With Halloween right around the corner and the blogging community already getting into the spookiest of spirits, posting and sharing articles on all things creepy, I thought I would make my contribution by writing on my favourite Junji Ito’s short stories from his newest collection, Shiver.
For those of you who have not read a lot of manga and / or are not familiar with his work, Junji Ito is a Japanese horror manga artist. His biggest influences are classic horror manga artists Kazuo Umezu and Hideshi Hino, as well as the authors Yasukata Tsutsui and H.P. Lovecraft..
Since his debut in 1987, Ito has established his own legacy both within Japanese and Western (thank you, Viz Media) Contemporary Horror. His most notable works are Tomie, Gyo and Uzumaki – all of which are wonderfully weird and creepy in their own way. However, it was his short story collections, Shiver and Fragments of Horror, which made him one of my favourite storytellers within the genre.
As YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf explains in How Media Scares Us: The Work of Junji Ito, what makes him so unique as a horror writer and artist is that he rarely uses pre-established monster archetypes within his work. Instead, Junji Ito’s narratives and illustrations focus on subverting and de-familiarising the ordinary world to unsettle his readers. Super Eyepatch Wolf (what a name!) further praises Ito’s ability to make something as ordinary a house cat (see his work Cat Diary) appear eerie and disturbing.
Shiver is a manga collection containing nine short stories picked by Junji Ito himself. Each story is accompanied with a brief commentary and notes. You can purchase the book here from Amazon.
Before I launch into my analysis, I must first warn you that this post contains major plot spoilers and if you do not want to lose the shock value which comes with reading these stories for the first time, I recommend that you return to this article after you have them. For your reference, the stories I will be discussing are ‘Hanging Blimp’, ‘Painter’ and ‘The Long Dream’.
Hanging Blimp (also known as The Hanging Balloons) begins with the story’s protagonist trapped in her house and unable to leave without risking death. She is starving and a creature using her own voice is attempting to lure her out.
The narrative then jumps back in time to a month earlier, when a young Japanese idol is discovered hanging from a telephone wire outside her house. She is believed to have committed suicide and soon after her body was discovered, a giant balloon with her face is spotted floating around the area. Not long after that, more balloons appear and it quickly becomes apparent that they will lure those with matching faces to their deaths.
A prevalent interpretation of this story is that the balloons are manifestations of people’s suicidal urges.
In many ways it reminded me of the first ever Junji Ito story I read, The Enigma of Amigara Fault (included at the end of Gyo), in which human-shaped holes appear on the side of a mountain after an earthquake. Characters are drawn to holes which are shaped exactly like them and feel compelled to squeeze their way into them, even though it means (spoiler alert!) they will be slowly crushed and disfigured by the warped tunnels the holes lead into.
Sigmund Freud refers to this compulsive feeling as “the death drive“, whereby individuals experience an intense urge to destroy themselves. Therefore, The Enigma of Amigara Fault can be read as an exploration of human curiosity and self-destruction. This is a reoccurring theme across Junji Ito’s works.
In Hanging Blimp, however, the humans themselves do not experience a compulsive desire to commit suicide. Most attempt to escape their fates and all appear to fail. Instead this urge has been transferred over to the humanoid balloons. These balloons cannot be destroyed because any damage inflicted on an individual balloon immediately occurs to the human they resemble. This is why, despite the panic and fear they incite in the humans, they represent our death drives.
Painter is the short story which went on to inspire one of Junji Ito’s most well-known works and characters, Tomie. The narrative follows the perspective of a famous painter, Mitsuo Mori, who is initially approached by Tomie to be his new model.
Unimpressed with Mori’s work, Tomie declares the portrait not worthy of her beauty and abandons him. Mori quickly becomes obsessed with Tomie and after discovering that she has gone on to work with a sculptor, forces his way into the sculptor’s house and kills him.
Tomie agrees to let Mori paint her again and is horrified at the monstrous painting he creates. Upon realising that he will never be able to satisfy her, Mori loses his temper and murders her, chopping her body up into pieces.
In some ways, the painter’s obsession with Tomie reminded me of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess. The attempt to capture the female character’s likeness and beauty is present within both texts. While the Duke’s violent rage remains an ominous suggestion within the poem, Mori’s is overt and the reader is not spared any of the gory details by being present for the graphic murder scene. Mori’s decision to kill Tomie can be interpreted as arising from the realisation that he cannot control or please her, sparked from his humiliation after she mocks his skill as a painter.
By attempting to recreate Tomie in his artwork and producing a hideous portrait, I am further reminded of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. I feel like the second painting better captures Tomie’s likeness than the first – be it in an abstract manner. Similar to the way in which Dorian’s portrait begins to transform into a manifestation of his sins and cruel character, the second painting reveals the truthful side of Tomie’s personality despite her good looks. Throughout the narrative, she comes across as manipulative and self-centred. She appears to derive amusement from the artists she tortures and insults.
I am also curious about the significance of Tomie’s desire to have her beauty immortalised through art. On the one hand, it could be a simple act of vanity. On the other, the reader should consider the issues surrounding her inability to be photographed or the difficulty previous artists experienced when taking her on as a subject. For me, this is a hint towards vampire mythology.
The Long Dream
As the above image shows, The Long Dream preemptively opens with a woman anxiously awaiting brain surgery. She tells the medical staff in charge of her care that she has seen Death and believes that she is going to die soon.
“Death” is actually a fellow patient, who has been suffering from dreams (mostly nightmares) which seem to him to be getting increasingly longer despite only lasting a night in real time. This begins to have an impact on his physical appearance as he starts rapidly ageing. The Doctor is unable to treat his patient’s condition and after a few months, the patient disintegrates into dust – but not before experiencing one final, everlasting dream. This is referred to as “the eternal dream”.
In the last few panels of the story, the Doctor displays a warped sense of logic by administering the patient’s remains to his first patient. He believes that he has cured her fear of death by helping her live forever.
In this story, Junji Ito subverts a favourite theme of his, the impending fear of death, with the threat of never ending life. Or, at least, the illusion of it.
Leading up to the conclusion of the story, Ito cleverly uses shading to give the Doctor’s face a haggard look, making him resemble more of a mad scientist than a trusted medical professional and causing the reader to question his decision to grant his patient eternal life.
In addition to disturbing the natural order of things, the patient’s fate is left ambiguous. Neither the reader nor the Doctor knows what her “eternal dream” was about. If it is a good dream, it is possible that she experienced something close to heaven. If, however, she was unlucky enough to have a nightmare in her final moments, it is entirely possible that the Doctor has condemned her to an eternity of hellishness.
What these three stories – and much of his other work – have in common is the lack of context which surround these strange and creepy phenomenon. Junji Ito offers no explanation as to why these events occurs, just that they do, and ensures that every ending leaves the reader with unanswered questions. This is another element of what makes his narratives so unsettling – and it also leaves them open to interpretation!