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Viz has been on a roll lately – a Junji Ito role – with its fantastic reissuing of some of the horror manga master’s lesser-known work to English-reading audiences, including last year’s translation of the planet-licking Remina. From appearing in blockbusters games like Death Stranding to new anime adaptations of his older work, more non-Japanese readers are getting to experience one of the most interesting voices in the horror genre than ever.
Up next is a collection (of sorts) compiling ten “stories” in a single volume, hence the name Lovesickness: Junji Ito Story Collection (translation by Jocelyne Allen). Those who love (or prefer) Ito’s shorter works over his longer ones will find a little of both here as the content is divided into three sections, two of which index related stories while the final three are totally unconnected from each other – and among the best.
The first, titled “Lovesickness”, is a collection within a collection, compiling all five chapters of Ito’s “Lovesick Dead” serialized manga in one package for easy reading. Not quite long enough to be considered a graphic novel, yet still longer than your average single-issue story, serialized manga is similar to a Stephen King novella vs. his full-length books, which makes including them in a collection like this easier.
A young boy, Ryusuke, and his family return to their hometown in Nazumi at a most curious time. An ancient game has come back in fashion: the Crossroads Fortune has anxious teens asking the first stranger who comes along to predict their fortune, good or bad. Most fortunes concern love, and things get messy when a mysterious “beautiful boy in black” appears out of nowhere and starts dishing out fortunes to those wishing to learn their futures.
Only his fortunes sound more like predictions (commands, really) that don’t sit well with the young girls receiving them, many committing suicide by slicing their throats open with a razor. Soon, the streets of Nazumi run red with the blood of countless love-denied teens. Meanwhile, Ryusuke struggles to fit in with his classmates – including a few infatuated girls – but there’s more to this young man than first appears; he’s not entirely unfamiliar with how dangerous the Crossroads Fortune game can be. From one gruesome scene to the next, he’ll stop at nothing to track down the mysterious “boy in black” if there’s any hope of stopping the carnage – all while exercising his own demons as well.
Coming in at five chapters, Lovesickness is the collection’s longest continuous story, and the length shows by the end as the sheer repetition of otherwise great ideas becomes exhausting. This is often the case in some of Ito’s longer work as well, though he tries to keep things interesting by injecting new characters and scenarios throughout the story’s duration. Still, by the finale the mysterious horrors that have been infecting our heroes somehow manage to creep from the shadows into open spaces, demonstrating how sometimes the only antidote to unending darkness is the light.
Many of Ito’s caricatures are simply terrifying, especially those featuring the hollowed out faces of young girls besotted with crazed, anguished love that’s transformed them into ghouls. Ito’s inky style is comparable to that of Stephen Gammell, whose gruesome artwork for the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” book series was deemed so frightening the publisher replaced them with less scary, inferior versions (a boneheaded decision that, I’m happy to say, was reversed).
While the original “Lovesick Dead” series dates back to the late 90s, the mysterious “beautiful boy in black” has become something of an icon in the manga fan art community. Called “Pretty Boy”, his striking good looks and angular features offer a striking contrast to the effects that his “fortunes” have on the unlucky girls he shares them with. Ito implies nothing is more frightening than rejection, especially when love is concerned.
That’s probably true, especially when you’re still young enough to believe that “true love” lasts forever. As a whole, Lovesickness isn’t a story that’s especially charitable to young women, or women in general, as the rejection of love itself (as it’s outlined throughout) transforms them into skeletonized, puss-dripping nightstalkers. Even still, as the story sped towards its monochromed conclusion I had to wonder: is there anything less scary than a lanky bishonen?
The Strange Hikizuri Siblings collects two shorter stories that sharply veer from straight horror and more into gothic humor, like a manga version of The Addams Family. Meet the Hikizuris; six orphaned siblings struggle to survive and protect one another in “Narumi’s Boyfriend” and “The Seance”, two stories that juxtapose Ito’s trademark macabre renders against a lighter and sometimes humorous backdrop. It’s not a combination that always works, especially seeing otherwise wacky stories illustrated so grimly.
“The Mansion of Phantom Pain” and “The Rib Woman” are, in my opinion, the collection’s most representative of what makes so many of Ito’s standalone stories among the best in the genre.
In “Mansion” a young man takes up the job helping relieve the unending pain of a young boy. It’s a live-in position, and he can be called upon at any time of day to render his services. Only the boy’s physical pain is scattered throughout his family’s large mansion, away from his body, and to relieve him of it means spraying painkillers into empty rooms and “massaging” the air itself. It’s not long before he, and his coworkers, begin to succumb to the same madness that overtook the boy’s parents.
“Rib Woman” follows a young girl so desperate for a thin waistline she undergoes plastic surgery to have her “extra ribs” removed. But when the surgeon explains she’ll have to have her psychological state tested beforehand she starts to question the whole thing. Not long after, her brother’s girlfriend starts to hear strange music playing at night – music only she can hear at first. After the three track down the mysterious sound they come across a pale woman playing a strange bone-like instrument that shouldn’t be able to emit music, but yet it does. Soon after, the girlfriend is found dead, nearly all her ribs removed from the body.
It’s pretty clear where things are headed from this point, but Ito’s ghastly, gruesome artwork transforms what could have been a light tale of obsession and vanity into a memorably morbid one.
It’s a shame the collection ends on a low note as the final “story” is really more than just an absurd recollection – a poop padding to help this collection reach the numerically pleasing 10 count. If Kafka had embraced potty humor it might have looked something like “Memories of Real Poop”, which completely forgoes any pretense of horror (or even a story) for literal potty humor. I wasn’t expecting a collection of Junji Ito stories to end on a nostalgic look back at fecal matter, but here we are.
A storyteller acclaimed for his ability to tread the fine lines between gruesome and the poetic, Lovesickness: Junji Ito Story Collection gives fans a good cross section of both with a set of stories spanning the dark to the disgusting. While not the best or most representative of Ito’s full powers, this is a fine addition to the growing number of his works that are finally available in English.