Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
All this month, the AiPT! staff has been searching for appropriate topics and media to dive into to celebrate the Halloween season. With regards to the manga and anime section, what better choice could there be than the work of Junji Ito? In the spirit of our group review of Fragments of Horror some years back, we came together to discuss another of the horror legend’s short story collections: Shiver. Shiver is unique in that it’s a bit of a “Best of” volume, featuring nine past tales handpicked by Ito as well as a tenth that debuted in its pages. Without any further adieu, let’s hear what our staff had to say…
Our collection of horror and mayhem begins on a lighter tale, probably the lightest tale here, “Used Records.” A young woman named Nakayama is utterly entranced by this mysterious record a friend of hers, Ogawa, has. The singer’s voice and the melody of it is just so enrapturing and moving that she wants the record badly. However, there’s more to this album than meets the eye and it’s one that leads her down a supernatural, uncomfortable route.
“Used Records” is such an odd, reserved title in a collection full of the macabre and nastiness. There’s nothing particularly horrifying or shocking within its art like you might expect for a Junji Ito title or any particular intensity in the story. Given the style of the art, it was probably made very early in Ito’s career. It’s very subtle and quiet, with such a small layer of eeriness to it. It’s almost like a story I would expect to see in the original Twilight Zone.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That smaller and more subtle approach is actually rather refreshing for Ito. It makes the story more interesting, relying more on the slow buildup and world-building to provide the atmosphere. When the end does hit, the art isn’t so over the top or overdrawn, making the surprise feel more eerie and dreadful. While it’s not the best written story (again, this is clearly Ito’s early days), it’s definitely one of the most interesting stories he has ever produced. Not a bad way to start the collection off.
— Jordan Richards
“Shiver” is the second story in Junji Ito’s Shiver and it’s a story that will linger with you. Not only because of the terrifying imagery it implores, but because this story will literally make you shiver. It puts you in the headspace of the lead character and introduces a concept that is impossible, yet is easy to fathom.
It opens with a high school-aged boy noticing a neighbor looking out the window. She’s two or three years younger, but she has holes riddling her arm. Soon, he’s recalling his grandfather died of something that riddled his body with holes. As the story goes on, the main character tells a friend, they do some research, and the impossibility of living with holes in your body becomes a reality due to a curse.
This story uses close-up visuals of the holes, which will make your skin itch. In the backup commentary, Ito explains the idea came from learning about insects that have holes in their body to allow them to breathe. Now imagine those very same bugs getting inside the holes within your body and living inside you. My scalp is literally itching thinking about. This is a story that features horrifying sights, but also a physical reaction when you read it. Exceptional stuff.
— David Brooke
“Fashion Model” is a story about a screenwriter who is deeply disturbed by a woman who doesn’t reach his bare minimum beauty standard.
Sure, the woman is a seven-foot tall, shark-toothed monster woman, but it stands that we spend more than half the story not exactly knowing this as fact; instead, our story protagonist has a ghastly premonition that something awful will happen one day—and the something awful turns out to be that he sees an unattractive woman in a magazine, and the very thought of the woman repulses him so much that her memory haunts him for weeks following.
Luckily, our woman is a professional model/actress, and the protagonist’s “friends” (with heavily implied quotation marks) decide to hire her on to the next film. Perfect way to confront your demons. . . unless your demons include an actual demon.
I’m unsure if we’re meant to read this story as genuine, or if Ito means to comment on a certain facet of appearance-obsessed Japanese media—elsewhere in the story, the all-male production crew laments the lack of beautiful girls at their school—but, either way, I’ll also have the fashion model lingering in my memory, and I suppose that’s the true intent of any good horror story.
— Colin Reed Moon
Until reading this collection, Junji Ito existed as a myth. His intense, otherworldly horror stories had created this singular presence that was known even among the biggest manga newbs.
Then I read Shiver, and more specifically “Hanging Blimp,” and I feel like I know him all too well.
The story itself is fairly direct— at least as it stands for an Ito story. After the death of a teen entertainer named Terumi, these “blimps” made of floating human heads come down to hunt their mortal counterparts. It feels a little like a ghost story meets a zombie survival flick, and the tension builds expertly as the “mystery” unfolds and we understand the larger stakes at play.
There are a few distinct layers to the story, working together to build a mystery in a really distinct way. But really, there’s a kind of robust intimacy to this story. Even as the mystery develops, and people try to react and live in a world where this sort of thing just happens one day, the focus remains up close and center on the people. Our protagonist, Kazuko, is the perfect entry into this world, and her relationship with Terumi allows her a place of great emotional potential while the story builds up layer by layer. Getting to know Kazuko, and how she tries to grasp a terror she can’t fully comprehend, is Horror Writing 101, and without her gentle presence and sturdy heart this story would float away under its own exciting, but mostly gimmicky storyline.
Yet there’s still a greater sense of intimacy here, and Ito manages to drill down deep beyond the larger hook toward something tight-knit and overwhelming. As he explains in some back-up material/essay, he had a similar dream of the floating murder heads, and spent years rehashing these “visions” until the final story developed into its final shape. In that sense, Kazuko is a great representation of the writer-artist, and her journey into this weird world parallels Ito’s own process to ground and categorize these ideas and emotions into something of value. They’re both travelers, in a sense, into this frightening new world, and their humanity helps open up the narrative and guide us into a greater sense of loss, terror, and confusion as things unfold. We see something deeply human— not just in the faces of decapitated balloon fiends, but the anxiety of understanding and making sense of it all.
Because of that methodical pace, and the continual focus on the human psyche, this story quickly becomes something so much more than more ghoulish horor. Is this story clearly about suicide, especially given the Japanese culture’s inherent fascination and connection with the act? Sure, especially as a kind of case study of how it “spreads” and assumes the kind of figure of a mythic killer a la Jason or Freddy. Yet it’s so much more than just an allegory for our struggles and dynamic with suicide; it feels just as much an exploration of our relationship with the outside world itself, and how (like Ito himself did) we’ve grown tragedy into something more. We create these monsters out of ideas and events that consume our focus. The idea is that if we can somehow protect ourselves (especially our fragile necks), we can somehow make it out alive. But then that’s the real rub, isn’t it, and as these characters soon learn, the world is always ready to pull you into the sky and eat you whole. In a way, it’s our own doing, and we see ourselves as both helpless victims and snarling baddies.
It’s hard to ignore that idea of true existential horror at a time when COVID still dominates the news cycle and our shared psyches. “Hanging Blimp” feels like an exploration of our own times, and the combination of the terror in the sky (that is somehow both us and of our own machinations and yet not us at all) and how it separates and categorizes us as people is as unsettling as it is prescient. But this is also so deeply removed from our times, and the story just as easily exists in that buffer of fear of awkwardness at the periphery of average life. It is both a statement of the times and focused on something nameless that we can’t help but try and push away from us collectively. It’s fear and terror we can only conquer by trying to hide it away, and yet it wants nothing more than to scream from the top of its giant floating lungs. It’s how we exist in the world, and it’s never been more difficult or damning to contextualize that than right now.
I think that’s the true lesson not only of this story, but Ito’s work in general. He knows humanity with such depth and nuance, and he presents that in a way to tease and poke us into practically scaring ourselves. This story feels like a high point of his skills, and to read it is to stare into the face of a man who gets humanity like few others and uses that knowledge to affect readers on an existential level. Ito, and his monsters, are no mere fable, but something real in that world that’s waiting for you to play your part.
Also, not since Stephen King ruined clowns has someone done so much with balloons.
— Chris Coplan
Few objects have as much inherent horror potential as puppets. They’re the ultimate uncanny valley, defined by the dichotomy between true humanity and art’s interpretation of it. Add in all the easy associations to be made with regards to control or lack of control and the metaphors almost seem too obvious. With “Marionette Mansion,” Ito delivers a memorable story not just because of the premise but because of his sheer level of commitment to executing it to the extreme.
What would it mean for humans to become the true puppets? Ito doesn’t just ask this question but answers it with unnerving scenes of human beings going about their days ensnared in wires, supposedly controlled by figures who are always out of sight in the dark of the ceiling. What would it mean to move about as a human puppet, and how would one’s physical strength and general health be affected? Ito takes a supernatural premise and ponders its tactile implications, making the story feel all the more unnerving and close to home even as it fully embraces the fantastical.
Plus, any good puppet horror story needs a standout wooden villain. Here, Ito gives us Jean-Pierre. He’s as immediately horrifying an antagonist as any other Ito has ever drawn, with a sadistically dramatic grin that pulls on theatre tradition to deliver terror both new and primal. The story’s end kind of just fizzles out as many of Ito’s works do, like hazily detailed urban legends that it’s impossible to get a full grip on. While a few plot points resolve rather predictably, this is nonetheless a fun tale that’s consistently engrossing to look at throughout.
— Alex Cline
“Painter” is an interesting short story. The author’s commentary that follows it reveals it was meant to be the first chapter of an ongoing series starring Tomie, the mysterious woman who wants to preserve her beauty in art forever. Because of Ito’s initial intentions for “Painter,” the thrills and shocking imagery are backloaded to the final five or so pages, and it doesn’t make good on the themes and metaphors often found in great horror fiction.
The story starts at an exhibition for the titular painter, Mitsuo Mori, who has had newfound success in his Nana series of paintings. The praise is unanimous, that is until he meets the mysterious Tomie. She insists that if you look closely you can see, “she’s clearly a dimwit.” The criticism sits with Mori, even as he’s painting the next piece in the Nana series.
It’s then that Tomie arrives at Mori’s house to cause trouble. She basically forces Mori into taking her on as his new muse, and the challenge of capturing her beauty goes from being captivating to a maddening obsession. Tomie is insatiable; when Mori believes he’s done his best work, Tomie laughs in his face and goes to find another artist.
Later, Mori finds out that Tomie has teamed up with a sculptor from his old art school, a man who has contempt for Mori for being a sellout. Driven further into madness, Mori confronts the sculptor, and the story’s violent endgame begins. The image of a dozen or so shattered sculptures, none beautiful enough to satisfy Tomie, is a haunting one that foreshadows things to come. It’s a little too late though to be foreshadowing, since the payoff happens in the very next scene.
The final images are haunting, and typically terrifying for Junji Ito’s works, despite the lack of payoff. “Painter” leaves the reader wanting more, despite the unknown being horrifying on its own.
— Daniel Berlin
The Long Dream
The seventh tale in this collection, “The Long Dream,” might have you staying awake just a little longer after reading it.
The story centers around two hospital patients suffering from seemingly psychological maladies. The first, Mami, is a young woman whose unidentified illness fills her every waking moment with the dread of death. The other patient, Mukoda, claims his dreams elongate each night, as he feels days and months slipping by from just a normal night’s rest.
The central concept here of long dreams is a striking one and may seem like wishful thinking at first. Who wouldn’t want to keep living the dream where you’re Superman or everything goes right in your life, right? But what about those nightmares that keep you up long after you’ve been roused from sleep? What if you were stuck there for a month? A year? “The Long Dream” explores these questions and the physical toll it might take on the human mind and body.
I found myself unable to put this short down once I started. There’s an extremely compelling premise here and it kept me guessing till the end. It’s also really cool to see the story examine the ramifications of this condition as we see Mukoda undergo terrifying transformations from dreaming through centuries. This is where Ito’s penchant for disturbing imagery kicks into full effect. He capitalizes on body horror here and the visage of his characters linger in the mind long after. While the rather expository dialogue can be a bit repetitive at times, it’s never too distracting. This is a tale you might lose some sleep over.
— Ben Morin
A baron of body horror, illustrator and author Junji Ito is to manga what director David Cronenberg is to film. His long-form stories such as Tomie, Uzumaki and Gyo are modern classics of the genre that have captivated comic book horror fans the world round. That having been said, Ito’s introduction to me and many others was by way of his short stories. Horrific tales such as “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” the Fragments of Horror anthology and the stories collected within Shiver, namely “Honored Ancestors.”
Risa suffers from a sudden and all encompassing form of memory loss. She can’t recall who she is. She is brought back home by fellow classmate Shuichi Makita. But who is Shuichi really? Is he Risa’s acquaintance from school, her boyfriend or (as he seems to insinuate) her fiancé? While alone in her room, Risa hallucinates seeing a giant, segmented, hairy caterpillar approaching her bed. While at Shuichi’s house, she succumbs to a bout of anxiety following an odd interaction with Shuichi’s terminally ill father who crab walks on all fours, foot first, outside of his room (the top of his head obscured by the bedroom door). Back home, Risa quickly determines that the source of her sudden memory loss, as well as her anxiety, all stems from something she saw at the Makita house.
Upon a return visit, at Shuichi’s frantic insistence, Risa becomes frightfully aware as to what’s causing her recent woes. The top of Mr. Makita’s head (Shuichi’s father) is attached to the cranial caps of his numerous aunts, uncles and forefathers (his titular honored ancestors) in a lengthy, hairy, caterpillar-like rope of collective consciousness that snakes throughout the house. But Mr. Makita is dying. Shuichi is the last descendant within the Makita family. He too must merge with his father and his paternal bloodline. However, before he does, he must ensure that he too sires a child. And for that, much to Risa’s dismay, he requires a wife.
As with other Ito stories showcased within Shiver, “Honored Ancestors” plays on our collective anxieties regarding death, disability and familial responsibility. As Ito himself states, he often starts with a single image, such as that of Mr. Makita and his corrugated “caterpillar” of heads. Ito will then work his stories backward from that single, gleefully horrific, image.
— Michael Compton
Of all the stories in Shiver, “Greased” is by far the most memorable for me. This is mostly because of how based in sensory reality the core of its horror is. Fun and creative as Ito’s more supernatural works can be, it’s hard to top the sheer unpleasantness of tactile disgust.
Case in point, grease and “Greased.” While the severity inherent to the premise moves beyond realistic belief, it’s only an extension of a base human disgust. Yui’s family runs a yakiniku restaurant and they live on the second floor above it, but the building’s ventilation is very poor. As a result, the grease and general oily nature of the restaurant wafts up to the top floor as well, making it impossible for Yui to escape the grimy feeling. It’s a horrendous thought: having to deal with oily substances that seep into the furniture, walls, and air so thoroughly that you can never feel clean and at rest in your own home.
Of course this is all disgusting, but not yet to the campy extreme of horror that Ito usually delivers. That comes as the story progresses. Yui’s brother Goro develops a horrendously bad case of acne from living amidst the grease, and in one of the most disgusting comic panels I’ve ever seen he squeezes his face so that several dozen rivulets of puss all drip down into his sister’s face beneath him.
The horror develops in other directions as well, some enjoyably vile and some that border on just doing too much. Yui develops the ability to detect the amount of oil in the air, which she deems the “oil index.” It’s a fun joke likening Yui’s living conditions to nuclear or radioactive fallout, and it really sells just how disgusting the house is. Some of the later developments in the story push the idea to extremes that may either still be enjoyable or just enter tonally inconsistent degrees of camp depending on your mileage.
Regardless, “Greased” is as memorable as it is disgusting. It’s not my absolute favorite Ito story (that title goes to “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” — it was made for me), but it’s up there, and it’s easily the one I’ve remembered most clearly since first reading Shiver years ago.
— Alex Cline
Fashion Model: Cursed Frame
There once was a model who only wanted to have photos taken in full-body form. She couldn’t explain why, but she felt odd about her body being cut off in a picture. Then she got a job at a modeling agency that didn’t respect her wishes and then she was murdered by this weird, tall woman model from a previous story. The end.
What a complete waste of time. Quite possibly one of the worst horror stories I’ve read, there’s nothing here. It almost has something interesting with exploring a woman having a fear of not fully being in a photo, but it’s not even remotely fully realized. This manga is painfully short so there’s barely any time to build up anything. As such, the fear just feels like a weak way to build this character’s death. There’s no irony to it or a unique curse. It just feels like the manga gives up on the second-to-last page and decides to end, having no real commentary or creepy insight into anything.
I understand fully why this story was unpublished until now. It is a whole lot of nothing, and it’s a terrible way to end a collection of such memorable stories. When you finish “Greased,” just call it there.
— Jordan Richards
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