The Great TOH Junji Ito Read-Off: Fragments of Horror

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Don’t move your hands or your head will come off. Don’t move a muscle. I know it hurts and itches, but you really do deserve this, you know.

There’s something special about the short story, especially when it comes to genre writers. Aside from literary journals like The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Dark, The Paris Review, and dozens of others, short story collections have always held a special place in my heart. The concentrated punch of short fiction is where I think a lot of writers do some of their absolute best work.

Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito is filled with 8 pieces of his more recent short work. In 2014 it was his first short story collection in 8 years, having worked on other things during that time. As it’s a return to form after so long it’s a little rough around the edges in some parts, hilarious in others, and overall more charming than frightening.

First, some music to set the mood:

the coolest part is you can see creepy spirits printed on top of the “scream” cover image in transparent plastic

“Futon,” the first story is an extremely short piece, just a few pages long, though the characters will show up later. Tomio, the man that Madoka, our heroine, ran away to elope with has developed an extreme paranoia, saying the air is filled with evil spirits. While she’s worried about him and wants him to get help, he refuses to leave the safety of his futon. Just as Madoka reaches the edge of her limits, she too sees the spirits. This one definitely feels like it was more of a warm up for Ito to remember how to draw his off the wall creatures.

“Wooden Spirit” follows the story of a young woman and her single father, who live in a historical home that has been in their family for generations. They have the site declared a historical landmark and as such must open their home up to visitors, causing tension from a get-go. Like a lot of Ito stories, the central seed of the deterioration and chaos in the story comes in the form of a seductive femme fatale, who ends up seducing the girl’s father and marrying him. The true target of this woman’s lust, however, is the house itself, and something deep within is awakened.

note that manga is read from right to left

With “Tomio: Red Turtleneck” we see the return of Tomio, the poor fellow from “Futon.” He just can’t seem to catch a break, but it all seems to be karma for his chronic infidelity. This time, after being seduced by a sexy fortune teller, his head gets cut off and he has to keep it pressed down with his hands or it’ll fall off and he’ll die. That turtleneck used to be white, to give you an idea of what you’re in for. This one is one of the first actually unsettling pieces in the book, with some parts that genuinely made me squirm.

“Gentle Goodbye” is actually a somewhat touching little fantasy story. A young woman named Riko gets married into a family with a longstanding and respected bloodline, the Tokura family. The family seems to treat Riko fairly coldy, except for her husband and his younger sister. While walking through the home one day she sees what she thinks are a pair of ghosts, where she uncovers the secret that the Tokuras have a tradition where family members are kept alive as ghostly apparitions made manifest by memories. It’s not particularly frightening, though it does have a bittersweet twist at the end.

After something a little more touching it’s time to bring us back into the unsettling with “Dissection-Chan,” a story about a young woman who has an obsession with the idea of being dissected. Tatsuro, our main character remembers a young girl from his childhood (in typical manga/anime fashion, you can tell it’s the same girl because she has the exact same haircut for her entire life) after an incident where a young woman sneaks into a medical school’s dissection class in an attempt to be dissected herself.

Even as a girl she was manic about dissection, inflicting the act upon small animals at first, then asking Tatsuro to help her move to larger subjects, which pushed him past his breaking point and he never saw her again until now.

“Blackbird” keeps things in creepy territory as it tells the story of a young man who was injured in the mountains. After he is discovered by a hiker and brought to the hospital he finds he continues to be haunted by a presence he at first welcomed as his savior: a strange-faced woman who presses her lips to his, pushing warm raw meat and blood into his mouth, feeding him.

“Magami Nanakuse” is a story that I thought had fallen flat at first, but looking back on it now I think it was intended to be more of a horror comedy. It tells the story of Kaoru Koketsu, a girl who is a huge fan of the author Magami Nanakuse, who is known for giving her characters strange and absurd tics and behaviors. Kaoru writes her a letter, asking Nanakuse to take a look at her own writing and ends up getting invited over to her house. Among a larger sequence of events, Kaoru does end up being taken captive, one of the outcomes of which is the big splash page that at first I thought had fallen flat:

There are some interesting ideas in this one, though there are also elements that feel out of place for the current time period. I’d be interested in what other people think of “Magami Nanakuse.”

“Whispering Woman” tells the story of Mayumi, a young girl with such intense anxiety that she is unable to do literally anything on her own, needing step-by-step instructions on things as simple as just sitting down. Mitsu Uchida, needing work and the ability to flee an abusive partner responds to the help wanted ad placed by Mayumi’s father, and ends up finding that the job is a great fit for her.

 

Fragments of Horror was the first short story collection I read from Ito, and I could tell that even with some standout gems in the collection it wasn’t really his best work. By the time I had read Fragments, I had already read a few more works beyond GYO, among which was actually what I consider to be my favorite Ito work at the moment. I could tell he had begun to get his stride for the macabre back at some point during the writing of this collection, so I would definitely be interested in seeing a more recent full-length work at some point.

Fragments of Horror is available now through VIZ Media

Banner image by Anton Oxenuk

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