By Junji Ito
Some people think that comics can do anything.
But I’m sorry to say that this isn’t true.
To be fair there are an awful lot of things you can do with words and pictures. And certainty there are certain effects and ways of telling a story that simply cannot be reproduced in any other medium. One good obvious example of this is the Sin City movie. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings of it as something enjoyable or not – I do think it’s pretty useful as a way to show what happens when you take a comic book and translate it to the screen as faithfully as you possibly can. There are things that you gain. And things that you lose. And neither is exactly the same as the other.
Of course the one big obvious difference is movement. And no matter how hard comics may try to simulate or mimic it (in all sorts of interesting ways to be fair) there’s no getting around the fact that comics are stuck with the fact that they’re made up of static images on the page. Which means that when it comes to things like motion and various forms of speed – comics are at a major disadvantage.
Which brings us to horror.
As far as I can see there are three main ways that horror mostly works.
The first is to do with movement. Which is the one that films do so well. Jump cuts. Things jumping out at you. Or slowly crawling across the floor. Sometimes even the way that something walks can be horrifying (don’t believe me? Well ok. Don’t say I didn’t warn you). Zombies can move fast or zombies can move slow but either way there’s something about the way that they move which makes the hair on the back of your head stand up. And there’s something about a moving image that is inherently more spooky and creepy than something still. Mostly I think this is because moment implies some sort of life. If something is dead and can’t move then there’s nothing to fear. It’s inert so there’s nothing to worry about. It’s only when something that’s not supposed to move starts displaying signs of life that the panic inside our heads starts to kick off.
(In fact I once read a Japanese horror comic online that was 95% still images and then at the very end when the monster appeared or whatever suddenly switched to animation and it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever read – which is basically my whole point).
The second way that horror works is through telling you things that you can’t see. This is where books come in. Particularly stuff like Lovecraft where it describes things that you have to imagine inside your head. Ask anyone who’s ever read a really scary book and they’ll tell you – it’s the fact that you can’t see the thing for real but just have to picture it yourself is the thing that really ends up making it very spooky and scary.
The third way is to do with sound. This is the hardest one to put into words but I’m sure you get it. There are some sounds which are just kind of spooky and weird. Things that sound like monsters from beyond. Foreboding soundtracks. Messed up glitches or whatever. And yeah ok – maybe horror music isn’t really as notable as horror films and horror books – but it’s definitely true that spooky sounds are a thing. Even if mostly the end up having to team up with moving images to get the full effect.
Of course the obvious question is – well: where does all this leave comic books? They don’t have movement. But because they’re a visual medium they can’t just leave things to your imagination. And unless your comic comes with a free CD attached or whatever – they don’t have the audio component either (and hell even if they did have a track you could listen to at the same time as you read it – there wouldn’t be any way to properly sync it up to how you read it either. So you know – oh well).
I think this goes some way to explain why there aren’t really that many horror comics (at least in western culture). Or actually – even worse – why there aren’t that many horror comics that are actually – you know – scary.
And this is because unlike say horror movies which can be knocked out pretty cheaply and easily and without that much thought to make a successful horror comic requires a lot more finesse and skill. Or to put it another way – a horror movie can lunge around in all directions and feel pretty confident that it’s going to hit something scary but a horror comic book is more like a surgeon trying to pull off a precise operation – whilst walking on a tightrope.
Which finally brings us round to Uzumaki by Junji Ito which is probably one of the scariest and most disturbing comic books I’ve ever been lucky enough to read.
Trying to explain how it does it might take some time tho…
I think the first and the third ways you mention there Joel can be described in one concept – the strange or uncanny. Experiences that are either utterly strange or something familiar but seen differently.
The odd body movements you describe are things we don’t associate with bodies. Zombies are close enough to be recognisable as human, but their corpse-like appearance and inhuman movements create that uncanny valley. Body horror can also be thought of this way – perversions of flesh.
One film that, for me, grows more chilling with each watch is The Shining. The combination of the big house – wide open but enclosed spaces filmed with a wide angle lens and the atonal music reinforces the bizarre, hostile family dynamic at the film’s centre. You have a house, supposedly the bedrock of safety that is threatening and a family that are just off. The almost sarcastic, funhouse elevators of blood and skeleton parties although the images we might remember, it’s the unfamiliar in close proximity to the familiar that is more terrifying.
The Old is also a variation on this – parodied by South Park quite well with the spooky blockbuster store that Randy Marsh buys.
On the subject of King, I was just reading a collection of short stories by him, one of which – Finger – is aptly junji ito-esque, about a finger that emerges from a plughole and torments a man obsessed with the TV show Jeopardy. Eventually the thought of the finger drives the man to madness and the finger emerges as a strange ito-esque body horror seven foot finger replete with knuckles after knuckles.
Ito taps into the Uncanny in his stories – people acting strangely, driven by obsessions – the spiral – and becoming literally twisted by them. His art is both visceral and beautiful in a kind of Edward Gorey meets The Thing way. All chiaroscuro with bulging eyes and tentacles. His splash pages are like jump scares – but, wheras in a lesser artist these would be funny, the sheer bizareness of them stops them descending into camp silliness.
Uzumaki is possibly his most Lovecraftian tale? Do we get an explanation for why the spirals exist? It’s been a few years since I’ve read it. The idea of a town coming under siege from a force from outside reminds me of the Colour Out of Space. There seems to be a otherwordly element of the unknownable. Horrors beyond our ken. That kind of thing.
What do you think of the towns people being seemingly unaware of the horrors around them? Or the sense of people being trapped in the town?
Thanks Jeremy. And I think you’ve helped put the (dare I say?) finger on what makes Ito’s comics work so well.
I feel like there are two main approaches to horror (uh oh here I go again): the first approach mostly involves putting things in the shadows and not letting us get a good look at the scary thing in question. Call it Shadow Horror. I feel like this is obviously the route that most people take and the one that seems to be the most sensible. In fact it seems almost more artistic right? You leave the scary stuff to the audience’s imagination. You just kind of act suggestive and gesture towards stuff but you never actually show too much. I mean that’s the lesson the whole world learnt with Jaws right? And hell yeah The Blair Witch Project is – for my money – one of the scariest films of all time precisely because it never shows you the witch. Instead everything is always lurking off screen. There’s nothing more powerful than the demons you conjure up yourself right?
Except there’s also the second approach (which for some unknown reason seems to be more of an eastern thing than a western thing?) where the approach is – actually I can show you something that is so messed up that it’s going to really fuck you up. This is Sunshine Horror. Like the one big example that springs to mind is the climax of the very first Ring film when (spoilers) Sadako climbs out of the fucking TV and slowly crawls towards what-his-face (I mean even thinking about it is enough to give me a heart attack all over again). But yeah there’s something undeniably cool and incredibly confident about an approach to messing you up by simply showing you the messed up thing in its glory and not trying to hide it under the cover of darkness.
Jeremy mentioned The Shining – and it’s a rare (good) example of this type of approach in western media. Famously of course all the scares of The Shining take place in full illumination under bright lights. It resists all of the typical horror movie cliches and instead creates something that’s a lot more… how to say this? …cold? In that – it doesn’t really scare you in the same way as other horror movies do.
In fact if I had to make a distinction between Shadow Horror and Sunshine Horror it would be this – Shadow Horror is (in a sense) more emotional and more instinctual. It kinda works on the animal part of your brain. There’s a monster and you want to get away from it. While Sunshine is more (dare I say it?) intellectual. In that it’s not really so much the thing you’re seeing which is scary – but more the ideas that it represents. Turning a corner and seeing two twins standing next to each other isn’t really all that terrifying if you think about it (“oh no! Two little girls!”) except given the narrative in which they’re contained and knowing that the family is supposed to be all alone in the Overlook – it’s one of the worst things you’ve ever seen.
And yeah Uzumaki is chock full of this kind of stuff. There’s no need to hide things or play coy. Instead the terror comes from the things that you’re seeing and the way it twists your brain into strange messed up shapes. Mostly of the type of – “oh my god it would be so awful to be that person.”
The question in my head tho is – does this mean that Junji Ito is an edgelord?
I have to say I found ‘Uzumaki’ hilarious when I read it and funnier and funnier as the situation got worse for the characters. But I suppose that with a certain genre of horror films and characters like your Freddy Krueghers or your Cryptkeepers there is a certain level of humour and camp intertwined with horror. When it works it makes the terror more terrifying, when it doesn’t you’ve got the new Pennywise dancing to the Benny Hill theme. Most of the Shining memes are based around the ‘funny’ parts of the film. And it does all mean that when the horror doesn’t strike you as horrific, certainly some of my buttons are ones that might pop up in a PG film, it just seems laughable. And I don’t find spirals scary. There were even a few times when I felt that Junji Ito was struggling or reaching to keep everything tied into the spiral theme. It picks up as it heads towards the climax and we start to run out of things to change, but it never makes me afraid.
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