Since it’s spooky season, I wanted to highlight one of Japan’s most famous horror manga artists/writers – Junji Ito. For those not in the know, manga are Japanese comics, and Ito’s realistic and hyper-detailed artwork, combined with his macabre and haunting plots, are a perfect nightmare cocktail. Here are ten recommendations to start you off, from his longer-form works to short stories. Also, to existing Junji Ito fans, yes, there are plenty of well-known recommendations here, but if I didn’t list your personal favorite, well, there’s always next Halloween…
Often considered Ito’s magnum opus, Uzumaki is about a town cursed by spirals. If that sounds funny to you, then you’ll learn how easily Junji Ito can turn the mundane into something horrifying. Uzumaki is the Japanese word for spiral, and this town, and life in general, has a lot of them. From whirlwinds to the shape of your inner ear, once people begin to notice the spiral, it’s too late. Each chapter is almost episodic, dealing with such horrors as people devolving into snails, a spiral devouring a girl’s head, and mosquito babies demanding to be put back into the womb. However, they all combine to tell an epic story of Lovecraftian terror in which nothing can save the town from its spiraling, cosmic curse.
Tadashi and his girlfriend Kaori are vacationing in Okinawa when she’s assailed by a terrible stench that won’t go away. Soon, it’s revealed to be rotting fish, but these fish have mechanical legs and swarm on land. This sounds like a 1950s sci-fi B movie, but Gyo is loaded with enough body horror to make David Cronenberg squirm. The fish are revealed to be an experiment by the Japanese Army during World War II, and Japan is now reaping what she sowed. Powered by toxic gas, the fish begin to change people, mutating them into things far worse than corpses.
One of Junji Ito’s first works, Tomie is the story of a beautiful Japanese schoolgirl, who also happens to be an evil succubus. Tomie’s beauty isso powerful that men become obsessed with her, but also drives them to murder her. The problem is, Tomie always rises from the dead, continuing her curse. The series is spread out over several stories and not one continuous arc with numerous adaptations and, hopefully, more installments to come.
Another of Ito’s most famous works, this story involves mysterious cracks appearing in Amigara Mountain which are shaped like human beings. Visitors arrive from all over Japan but some are drawn to specific cracks that fit them perfectly. As if hypnotized, they begin to slide themselves into these cracks made just for them and toward a hideous fate.
5) The Hanging Balloons
When a schoolgirl commits suicide by hanging herself, people begin seeing her ghost as a bizarre floating balloon. Even stranger, the balloon is an exact duplicate of just her face, with a noose dangling where the ballon string should be. Worse still, balloons shaped like other people’s faces begin to hover over Tokyo. These replica balloons find their “people” and hang them on their noose-like strings. Strange, surreal, and horrific. Also, don’t try popping these balloons either unless you want a deflated face.
A man named Shigeru comes across a young woman named Misaki, covered in blood. Taking her to the doctor, it’s revealed that the bloodisn’t hers. A few days later, Misaki shows up to thank him and even wants to pursue a romantic relationship with him. Unfortunately for her, Shigeru is married with a baby on the way. But Misaki is persuasive and the two begin an affair. But Misaki is not all she appears to be and is hiding a dark secret – namely, she eats ghosts. This creepy story shows that there are fates far worse than death.
7) Ghosts of Prime Time
One of Junji Ito’s lighter stories, which has to be graded on a curve, so it’s still pretty creepy. A new manzai act appears in Japan, becoming an unexpected hit. Manzai is a type of Japanese standup comedy, where one performer acts as a straight man and the other as the funny guy. This manzai duo consists of two women who are as unfunny as they are strange. Yet, wherever they go, they get huge laughs…thanks to some tickling ghosts. Given how unpleasant tickling can be, this story can get under your skin.
A teenager is awakened in the middle of the night by a strange neighbor, who wants nothing more than to pay him a visit. The woman next door is a horrific sight and she’s getting closer and closer to his window with each passing night.
9) Army of One
A series of grotesque murders begin plaguing Japan, namely two people literally stitched together. Dubbed the “stitch murders” they appear to target groups of people. This is fitting since the protagonist is a hikikomori, one of the socially isolated hermits of Japanese society. At the same time, a plane drops flyers for an “Army of One” which is recruiting new members. Our hikikomori protagonist uncovers rumors that the mysterious Army of One is responsible for the stitch murders, which are becoming more brazen, stitching entire groups of five, six, a dozen, and even more, people together. This creepy tale explores social isolation, paranoia, and agoraphobia, made even more relevant in this age of Covid-19.
I’ve already talked about this in my 4 Edogawa Ranpo Horror Stories post and my 7 Edogawa Ranpo Recommendations on my own blog, but I want to spotlight Junji Ito’s interpretation of it here too. The original short story from 1925 is this – a woman receives a creepy letter from a man claiming he has lived inside her chair in a bizarre desire to be transformed into a piece of furniture. While Ranpo’s story ends on an ambiguous note, Junji Ito expands the story into what happens next. Furthermore, his manga also includes a woman in modern-day, getting the same chair, with the same set of horrors that Ranpo first wrote about decades prior.