In 1987, Junji Ito submitted a story to a contest run by the manga magazine Gekkan Halloween. The panel of judges, which included horror manga creator Kazuo Umezu, gave it an honorable mention.
The ongoing series that grew out of that story, Tomie, ran in the magazine for 13 years, launching Ito’s career as a manga-ka.
Since then, he has provided bone-deep chills and viscersal thrills to a generation of readers in the U.S. and Japan with short stories (collected in the books Fragments of Horror, Shiver, and Smashed) and longer-form works Gyo, Uzumaki, Dissolving Classroom, and the unexpectedly endearing Junji Ito’s Cat Diary. Last fall Viz, which publishes most of his works in the U.S., brought out his adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a surprisingly stark and powerful vision of that legendary novel.
Ito was a guest at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in May, and we had the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on horror manga and the people who read it.
I know you grew up reading horror manga. Did you draw manga as a child? What was the first manga that you ever made?
I have two older sisters, and because of their influence I started reading Kazuo Umezu sensei. I guess I would have been in preschool at that time, like maybe 4 or 5 years old. Reading that made me want to write my own manga, but it wasn’t till I started elementary school that I started writing myself. I wanted to write scary manga, so I was writing scary manga.
As to the story, I wrote this story about a monster that had an eye in the middle of a hand, and it attacked the protagonist of the story. I figure this is probably the influence of Shigeru Mizuki, because at the time there was the TV show Kappa no Sanpei that as based on Mizuki’s work. I think I copied that and drew this manga.
How has your view of horror changed over the years? Are there things you used to think were scary that you wouldn’t use in a story now? Are there things you think are scary now that wouldn’t have been 30 years ago?
Basically I think my perspective of horror, my view of horror hasn’t really changed at all. As always, ever since I started writing, I have struggled for story ideas and I am always working to try and look at the world and turn it into something, and some of those things don’t fit the idea of “horror,” but really, I will use anything I can. As for things that didn’t used to scare me, but scare me now, I can’t say there are really that many things.
But as for things I used to be afraid of that I’m not so much now, I guess that would be other people’s eyes—their gazes. I used to be quite scared of that, and so when I would be walking down the road and people would look at me, I couldn’t meet their eyes. It was just a scary experience. I think I don’t have that so much now. And I think in horror the eyes are really important. How you draw them can totally change how scary a story is. I think the scariest part of the body is probably people’s eyes.
Why do you think people like to read horror stories? What do you like about writing them?
I think a lot about why people want to read horror or look at horror and what is the value of seeing something scary, why do we want to write something scary? I do think about that, and my thinking is that life is kind of uncertain. The future is uncertain; we don’t know what is going to happen. Maybe something bad is waiting for us, like, we don’t know, and there’s that uncertainty and that anxiety that comes from that. So if we see something scary, if we look at these scary things, then maybe we can prepare mentally for that. Maybe it’s some kind of readying our minds for possible future terrors. That’s the theory I have, and I think that’s the value in horror and seeing something scary. It’s just my personal thinking on that, though.
When I was little, all the horror was stuff like ghosts and monsters and creatures like Frankenstein, Dracula and things like that. I had a lot of contact with things like that, and I still really like that stuff. I think that basic horror stuff is really to my liking. I like it.
I have read you get your inspirations from everyday life, so I wonder, are you always thinking about how things could go crazy? Like when you’re eating breakfast, do you imagine the eggs and toast getting up and walking off the plate and strangling the neighbors? Is this always in your mind?
In the past, I was always thinking about that sort of thing, always seeing the world going crazy, but lately, in recent years, I have a wife, I have these kids, and so I have stopped thinking about it that much. Maybe I have gotten a bit lazy about it, but I don’t think about that kind of stuff in daily life too much any more.
Maybe I should apologize for this impulse, but I am always thinking of horror as something that can’t happen in the realm of daily life, like what’s going beyond that boundary, reaching outside of that to find the horror, so I’m looking for those things.