Horror, across all artistic mediums, has long been my favourite type of genre. From an early age, the pages of Stephen King and, to an extent, the early films of M. Night Shyamalan, evoked a profound sense of dread within me – but also morbid curiosity. Horror was the cause of many sleepless nights, as the vivid imagery usually associated with its content kept my mind constantly transfixed on whatever insignificant terror I often imagined. Over the years, my interest in horror developed, starting from the tender horror of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books all the way to the legendary TV series, The Twilight Zone. What I enjoyed most about the genre was its ability to tap into the human psyche – being capable of taking something we deem “ordinary” and creating the extraordinary out of it, to the point where it’s absolutely frightening.
This is where Junji Ito comes in. Some might be familiar with the name as it was once attached to Hideo Kojima’s now defunct Silent Hills, serving as a lead artist for the game that would’ve been. However, Ito’s roots as a prolific horror auteur stem from his exceptional library of horror manga stories. Much like H.P. Lovecraft, Ito’s footprints can be found in almost every facet of horror today – but what made his work so influential? Before Silent Hills, there were spirals, humanoid monstrosities, and an innate fear of the unknown.
Who is Junji Ito?
Junji Ito, born July 31, 1963, is a Japanese horror mangaka (term for a manga artist). Ito’s fascination with horror began at a very young age. Living in a rural home, his bathroom was located in the basement, which you had to walk down a dimly lit corridor to get to. This played on Ito’s imagination, and was the catalyst for his career as a horror manga artist. Today, he is known as one of the greatest horror mangaka of all time. Those familiar with his stories might recognize Uzumaki, a short story about a town that mysteriously becomes obsessed with the concept of spirals; or The Enigma of Amigara Fault, where a town discovers a mountain with several perfectly human-sized holes etched into the cliffs. These are just a couple of his most popular works, but he has written dozens of other, equally disturbing and powerful short horror stories.
What Makes Junji Ito’s Work Scary?
Heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s themes of the unknown, Junji Ito’s stories preyed on that same primal fear. The scariest aspects of society aren’t what we know and are familiar with, but what we don’t know that could pose a threat to our very existence. Like any great horror storyteller, Ito took the ordinary – the safe spaces that we find the most comfort in – and placed a terrifying uncertainty in its place.
One of his short stories, The Window Next Door, follows a young man who begins to hear whispering outside of his bedroom window. It’s revealed that the whispering came from his neighbour, an old, deformed (and otherworldly) woman/creature who has become determined to climb into his bedroom. Here, Ito takes the ordinary – the safety of your bedroom – and displaces it with the concept of an intruder trying to gain entry into your personal space. The most terrifying part about this? It’s never made clear what this woman was planning to do, letting our imagination fill in the blanks. That ultimately makes for a far more frightening experience.
Ito’s stories tend to focus on everyday suburbia’s that are thrown into subtle, but horrifying chaos once the air of peace is broken. Uzumaki is a fine example of this, as it takes an unfathomable concept, that of spirals, and applies it to every facet of life. From the obsession and fixation, to the warped physical appearances of deformed bodies and grotesque imagery. The “spiral” is prevalent in all of this, a simple twisting shape that consumes the lives of an entire town. What is it? A cosmic entity, as far as we know, but not knowing anything beyond that adds several palpable layers of fear to the story.
Mastering the Page Turn
A question some might ask is, “how is manga even capable of being scary when it’s just images/text on a page?”. After all, with films allowing the clever use of sound and motion to evoke terror, a still image (and a black and white one, no less) can’t possibly match that standard. Fortunately, Ito managed to surpass this standard with a simple, yet effective trick: the page turn.
When reading a manga or comic book, we rely on turning a page to progress the story. We’re always subconsciously anticipating what we might see on the next page, and this is where comic books have an advantage over other mediums. Suddenly, we’re able to read a comic at our own pace, and in that notion, Ito’s brilliance comes into play. The horror behind Ito’s visuals rely heavily on the “page turn”. This is usually the point where Ito places a horrifying, off-kilter, and highly detailed still image on the next page to immediately catch you off guard. A simple jump scare in a movie has a build up, winding of suspense, and deflation period following the “jump”, but on a static page, an image – without relying on sound or movement – is able to be burned into your brain with its deafening, eerie silence. This creates a great discomfort in the reader, as their mind struggles to comprehend what they’re seeing. The horror comes from these moments of quiet contemplation that sinks its claws into your psyche without so much as moving.
The Game That Could Have Been
Junji Ito’s work has been adapted into shows, movies, and anime, though with varying degrees of success. In 2014, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro announced that Ito would be joining a video game project called Silent Hills, helmed by Hideo Kojima. Ito would’ve been responsible for the creature designs as a lead artist. Back then, this was a big deal. Those familiar with Ito’s creature designs from his manga knew that the merger of those illustrations and ideas with the setting of Silent Hill made for about as perfect of a match as you could imagine.
It’s truly heartbreaking, then, that Silent Hills only exists now as a cancelled video game on a long list of potentials. Besides the numerous other talents involved, Ito’s creative sleight of hand and unique brand of horror might’ve – and I say this with utmost confidence – birthed one of the greatest horror video games of all time. In the end, Ito did end up making a guest appearance in Kojima’s latest title, Death Stranding, and even that game definitely had his influence in the concept of BTs and its designs.
Junji Ito’s extensive library of horror manga can be found readily available on numerous websites that allow for manga reading, or alternatively, you can purchase volumes of his stories on Amazon and more. Over a dozen film and television adaptations have also been made of his manga, including a popular 2018 anime series called Junji Ito Collection.