Just when you think there’s nothing left to uncover in the world of Junji Ito, Viz, once again, has a “new” collection of a dozen short stories from some of the manga master’s earlier works with Deserter, culled from material originally published in Japan between 1987 – 1997 (with updated translations by Jocelyne Allen). This would prove to be quite the decade for Ito, becoming one of Japan’s premier manga creators while helping to redefine what a modern “ghost” story could be.
Two things worth mentioning that should be of interest to both fans of Junji Ito’s career, as well as those interested in the evolution of manga itself, are that both the artwork and storytelling prowess on display throughout these tales isn’t what it would someday become. Many of these earliest inkings are murkier and less refined, especially when compared to newer releases like last year’s Sensor, where Ito’s artwork was scrubbed to digital perfection.
Also is the storytelling, which can seem scattershot compared to the tighter, more constructed narratives he would become known for. But remember these are older works, from a younger and less experienced artist still finding himself, still tinkering and refining a formula he was creating in real time. It’s fascinating to watch Ito’s trademark style begin to emerge from a sea of generic and forgettable drek.
So what about the stories themselves? Can early Ito still freak us out? Let’s take a look!
“Bio House” offers an interesting take on vampirism, courtesy of dinners of ‘repulsive fare’ that sets the stage for what’s to come with a subtle warning: if you can’t deal with this, get out now while you still can. “Face Thief” introduces high school angst, a topic Ito revisits often, though with his particular sense of the macabre and mimicry, including several cameos of other manga celebrities (can you spot them?). “Where the Sandman Lives” melds extreme body horror with an intriguing dreamworld that wouldn’t find Freddy Kreuger out of place.
“The Devil’s Logic” is a shorter, mostly forgettable piece about the dangers of suggestion while “Long Hair Attic” is notable mostly for its especially creepy ‘Ito Death Face’ (diehard fans will know it when they see it). The fantasy steeped “The Reanimator’s Sword” desperately tries to pack too much story into too little space, a problem shared with “A Father’s Love”, a tale of paternal possession where Ito is clearly still struggling to perfect the balance between his shorter and longer form stories.
“Scripted Love” includes one of the collection’s best premises, one that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hitchcock film, about how quickly our perceptions about who the protagonist can shift from scene to scene. “Unendurable Labyrinth” is a big, ambitious story that, ultimately, doesn’t know what to do with its overextended setup. “Bullied”, likewise, showcases Ito’s blossoming skills to expand an otherwise straightforward story into places most would never dare to wander, only to abruptly end things without much resolution.
The collection saves the best for last as two of the final stories, “Village of Siren” and the titular “Deserter”, showcase Junji Ito at his near-peak powers. Both offer compelling and realized tales that showcase his unmatched ability to deliver high-concept horror on both an global (Village) and smaller (Deserter) scale without missing a beat.
The title story of a Japanese soldier absconding during WW2 is a masterful showcase of how original and effective Ito’s imagination can be when paired with a more traditional ghost story, enhanced by a style so distinctive you’re repulsed yet can’t look away.
As much as I’ll praise Viz for actually getting some of Ito’s earliest works translated into English, however, not providing any reference materials, such as original publication dates or where they first appeared, does the stories a disservice. I understand these collections aren’t meant to be encyclopedias, but those of us hoping to follow the evolution of the artist from novice to icon having easier access to such information would have been wonderful.
It’s been such a pleasure to watch Junji Ito’s work become more mainstream outside of Japan, at least, as mainstream as it could ever possibly be. As such, Deserter represents a historically, if not narratively, crucial part in making his back catalog accessible to a wider audience, warts and all. Please don’t mistake any of the above criticism of the actual stories for condemnation; Ito’s evolution as a master storyteller, both artistically and framing, still manages to emerge from these earlier works, and that alone makes this essential reading for fans and archivists alike.