Most horror stories scare or repulse through shock and visceral assault. The Shillong-favourite story of the beautiful hitchhiker who transforms into an ‘undead’ corpse is perhaps a good example of this. Often horror stories also have some moral lesson attached to them. In the case of the hitchhiker story, it serves as a warning to young people to be wary of strangers and/or not to be tempted by pretty faces. All-in-all though, most ghost stories ‘make sense’. A tragedy occurs or a crime is committed, a phantom or entity emerges to haunt the living, a lesson is learned and the case is closed. This is how many horror tales unravel and wind up.
But what if there were no sense at all to the horror? How much more terrifying would it be if horror were absurd, random and inevitable? What if you didn’t stop your car to pick up the beautiful hitchhiker? What if the hitchhiker just randomly materialises and decomposes in the front seat of your speeding vehicle? That is the sort of thing Junji Ito would do.
For the longest period of time, I tried to resist manga mainly because too many people were forcing it down my throat. However in the last few months, like a deranged schoolboy, I have become fixated with it. Personally, I find most of the manga out there to be crap – stereotypical, dull and far too long. However, there are consummate talents as well like Naoki Urasawa (you must read Pluto, Monster), Yuki Urushibara (Mushishi is brilliant), artists with a lot of ‘depth’.
The medium of manga is in itself very interesting. It permits almost everything within its folds from trans-sexuality, splatter gore, through to anthropomorphic blue cats and dwarf ninjas. This permissiveness is what has allowed Junji Ito and others to thrive within the horror manga genre. I do not know if he has ‘depth’ like other manga artists but he is undoubtedly brilliant.”
Ito is as much a master of ‘body horror’ as Cronenberg or Barker but obscenity is not the only end for him. He has combined it with existential terror and absurdity. Ito’s characters are often herded toward their fates, compelled against their better judgments to find out what horror awaits them. You ought to read Uzumaki and Amigara Fault to understand how. I will not spoil them for you.
Like in the work of his influence, Lovecraft, Ito’s readers are left grasping for meaning in an impersonal, seemingly irrational universe. Many of Ito’s horror tales make no sense at all. You could be in the middle of a flood of illogical destruction like in Hellstar Remina and Gyo. We cannot understand how things come to pass in the tragic manner that they do like in The Principal Post or the Long Hair in The Attic. Things come to life and you don’t know why. It is all quite frustrating and it works.
My personal pleasure in reading Ito is not because he is “deep” but because he is “wide”. He can have hair kill you; in his world, god-plants can swat you into a pancake, and bacteria can become sentient: there are no stop-signs anywhere. What joys do we derive from reading him? The joy of unsettling chaos, the misanthrope’s joy. They are dark pleasure zones, no doubt, but I feel real horror is primarily about transgression, which is why much of it is still so “experimental”. Reading horror (in general) in my opinion, is about pushing and pushing and in Ito’s work, taboo is always pressed, horror still experimental.