Junji Ito has achieved a level of crossover success in the English market that few other mangaka have. The result is that we’re no longer limited primarily to his most well-known or recent works, and efforts are being made to translate even his earliest stories. Enter Deserter: Junji Ito Story Collection. The manga collected within are strikingly different from most of his modern work, particularly where aesthetics are concerned. Does Deserter stand on novelty alone or is the collection strong in its own right?
So what’s it about?
Here’s a plot summary courtesy of Viz Media:
A vengeful family hides an army deserter for eight years after the end of World War II, cocooning him in a false reality where the war never ended. A pair of girls look alike, but they’re not twins. And a boy’s nightmare threatens to spill out into the real world…
This hauntingly strange story collection showcases a dozen of Junji Ito’s earliest works from when he burst onto the horror scene, sowing fresh seeds of terror.
How does this compare to Ito’s later work?
The first aspect of these stories that stands out is their visuals. I don’t want to overstate it, but the difference between this art and what Ito typically delivers now is like night and day. His style has largely cemented itself over time, so it’s interesting to see what a much earlier version of his aesthetic looked like. I wouldn’t even necessarily say it’s a rougher version, as there are many attributes here I greatly appreciate. The characters, especially the women, have a greater variety of facial structures and features. The inking is also significantly heavier, making the overall aesthetic much darker and more down-to-earth instead of poppy. While some technical details certainly aren’t all that polished, the overall tone is great and elevates the horror throughout.
While the art is distinct from Ito’s other work, the concepts presented are familiar. This is true from the get-go with “Bio-House,” a gross-out story about people who specifically enjoy dining on the grotesque: human blood, live insects with parasites, etc. “Face Thief” brings to mind the horror of the face as it relates to young girls’ social standings, ala Tomie (the first installments of which were also published early in Ito’s career). “The Devil’s Logic” links death and music as other later stories do, while “A Father’s Love” displays Ito’s frequent theme of generational familial abuse. Longtime Ito fans are likely to notice familiar concepts that he has continued to explore across the decades.
The horror of humanity
Reading a favorite creator’s early works can often be a recipe for disappointment. While certain aesthetic and thematic preoccupations may remain immediately evident, there’s often a lack of polish and uniqueness that hinders the overall quality. That’s not the case here at all. Many of these stories are among the best Ito has ever had translated into English, and only one is a total dud. Said flop is “The Reanimator’s Sword,” which fails to effectively draw the horror potential out from its fantastical premise.
The titular story, “Deserter,” stands among the collection’s best because of how rooted its horror is in human experience and rage. A family conceals a draft dodger from the military police, but doesn’t let him know when the war ends. Instead he is trapped not only within the physical confines of a storeroom but within the mental confines of a world that doesn’t reflect reality. The revelations regarding how this situation came to pass and what motivates each character to act as they do are well-paced and affecting, though your mileage may vary on if the ending is satisfactory or not.
My absolute favorite story in the collection is “Bullied,” which centers similar themes of deceit and abuse. Unlike “Deserter,” however, it doesn’t have a farfetched premise. The social motivations behind the abuse and the specific ways in which it’s orchestrated all ring true, inducing the most potent feelings of disgust of any story included. It’s the sort of story that reminds one of the limits of horror as a genre— or rather, the lack of limits. Between “Bullied,” “Deserter,” and other similarly grounded stories Ito shows an exceptional understanding of how to emphasize the terror in everyday life and people’s needs for community.
The final verdict
All in all, this is an excellent collection. Fans of Ito’s work will note how his artistic and thematic sensibilities have evolved yet remained similar over the decades. While there are some supernatural elements here, the most notable stories in Deserter are all ones which could occur in real life, even if implausibly. The strong rooting of disgust in feelings of social rejection and acceptance makes the horror potent, and the nicely inked visuals add to the grim tone. This book is not one to be missed.
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