspense — the illustrated monsters and oddities are TERRIFYING. You never know when you’re going to turn to a patched-up mummy or blobby monster. Throughout both collections, Ito also draws character eyes in off-kilter ways to create a creepy vibe. His eyes are not beautiful or clean, often smaller, darker, and more sunken than typical manga eyes. (That said, the eyes in Gakkou Gurashi are stunning, but the story is horrifying, so it goes to show different ways the horror genre can be done!) At his best, Ito gets to the underlying terrors of existence and the unknown — almost Lovecraftian, you could say.

Frankenstein, as its name implies, closely follows Mary Shelley’s OG man-made monster story. It’s a faithful comic adaptation, if not too faithful. I do appreciate the level of detail that Ito infuses into the Frankenstein monster — with grody patchwork and mummy wraps, it’s more grotesque than your Western image of bolts coming out of a green dude’s head. Frankenstein offers satisfactory characterization for both Victor’s dread and the monster’s loneliness. But if I had a quibble with it, it’s that it’s a rather straightforward play by play of the original work. Frankenstein is excellent, but not necessarily groundbreaking.

The more intriguing part of Frankenstein is the collection of short stories that take up half of the book. Most of them revolve around a thoroughly unpleasant high school student named Toru Oshikiri, who finds himself living in a creepy house alone after his parents go overseas. He discovers that there are many versions of himself from alternate dimensions in the house that try to kill the people in his world. Illustrating the fragmentation of the self, Toru’s stories are spooky and trippy and fun, but you do get weary with Toru and his height complex.

Of the two books I picked up, Smashed is my favorite. Again, you get an arc of stories around a rather unpleasant character, this time the ever-so-disturbed, nails-in-mouth Souichi Tsujii. I was more drawn to Souichi’s stories because Ito plays around with the idea of Souchi, best known as an annoying, creepy kid, as a twisted adult who owns a haunted house attraction. The drawings are grotesque, and you palpably feel the terror of everyone who finds themselves trapped inside Souichi’s nightmarish abode. 

Other than Souichi’s escapades, Ito also offers a wider variety of stories that give you more emotional punch and psychological thrill. He probes into the terrors of guilt, madness, and tragedy with blood-curdling body horror. Among my favorites are “Roar,” “Earthbound,” and “Library Vision.” He includes some delightfully absurd stories as well, such as the one inspiring the book title. The installations in Smashed have a spooky, Twilight Zone feel to them that isn’t as prominent in Frankenstein

I’m keen on reading more Junji Ito stories soon! I realize that he’s rather popular for horror and anime fans, but his work is such a refreshing discovery for me and makes me want to look deeper into the world of horror manga!

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