Every nation has its masters of the macabre. King. Romero. Argento. Carpenter. Barker. Del Toro. But only Japan has Junji Ito, the king of horror manga. For those new to the medium or simply curious about Ito’s unique approach to visual storytelling, Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories, a recent release from VIZ Media, is the perfect on-ramp into his terrifying world of the supernatural.
As an American, I’m certainly no stranger to the concept of horror comics; like a lot of you, I grew up on dog-eared copies of Creepy and Eerie. I’ve long had an interest in both horror manga and, more specifically, the esteemed Junji Ito, but it wasn’t until last year’s pleasant experience with another (noticeably milder) VIZ Media translation that I felt comfortable tackling this particular cultural touchstone as my first read of the new year.
A sizable—nigh 400-page—tome, Shiver seems a bit daunting at first blush, with its cover’s unsettling blend of art deco flash and surrealist shock, not to mention that thorny right-to-left orientation. However, what you find inside is neither an overstuffed career retrospective nor a ramshackle assortment of disparate shorts. This nine-story collection is instead a compilation of career highlights from the artist himself, each tale capped with accompanying commentary and original story notes and sketches.
It begins with “Used Record,” a jazzy Japanese take on the cursed item concept with a subtle twist that quickly proves Ito’s work lives up to his hype. This is immediately followed by the titular tale, which plays on traditional fears of insects and disease with a hint of supernatural conspiracy for added flavor. Its third entry, “Fashion Model,” introduces the hulking, fanged fatale Fuchi, who shows up again in “Fashion Model: Cursed Frame,” this collection’s final bonus story.
With monstrous models, mysterious maladies, and murderous music already under your belt, it’s easy to believe that you’ve seen all that Junji Ito can throw at you. Then comes “Hanging Blimp.” Inspired by a simple dream, this tale sees Japan beset by homicidal zeppelins, each bearing an overinflated face of its desired victim.
“Marionette Mansion,” by contrast, seems almost quaint, but even this straightforward take on creepy puppets is a masterwork of unsettling visuals and slowly simmering paranoia. “Painter” is another brisk tale of an unlikely model with a resolution that perfectly encapsulates Cronenbergian body horror, while “The Long Dream” pairs its Twilight Zone premise with a dash of medical malfeasance.
While fraught with graphic—well, as graphic as you can get in stark black and white—bloodshed and melancholy madness, nothing in the Shiver quite compares to its waning tales, “Honored Ancestors” and “Greased Oil.” The former hinges on a peculiar genetic mutation that fuses existential horror and grotesque comedy, but it’s the implications of its protagonist’s coerced nuptials that truly terrifies. And the latter? Well, suffice it to say, if the blend of putrefying acne and abject poverty don’t get you, the cannibalism will.
At the top of this missive, I said that Shiver is a perfect primer to the work of Junji Ito, an ideal introduction for the uninitiated. I can say that with some certainty because that’s exactly what it was for me.
Though Ito admits some of the original works have been slightly altered since their initial publication and there are a handful of incidences of typos or confounding translations, the added elements, the unique personal touch that is the notes from the author’s desk at the end of each story, give a sense of place and purpose. It’s almost as if each collected story offers a brief glimpse into the mind of Ito himself, which, like his art, is peculiar and unsettling, but ultimately beautiful. Ultimately… human.
Available at an MSRP of $22.99 (Amazon has it for around $18 at time of writing), Shiver: Junji Ito Selected Stories is an undeniably deserving addition to anyone’s reading list. Providing, of course, you’re willing to plumb the depths of human depravity and paranormal vengeance.
In short, Uncle Creepy would be proud.
Review material provided by: VIZ Media