Flesh Colored Horror, the early work of Japanese Manga horror writer Junji Ito
by Rob Vollmar with additional editorial material by Steven Williams<
To complement Rob Vollmar's recently launched series of essays on manga, Ninth Art presents a review of the collected early works of acclaimed and accomplished Japanese horror writer Junji Ito.
Writer/Artist: Junji Ito
Translator: Kanako Ishikawa
Title: Flesh Colored Horror
Collecting stories that originally appeared in Monthly Magazine Halloween between 1988 and 1995.
Horror, as a genre, is a form that perpetually mutates to reflect the fears of the cultures and individuals creating it. In our modern print and film culture, horror in the West emerged from our collective superstitions (Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy) and, over time and through experimentation, produced true masterpieces in a wide variety of media, including works by Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Alan Moore and countless others.
While Junji Ito is hardly manga's first horror genius, his influence has invaded the Japanese popular culture like few before him, his works spawning three live action films and a video game to boot. Ito's first serialised work, Tomie, caught the public's eye during a horror craze that marketed well with teenage Japanese girls along with films like The Ring (and its numerous sequels), and was adapted into a wildly popular film of its own.
In addition to one Tomie sequel, Ito's delirious Uzumaki (serialised monthly in English in Viz's Pulp Magazine) was also adapted into a live action feature that is said (since it is not yet available in the US) to push the envelope on CGI special effects and the audience's ability to endure the madness of Ito's vision.
Flesh Colored Horror is a collection of vignettes that predate Ito's more celebrated series, and it is a fascinating chance to see his development both as an artist and as a storyteller. His propensity toward exploiting the mundane as his wellspring for horror is already well established in this volume. Most of these stories transplant the reader into the uneasy days of adolescence, not unlike Charles Burns' Black Hole, and mine those rich insecurities to their extremities.
The first story, Long Hair in the Attic, begins like a situational romance - boy breaks it off with girl because she's too clingy, girl resolves to cut the hair she grew for him and start anew - and then, there's a beheading. Horrors occur at school, or at home, but never in the distant, foggy graveyard or fiery boiler room, bringing a claustrophobia that stems from having these normally safe places violated.
It is also apparent, at least to me as a Western reader, that Ito has an attitude towards his largely female protagonists diametrically opposite to that of his fan-service-mad contemporaries. Though most of his protagonists are female, there is an androgyny to his character design that strips the slimy expectation of fan service off of his narrative impetus, leaving him free to eerily explore distinctly feminine imagery and how it relates to the culture that surrounds, and in many cases, subverts it. The fourth story, Dying Young, probably illustrates this recurring theme the most clearly, if perhaps, less artistically than Flesh Colored Horror (my personal favorite of the stories included here).
Probably the most sickening entry (and I mean that in a good way) in Flesh Colored Horror is Headless Sculptures, which confronts the expectation for full-frontal nudity (what I like to call "Otaku Optimism") and resolves it in the most unsatisfying way possible, by attaching bloody stumps and having multiple heads crowding for largely sexless bodies of both genders. By refusing to glorify the violence with overtly sexual themes, Ito both elevates his own experiments in terror by widening their palette, and dispels long-standing notions that compelling horror and rape fantasies must forever be linked.
For all the imagination he exhibits here, it is also obvious how much having resources (i.e. a capable production staff) and an audience has allowed Ito's artwork to improve over the years. Some of the inking looks unsure, especially in the earlier stories, despite some very nice visual images evoked with his hooky storytelling. His command of facial expression seems also more limited at this point, a tool he uses with great finesse in his modern work to explore the nuances of terror in gradation, rather than in caricature as is common in most manga/anime and horror in general.
Still, it is easy to see here, even without the benefit of a recurring cast to bolster his storytelling, that Junji Ito's fusion of horror manga with a refreshingly progressive outlook on women and what makes them tick was something genuinely new. Flesh Colored Horror is a great introduction to Ito's work without having to take on the responsibility of a new series to keep track of, though, to be fair, TOMIE only stretches across two volumes the same size as this one. While lacking some of the polish of its descendants, it is still a strong read and a great example of manga for which you must make no apologies.
Junji Ito ultimately succeeds at his craft only because he is able to convince the audience to lower their defences and have sympathy for the players that they know are about to be confronted with unspeakable abominations. He is only able to do so by crafting characters and scenarios that the reader is able to accept at face value, not spiriting them away behind a filter of manga expectations and lazy stereotyping. This gives his work more in common with Dan Clowes' Like a Velvet Glove than, say, Evil Ernie.
Ito is definitely one of the few manga innovators available to the Anglophone audience who has work I would consider anywhere near the mainstream. Flesh Colored Horror is an inexpensive and entertaining way to discover his work and, perhaps, something more from manga than what most of us had been led to expect.
Rob Vollmar is the writer of The Castaways and Bluesman.
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