The Aesthetic of the Macabre: A Critical Look at Junji Ito’s Horror of the Bizarre

Junji Ito has gathered something of a cult following here in America as of late. Already known among horror lovers in Japan, Ito is, in my mind, more closely aligned with the weird fiction of old than with the contemporary horror genre as it stands in this country. I read his masterpieces, Uzumaki and Gyo a few years ago, as well as a few of his short stories. I recently encountered a list of his works with links to each, and worked my way through a few I hadn’t heard of. We at Sweet Talk tend to lean towards social science, but I’ve been hoping we might plumb deeper into the humanities. Art criticism seems about as far from science as it gets, so with Junji Ito fresh on my mind I thought I might engage in a little.

I will start with Uzumaki, move to Gyo, and conclude with a few lesser known ones. Warning: spoilers galore.

Haunted by Spirals

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Uzumaki is by far his most popular work, and his greatest. Unlike every other work of his that I have read, with the possible exception of Gyo, he manages to come to a resolution that flirts with coherence without veering into absurdity. It is the pinnacle of his style in longform storytelling in which the same characters seem to go through a series of one-shot horror plots that then build on one another. Later we’ll see that other works of his, notably Black Paradox, go too far in this direction; the one-shots are highly unrelated and the attempt to thread them together ridiculous. But Uzumaki does not have that problem.

“Uzumaki” is japanese for “spiral,” and spirals are the name of the game. The first chapter introduces the main character Kirie and her boyfriend Shuichi, a pair of high school students. The first story is about Shuichi’s father, who becomes obsessed with spirals and exhibits increasingly bizarre behavior until…well…

The story of the father continues as he haunts the mother, but from there things take on a life of their own. Different people go through very different experiences, with the only thread tying them together being the symbolic tie to spirals. Thus, a girl who attracts a lot of boys finds that her scar slowly turns into a spiral, until…

There’s another chapter about slow moving and tardy children who start turning into snails.

Then there’s the chapter that takes place in a maternity ward—well, I’ll spare you that one. Not for the squeamish, though so little of Junji Ito’s work is.

There are 20 chapters in all, though the last few are dedicated to tying the whole thing together.

Towards the end, everything that had been happening in the individual chapters is happening on a grand scale all over the place, and people find themselves unable to leave the town for no clear reason. They attempt to leave and end up back where they started.

The town contains a great deal of very old rowhouses that have been there for as long as anyone remembers. In the later chapters, people cluster in these rowhouses to avoid the chaos outside. They quickly run out of room, and start building out more rowhouses. Perhaps you’ve guessed where this is going…

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They go to the center of the town in search of Kirie’s family, and find an entrance to a vast underground chapter that is full of—you guessed it—spirals. A big, twisting spire goes up and fills in the hole in the center of town, completing the spiral and leaving Kirie and Shuichi stuck underground, entwined.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of Uzumaki when I first read it. I knew that I enjoyed the sheer weirdness of it, and was impressed with the strangely credible resolution to the series. I also really like Ito’s style—across his work, it is clearly his greatest strength and the thing that attracts the most fans, especially among fellow artists.

I feel as though I didn’t really understand what he was doing with Uzumaki until I had read several of his other, much lesser works. So rather than comment on it critically now, I will turn to the second series of his I read, Gyo.

Absurdity and the Stench of Decay

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Despite having a comparable number of chapters to Uzumaki, Gyo is a much more focused work in its plot. This makes it an exception across most of Junji Ito’s longer works.

Gyo opens with a young couple on vacation at a beach house. We quickly learn that Kaori, the woman, has a very sensitive sense of smell—something that will turn out to be unfortunate indeed. This is introduced to the audience when she asks her boyfriend Tadashi if he will brush his teeth before kissing her.

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I would like to pause here for a moment to draw you attention to the page above. The faces of the two main characters are very typical of Junji Ito’s style; they’re almost the prototypical male/female faces across his works. Moreover, Tadashi’s face as he shouts on the bottom left is another archetype. Ito’s characters often go from normal, reasonable people to absurdly unreasonable and unhinged on the turn of a dime. In such cases, they lose their humanity not only in their behavior but in their appearance—note the difference between the sympathetic faces on the top half of the page against the absurdly large shouting mouth, the shadows that suddenly appear around his eye, the curled eyebrow.

Returning to the plot—the couple fight, and Kaori runs out. Tadashi chases her, and then there is something that even he smells—something which follows them back to the house. The smell is so strong that it knocks Kaori out (while she is in the shower—a well-worn horror trope playing to how vulnerable we feel in such situations). Tadashi himself feels faint, but goes in search of the source—which he finds.

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“Gyo” is Japanese for “fish”. Whatever else I will say about Gyo, I found the idea of these weird, stinking fish with insect-like legs crawling around to be an incredibly creepy idea. It’s a good example of how a visual idea can really drive Junji Ito’s stories, in a way that works amazingly well.

The story quickly turns from a private horror that the couple are unable to convince others is really going on, to a large scale public invasion.

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This is again, highly typical of Ito’s storytelling. He doesn’t like to keep things on a small scale; the artistic opportunities from bringing in a whole town or the whole planet are simply too tempting. In Gyo’s case (and most of his work) I would argue that this is to the detriment of the story—Ito is much better at atmospheric, personal horror than he is at stories analogous to the zombie apocalypse. It is once Gyo scales up that it begins to become absurd.

Still, I think it works better in Gyo than it does in most of Ito’s work. Certainly, there’s something morbidly satisfying about the invasion of these creepy land-walking sea creatures. It quickly becomes apparent that the secret is in the legs, not in the creatures on top, for the legs continue moving long after the creatures have died and begun to rot.

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Tadashi conveniently has an uncle who is a scientist, who looks pretty much like you’d expect a scientist in a Junji Ito manga to look.

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They bring him the first fish they encountered at the beginning to examine, and he learns that the legs are able to take human hosts, and indeed any organic hosts, the hard way.

This is where things start to get truly absurd.

My number one criticism of Gyo, beyond the absurdity I will describe momentarily, is that Kaori loses her agency very early on. It is one thing to frame a horror around the possibility of losing one’s agency to something beyond one’s control—I get that, and that is a legitimate approach. But from very nearly the beginning Kaori is reduced to nothing but someone who screams about the smell and behaves otherwise irrationally. Despite the clear framing of her as damsel in distress (at first), I don’t think sexism is what’s going on here—Junji Ito is perfectly happy to do this to his male characters across his manga.

Instead, it’s a weakness of Ito’s general approach. In his manga, there are at most one or two characters who manage to remain somewhat humane and retain their agency throughout, and sometimes it isn’t even that many. Everyone else becomes a monomaniacal, unreasonable, pitiless, petty beast driven by some obsession or fixation instead of their own agency.

I don’t think this approach gets you very far. For one thing, it’s hard to be too scared when there are so few characters you empathize with enough to really be scared on their behalf. For another thing, it adds a strong element of predictability that also manages to suck out the effectiveness of the horror. Once the scientist is introduced, looking as he does and acting as he does, we know that he’ll eventually do something sinister. Once Kaori begins to act without agency, and show no signs of regaining it, we know that Ito must have some terrible fate in store for her. And indeed he does, a most terrible one.

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Kaori becomes the first example of a full human host to the legs, and what’s more she remains alive for basically the rest of the manga in this state. Of all the characters, relatively good or bad, who are introduced, her fate is by far the worst.

Tadashi loses much agency beyond this point—the majority of his scenes involve him running around shouting “Kaori! Kaori!” in a frantic manner. Not that I can blame him—and to the extent that it works, it has the feel of walking through a nightmare that never ends. This is especially the case for the chapters in which he encounters a circus—though this was definitely an extreme case of aesthetic aspiration driving storyline decisions.

The rest of the plot is a joke, if I may be blunt. The scientist (who we can safely upgrade to “mad scientist”) attempts to turn Kaori into something that will fight the leg-things (in the circus it’s revealed that it is actually the gas, the source of the stench, which is alive and driving everything). Tadashi attempts to save Kaori (even though it’s clearly far too late) and then the leg creatures invade and kill the scientist.  Naturally, he was prepared for this and had a claw-thing set up for himself.

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And then…he tries to kill them because he thinks there’s something going on between Tadashi and his assistant? And dead Kaori-spider-thing tries to kill them for the same reason? At this point the absurdity of it detracts from the horror pretty severely. At one point the dead scientist gets on a blimp to fire weapons down on the leg-things from above, and then the circus people are using the human cannon to try and pop the blimp. But not to worry! The scientist was prepared for that too!

At this point one is tempted to simply say that Junji Ito at least has the virtue of committing to his crazy over-the-top approach without hesitation. To which I have to reply—you haven’t seen anything yet.

I do like the note that Gyo ends on. It isn’t the perfect resolution of Uzumaki, nor the haphazard ending of some of the other works we’ll be looking at here, but strikes a good balance between explanation and open-endedness.

The Terrible, the Pretty Bad, and the Mediocre

I’d like to begin this last section by looking at Hellstar Remina, the third work of Junji Ito’s that I read, right around the same time I read Uzumaki and Gyo for the first time.

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To be blunt: Hellstar Remina is terrible. The plot is idiotic, and the situations make the absurdity in the last half of Gyo seem plausible by comparison.

The story, such as it is, can be summarized as follows: an astronomer discovers a star, which he names after his daughter, Remina. The daughter instantly games fame as a result, for some reason. Then it turns out that the star is evil, and eats planets. And I do mean eats.

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The crowds who had irrationally adored Remina (the girl) for having a star named after her now irrationally decide that it is her fault, and her father’s, that this terrible thing is coming for Earth.

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This all happens in the first chapter, mind you. Granted that it’s a much shorter series, at six chapters in all.

The whole thing gets set up as a dual horror of the planet making its way to destroy everyone, and Remina trying to escape getting sacrificed by people who have convinced themselves that her death will appease the evil planet. Some wicked, greedy rich people buy their way off Earth and go to settle the evil planet, but are killed in gruesome ways because the planet is evil, evil I say!

Back on Earth, they are in the process of sacrificing Remina and a hobo who happened to be nearby at the time, when…

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And most of the last chapter is spent with the hobo carrying Remina on his back and jumping around in Earth’s messed up gravity while the rest of the planet follows behind trying to catch them.

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I probably don’t need to say that all of this is unbelievably stupid. Moreover, there isn’t even the usual upshot of gorgeous-but-messed-up artwork from Junji Ito. Most of the art in Hellstar Remina is just as unappealing as its plot—that is, not interesting and going well beyond juvenile. Some of the art from the brief scene on the planet itself, and the face melting, brings us back to Ito’s imaginative and macabre aesthetic. But it’s a tiny section, and the situation that brings it about is absurdly contrived even for Ito.

I do find that with prolific creators such as Ito, the bad stuff tells you a lot about the good stuff. Seeing what he tries, and fails to do gives you a better sense of what exactly he succeeded in doing in his better works. In Hellstar Remina the main trope is the parallel horrors—the supernatural one and the merely human. Humans are by and large quite terrible in Ito’s manga, though this is common to the horror genre in general.

Wit that in mind I turn to the next story, Black Paradox.

Black Paradox begins with a group of strangers who connected online in order to find other people to commit suicide with. The first chapter follows the arc of a simple horror story—as each tells their story, you get the sense that something is not quite right. With the exception of one of them, each has some story about how another version of themselves is what has driven them to their present state.

It is then revealed that all three of the people in the car are, in fact, the doppelgangers, not the original people. The odd one out realizes this and escapes (for what reason, given that she was trying to commit suicide, I couldn’t say) and then runs into the real people actually trying to kill themselves. The dopplegangers run away, and the four decide to put off committing suicide for another day.

At first I hoped that this serious would just be numerous attempts to commit suicide, all foiled by some wacky horror thing happening. I should have known better—if there’s one thing that Junji Ito cannot do, it is stick to some sort of conventional formula. The second time they attempt to commit suicide, all but one of them chicken out. The robot guy goes through with it, but survive. However, he feels a tad unwell afterwards.

The stones are the main focus of the rest of the series, which is of comparable length to Hellstar Remina.

All of them have some “gate” inside of them from which these stones can be mined. The mining is set up by a doctor, who you can tell is going to turn out to be a horrible person because he behaves decently at first. He grows cells from the organs that have the gates until they’re these ridiculously oversized things that each individual can pass through to get more of the stones.

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The place on the other side of the gate turns out to be where our souls are, and the stones each contain a soul. But this is kept hushed up as the stones fetch an enormous price on the market—though the owners have a tendency to go insane and blow themselves up with the stone’s energy.

As contrived as all of this is, after reading Hellstar Remina it seemed pretty tame. And there was a lot more compelling horror art.

Black Paradox crystalized something for me about what it was that Junji Ito was doing in Uzumaki. In Uzumaki, he strung together a series of single-episode incidents that loosely fit around the theme of terrible things happening due to spirals, with a few characters observing and learning from each incident. Then, he tries to bring it all together at the end. In Black Paradox, the movement from the weird reveal of the first chapter, to the focus on the stones, then tying back to the stuff in the first chapter, just feels awkward and forced. Again, aesthetic clearly drove story. But at least in this case, it resulted in some great horror art. And the plot was less absurd than Hellstar Remina’s, perhaps on par with the second half of Gyo.

The last piece that we’ll look at is Lovesick Dead, the title of which bears uncomfortably close resemblance to a rather awkward H. P. Lovecraft collaboration. This tale is set in a small town to which the protagonist’s family returns after having moved away in his childhood. This town has a strange custom: people wait at the corner for someone to come by and then spring up and ask them to tell their fortune.

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The main character has a tragic backstory in which, as a six-year-old, he told some woman to shove off instead of giving her a fortune, and she committed suicide later.

Now, just after he returns, a “pretty boy” goes around giving people terrible fortunes and driving them to love-mad hysteria, and ultimately suicide.

The rest of the series is essentially the hunt to figure out who this person is. At one point the possibility is floated that it might be the protagonist himself, perhaps in his sleep. At another point they are convinced it is the unborn child of the women who killed herself in his youth. After all the intrigue and bizarre incidents, the actual reveal is extremely disappointing in its execution. The man that the woman had been having an affair with just shows up seeking an intersection fortune and blurts it all out without provocation.

Other than that, the ending is pretty good. It isn’t spelled out explicitly, but hinted at that there has been a changing of the guard between the pretty boy and the protagonist in terms of who will roam the streets playing intersection fortune teller—though why there’s a “guard” at all is never made clear. But that’s OK—horror is best with a healthy dollop of ambiguity.

The Aesthetic of the Macabre and the Bizarre

Junji Ito is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, even at his best. A lot of people are drawn to him primarily for the visual element; he has a knack for skillfully executing gruesome and imaginative art. And you’re never going to get a formula horror story with him—for better or for worse, he always goes for the bizarre, the intricate, the contrived and the absurd. Both this and his art style keep me coming back, personally. But he suffers from serious flaws as a storyteller. Because he refuses to lean on too many time-tested tropes, his stuff can be very hit or miss. You either get something breathtakingly original and fascinating like Uzumaki, or something completely juvenile and worthless, like Hellstar Remina.

Either way, I think we’d be better of with more artists like Junji Ito rather than fewer. It’s inspiring seeing someone willing to take such big risks with storytelling and art, even if it doesn’t necessarily have a high rate of paying off, especially on the story side. Artists and storytellers inspired by what he has done can take his accomplishments as well as his failures and learn from them, make them a part of their own voice.

Fans of the aesthetic of the macabre are all made better off by Junji Ito’s continued output of weird and horrifying manga.

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