Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Junji Ito: An Introduction to the Master of Madness and the Macabre

If there is one horror creator whose name should always be mentioned among the likes of Stephen King and George Romero, it is manga artist Junji Ito. Ito makes every potential page turn feel like a threat. You never know what horrifying sight you’ll see next, but even then, no matter how revolting the image, you just cannot look away. His art though is only half of what makes him one of the all-time greats, as he is also able to effortlessly tap into our most subconscious fears. Every story of his feels like a nightmare,
completely unrestrained by logic. So, with an anime adaption of his masterpiece Uzumaki on the way and another series just announced, now is the perfect time for an introduction to Junji Ito. The Ito hype train is about to leave the station.

Uzumaki (1998)

Courtesy of Junji Ito

Any introduction to Junji Ito must begin with one of his classics. Uzumaki stands as Ito’s most essential creation. This is a cosmic horror story unlike any other, one that cranks the fear factor so far up it breaks the scale. A supernatural plague of spirals invades a small town, driving its inhabitants to madness and transforming them into inhuman monstrosities. As two high school students, Kirie and Shuichi, investigate in hopes of saving their home, they must face the unsettling possibility that nothing can stop what is coming.

This is Ito at the top of his game, with hundreds of images so visceral they’ll make your skin crawl right off the bone. The most iconic of which, and one you can find on a t-shirt at any Hot Topic or Spencer’s Gifts, is one of a girl whose spiral shaped birth mark drills into her skull, turning her head into hole and exposing the entire circumference of her eye. It’s honestly pretty metal. The story itself is just as impactful. Unlike most cosmic horror, the nature of the spiral is not incomprehensible, and is all the more terrifying for it. It has a will of its own, wanting nothing more than to merge everyone and everything into its cosmic curse. Malice is its very essence, with its only aim to use its dark omnipotence to submit its victims to inescapable and eternal damnation.

Billions Alone (2004) Venus in the Blind Spot (2020)

Courtesy of Junji Ito

Two bodies are found sewn together floating in a river, with grotesque smiles spread across their face. As these occurrences spread across all of Japan, and with the number of people sewn together growing, shy shut-in Michio attempts to reconnect with his former classmates before their big class reunion.

The art is of course incredible, with a two-page spread of a group of people sewn together throughout a forest being the highlight, but it’s the way these images work with the central theme that makes it so brilliant.

Our desire for connection can, at times, be akin to self-destruction. The victims don’t resist, almost as if they are willingly assimilated into each other, forever connecting in death in ways they never could in life. The smiles on their faces make them appear at peace, which would be true… if they weren’t dead.

Frankenstein (1994)

Courtesy of Junji Ito

An Introduction to Junji Ito must include how he has used classic literary monsters. Ito does Mary Shelley. If that’s not the recipe for the perfect horror manga, I don’t know what is. This adaption of the classic horror novel flawlessly captures the inherent abhorrence of its premise. For Victor Frankenstein to believe he has the right to go against the most fundamental law of nature, the cycle of life and death, is beyond arrogance, and there is a reason why it results in so much bloodshed.

What makes Ito’s adaption so powerful and worth mentioning here is how it manages to tie its themes into the image of the Monster itself. His figure is grotesque, taller than any man could be, covered in dead flesh, and dripping with fluids that probably don’t even have a name. He views himself as an abomination, but he is not. What Victor did was an abomination, his ego being far more monstrous than any creature could be, and the visual depiction of the Monster is used to communicate this with nauseating results.

Where the Sandman Lives (1997) from Deserter (2021)

Courtesy of Junji Ito

In one of Ito’s earliest stories, Where the Sandman Lives, writer Yuji has a problem. Whenever he goes to sleep, another version of him from his dreams tries to take him over, forcing him into his dreamworld,
and turning his body inside out like a reversible sweater. It’s one of Ito’s more gruesome sights, which is saying something, especially considering how early in his career it was made.

There is an ironic contrast at the heart of Where the Sandman Lives. While yes, what Yuji is going through is objectively horrifying, at the same time, as the story goes on, you’ll find yourself unable to escape the feeling that it’s better to dream forever than live in a world that makes you wish you couldn’t dream at all. This ability to subtly manifest such powerful cognitive dissonance is just a fraction of what makes Ito such a brilliant storyteller.

Earthbound (2007) from Smashed (2019)

Courtesy of Junji Ito

Earthbound from Smashed follows Asano as she attempts to help the “Earthbound”, those afflicted by a
nationwide pandemic where people are inexplicably frozen in place, unable to move or be moved. We soon come to learn that the reason for the phenomenon is not some virus or disease, but rather a psychosomatic response to unresolved guilt.

As with much of Ito’s work, we have another example of human psychology morphing a person’s physical form. However, this is arguably his most personally devastating example of it. Each story in the collection has a moral, even if unintended, but Ito is clearly trying to tell us something specific here, something vital about surviving not the hardships of the world, but the ones of our own making. We all have guilt, some more than others,. However we must learn to control it before it destroys us. Any overview or Introduction to Junji Ito must include the stories of Smashed for sure.

Twisted Visions (2020)

Courtesy of Junji Ito

For the final entry into our introduction to Junji Ito something a bit more unconventional. Instead of a manga or short-story, Twisted Visions is an artbook, showcasing art spanning the entirety of Ito’s 35-year-long career.

What’s so fantastic about this collection is that it contains artwork in both color and black and white. While you really can’t beat the aesthetic coming from his black and white illustrations, it’s really incredible to see what some of his drawings would look like fully colored. The entire collection is mesmerizing, and you’ll find your eyes glued to just about every page.

With lots of Ito projects coming to streaming services shortly now is the perfect time to pick a manga and get caught up with the work of the master!