May Author Spotlight: Junji Ito & Affective Horror
Learn more about the maestro of horror manga, ecohorror, cosmic horror, and affective horror as they work together in the works of Junji Ito.
Image ID: Junji Ito looks into the camera with his mouth turned slightly up at the right corner. He wears small oval-shaped glasses.
Junji Ito is no stranger to the strange and unusual, or “the truly weird”– his use of blood, gore, and spine-tingling suspense place his works within the unmistakably chilling realms of ecohorror and cosmic horror, sending their readers into spirals of terror… if you catch my drift… With graphic novels which feature blood-curdling succubi as their protagonists, world-consuming planets, and various other skin-crawling, spine-chilling, toe-tingling and hand-clapping-over-your-mouth-scary characters and stories, Ito probes the unique situation of human existence and its many extremes. Here at Hardcover Hotties, we’re excited to uncover the meaning behind the grotesque, and answer questions about the merit of horror as a popular genre– maybe that extra blood splatter was really necessary after all…
Biography of a Master Horror Mangaka… Who Really Likes Cats
Ito began his official career as a horror mangaka in 1987 with the release of Tomie in the shōjo magazine Monthly Halloween, although his life-long interest in horror began in childhood. Ito, born in 1963 in Nakatsugawa, Japan, read the works of Kazuo Umezu, a popular horror mangaka with his sisters. After spending much time absorbing terrors from the minds of Umezu and other maestros of horror like Shinichi Koga, Ito began to create and populate his own manga panels, filling them with frights crafted from pencil. He continued making manga for… fun… despite its horrifying contents… and eventually left his profession as a dentist to pursue manga full-time. Following the 1987 serialization of Tomie, Ito found success with manga like Uzumaki, Remina, and more, resulting in live-action film adaptations of his manga. He has also won the Kazuo Umezu Prize for Tomie, providing him a full-circle solidification of his status as a master of horror, as well as three Eisner Awards for his 2019 adaptation of Frankenstein, and 2021’s Remina and Venus in the Blind Spot. While you may be imagining a character who appears capable of producing frights and sights as nasty as Ito’s, he’s actually a kind soul who likes to hang out with his cats, Tenmaru and Tonichi.
Ecohorror & Cosmic Horror
Ito’s particular brand of horror finds success in its engagement with ecohorror and cosmic horror. These genres, when combined, provide narrative and visual platforms through which Ito can explore the extremes mentioned above.
Like the name suggests, ecohorror combines multiple genres of horror within various settings and genres related to the ecological. When defined by Christy Tidwell in Fear and Horror: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene, ecohorror “acknowledges the ways in which environmental concerns are not isolated from concerns such as health and disability or from existential crises,” and is exemplified in Uzumaki’s twisting and turning plot involving the slow, but inevitable encroachment of a person-possessing concession of spirals. The enactment of bodily possession in Uzumaki worms its way into the realm of ecohorror through the spiral possession’s integral relationship to nature and its all-consuming power, and its ability to transform its victims between categories of human and non-human. While it may be one of Ito’s most well-known series, he utilizes ecohorror throughout his body of work, often in combination with cosmic horror.
Cosmic horror relates to the existential concerns often raised by ecohorror, a relationship Ito is well aware of. Jason Colavito’s explanation of cosmic horror finds its fear factor in “the individual’s fear of losing himself in the face of larger forces beyond his control.” Cosmic horror “shatters the individual’s understanding of the way the world works,” a violent shattering accomplished by Ito across the plots and themes of his stories. By forcing his characters within scenarios which test their understanding of the universe, leaving them equally bewildered and terror-struck, and left to their own devices to survive the horrors before them. By challenging their perceptions of the universe, Ito challenges his readers to do the same….
Cosmic horror is widely associated with HP Lovecraft, who is often considered the fore-father of cosmic horror when viewing the genre within a Western lens. Ito has cited Lovecraftian horror as an inspiration, who himself differentiates “the literature of cosmic fear” from the literature of “physical fear and the mundanely gruesome.” Lovecraft’s delineation recognizes the types of fear which arise from each type of literature, marking their differences through the realm of the mind/body of the reader they most deeply affect. Ito isn’t afraid to double down on the frights, however, and often serves up existentially terrifying tales within gory manga panels which seem to almost… splatter off the page.
In Gyo, Ito incorporates themes of ecohorror through cosmic horror. The epidemic nature of the creatures’ arrival to land is overwhelming… The all-consuming smell both signals the arrival of nightmarish sea creatures, and relates to the conditions of cosmic horror which Ito utilizes to explore his characters’ reactions in the face of a seemingly inescapable phenomenon, with no cause to be found, yet devastating effects to be felt. Ito’s particular brand of horror is so successful in inciting dread across audiences due to his combination of body- and mind-based genres of horror… Ito leaves his readers with nowhere left to hide.
No matter your experience with horror in the media, I can almost guarantee we’re all familiar with that feeling that curls up the back of your spine or sits in the pit of your stomach as you turn out the light, and run up the stairs in the hopes that no, nothing is following you! That murky, dreadful reaction is categorized as an “affect,” and is the key factor to Ito’s horrific success.
Affect is differentiated from emotion by leading affect theorist, Brian Massumi as such: “Emotion is a recognized affect, a unidentified intensity [whereas] affect is primordially an unrecognized recognition.” Affect is involuntary, it’s that indescribable feeling in the pit of your stomach. And as indicated here, the term affect captures those feelings that Massumi states, “always come before a cognitive thought.” Ito capitalizes on the precognitive nature of affective recognition through his use of cosmic horror narratively AND within stomach-turning, gory visuals which together result in the feeling of fear. These visuals allow for a two-way sensory relationship to arise between the viewer’s corporeal body and the events presented as “actual.” Horror by inducing affective response, which arises when the viewer/reader/scaredy cat relates their corporeality to that which is most likely being mangled, torn apart, and altogether, victimized in the narrative.
Through this reactive relationship, horror has the power to appeal to a wide array of audiences. Shewta Khilnani examines this phenomenon particularly through Ito’s Tomie, “study[ing] the body as a site and source of horror and the processes through which a strong affective sensation of dread is evoked in a global audience.” Khilnani specifically focuses on the manga format, explaining how Ito’s use of the panel shapes and transitions between pages adds to the reader’s fearful experience. The affective relationship which results in the feeling of fear is created through the viscerality of the reading experience. Through depictions and descriptions of the body in Ito’s works, “viscerality functions in a transnational context,” affecting readers in ways which transcend geographical and cultural boundaries according to Khilnani.
So, while that last blood splatter might actually be gratuitous, the grotesque provides an arena in which relatability can be established and utilized as a narrative tool. While this relatability is often in violent scenarios in horror, for Ito,
“Horror tends to stimulate an interest in the extremes of existence, like curiosity, fear, and the grotesque… When it incorporates something fantastical like supernatural phenomena, it allows for the expression of really unique ideas.”