Junji Itos horror stories are inspired by Japans traditional legends and bring to the surface those primal fears hidden in our collective unconscious.
If there’s a country with stories not for the faint of heart, that’s Japan. Since ancient times, not only have they fed their collective imagination with creepy and gruesome stories about hybrid monsters and revengeful yokai or ghosts, but they also know how to tell those stories to give you some good, sleepless nights. One of those traditions that shaped the way horror stories are told nowadays is the terrifying game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. If you’re brave (or foolish) enough to try it, here is how it goes.
This ancient game, often used to test a samurai’s courage, requires three rooms, one of which will be filled with 100 lit candles and a mirror. All participants will be in the first room, and the second one, located exactly between the first and third room, will be left empty. Once the night reaches its darkest moment, each participant tells a horror story or a personal encounter with ghosts. After finishing the story, the narrator goes to the candle room and blows out one of them, then looks at their reflection in the mirror. Then, the next participant tells a new story and so on, until they reach the hundredth tale, when the last to tell a story has to blow the last remaining candle in the room, knowing that they’ll be left surrounded by darkness. It was believed that by that point of the game the participants had already created the perfect space for spirits and demons to manifest, so the people who were afraid would stop the game before reaching the last story.
This tradition of single horror stories told in compilations prevailed in Japanese storytelling, inspiring authors to write macabre stories that fill modern audiences with horrific nightmares. That is the legacy of these gut-wrenching and scary stories by one of Japan’s masters of horror storytelling: Junji Ito. This author and manga artist is famous for the way he exploits horror, fusing his country’s traditions with primal anxieties and other revolting situations taken to the extreme, to the point that they fill us with fear.
Ito has mentioned several horror authors as his main source of inspiration, including manga artist Hideshi Hino and American writer H.P. Lovecraft. Ito adapts these major influences into Japanese legends about the supernatural and the monstrous, creating compelling stories that will come back to your head the moment you go to sleep (because the brain is such a troll in that aspect). The main reason why these stories remain with you is not just the uncanny narrative itself, but also the stomach-churning and shocking quality of the images.
While Ito’s art possesses the black and white traditional style of manga, he proves that you don’t need color to create unnervingly realistic images where the human body is corrupted, mutilated, distorted, or pushed to extreme situations that would only be conceived in the most hellish universes ever. His monsters are creatures of flesh and blood –perhaps too corporeal and earthly–, twisted minds that rejoice in others’ suffering and torments for no reason at all, or unknown and irrational forces of the universe, too incomprehensible and arcane to be defeated by the unfortunate mortals that happen to cross their paths.
The dreadful images Junji Ito creates are closely related to fears attached to the human body, fluids, and nature. In fact, one of his most famous manga volumes, Uzumaki, revolves around that. It tells the story of a city where people are cursed by a supernatural force related to spirals. Once the curse reaches them, they start getting paranoid about spirals and manifesting unsettling deformations similar to these shapes. The story is almost too simple when described like that. However, that simplicity, combined with Ito’s disturbing illustrations, is what makes you realize why the town’s inhabitants feel terrified just by looking at those spirals. It’s almost as if you could look at the bottom of a hungry black hole and find a void of nothingness calling you. Perhaps these images tap directly into the primal and unconscious source of humanity’s greatest fears.
This is just an example of Junji Ito’s vast work. In the tradition of the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, he has also created compilations of short stories that exploit that briefness to create effective scares and the best nightmare fuel not even the scariest horror films could provide. A girl with a slug in her mouth, a strange disease that turns children into dolls, getting stuck in a dentist’s machine, a woman able to take off her skin in a twisted ideal of beauty, strange human-shaped holes in a mountain calling people to enter and never be seen again, these are just a few of Junji Ito’s scariest stories. Believe me, I’m leaving out many others, so that you can dive into the macabre world of this artist by yourself. Perhaps you could create a new sort of test of bravery with these stories and a dark room lit with a hundred candles, waiting to be blown out.
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