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The last few years have been great for Junji Ito, especially for his English-language fans, as many of his lesser-known stories and anime become more readily available than ever. He’s been called Japan’s “Master of Horror”, a manga maestro who can easily slip between the grotesque and the whimsical, often at the same time. Eagle-eyed fans may have caught his brief cameo in last year’s Death Stranding game, a nice consolation prize after his anticipated collaboration to reboot Konami’s Silent Hill with Hideo Kojima (and Guillermo Del Toro) fizzled.
For many, his singular masterstroke was adapting Osamu Dazai’s final (and autobiographical?) novel “No Longer Human” into graphic novel form – which I was shocked to learn is just one of many, many adaptations of Japan’s second best-selling novel of all-time.
Among those stories getting more attention is Hellstar Remina. Originally published in 2005, this title-shortened edition of Remina (with translation by Jocelyne Allen) is equal parts H.P. Lovecraft and drama laden YA fantasy, a bizarrely disturbing yet comical satire on the shallowness of unearned fame. One wrapped inside a story about a cannibalizing monster planet. Welcome to the crazy world of Junji Ito.
We open with a bang – a young girl is being crucified by an angry mob armed – literally – with torches and pitchforks. Flash-back to simpler times: Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Professor Oguro Tsueneo has correctly predicted the existence of a wormhole, out of which a previously unknown planet emerged, possibly from another dimension. Given the new planet is exactly 16 million light years from Earth Professor Oguro decides to name it after his beloved daughter, Remina, who also happened to be 16 years-old. It’s almost like they share a birthday.
Remina (the planet) is the biggest thing to ever happen to astrophysics! The greatest mystery in human history! But it’s clear the press scrum is more interested with the Professor’s pretty teen daughter than any of the scientific mumbo-jumbo. One headline says it all: “The Planet Remina and the Girl – Twin Stars on the Rise!”
Hesitant at first, Remina (the girl) eventually succumbs and joins show business, becoming an instant sensation by doing…something. It’s never quite explained, though singing is implied. It’s not long before creepily obsessive fan clubs with equally creepy fan club presidents spring up to “protect” their idol, some of whom look way too old to be infatuated with a teenage girl. In a story where a giant planet licks and consumes other planets with slimy space tentacles, this was easily the nastiest part.
It turns out Remina (the planet) is moving, and moving fast! The giant planet is racing towards our own solar system, destroying everything in its path. Stars and planets alike are annihilated as Remina hurtles towards Earth on a collision course that can only spell doom and gloom for the poor human race. How does a species defend itself against a planet with killer tentacles?
Naturally, a crazed mob forms (is there any other kind?), suspecting that both Professor Oguro and his daughter may actually be “calling” the killer planet to Earth, and it’s not long before a crazed cult emerges from their ranks, complete with hooded members, crosses and apocryphal messaging about their false idol: Remina must die!
Despite having such an outrageously fertile setup that would have made H.P. Lovecraft jealous, Remina quickly becomes little more than a chance for Ito to indulge in more of his trademark freakish, planet-licking (!) imagery in some undated futuristic setting. While the graphic violence and body horror is especially nasty and often disgusting, we sense Ito is also having a blast with the premise, mocking Hollywood blockbusters and their too-safe outcomes and heroics.
Here’s a sci-fi horror farce with lines like “The force of Remina licking the Earth is making it spin.” Not many of Ito’s stories straddle the edges of sinful, wholesome and comedy as easily as Remina.
But there’s genuine commentary at work here, and Ito’s pen is clearly aimed at his contempt for the celebratory-creating Japanese Idol factory, a precursor to the glut of manufactured boyband, pop princesses, even the current K-POP craze we currently find ourselves in. Regardless of how popular they get, they never last because these entertainers aren’t designed to last; a limited shelf-life is baked into the formula, a fail safe against generating monster egos and keeping the “talent” under control.
The fact we never see Remina (the girl) actually doing anything to earn her idol status suggests her *ahem* meteoric rise to pop stardom may have more to do with her adjacency to the real power of the Remina planet than the Remina girl. Her character is little more than a generic, bland surrogate for the emptiness and personality-consuming cult of celebrity in which the hysterical masses mindlessly feed upon. If such a religion were ever to spring up around the Kardashians, we would truly be doomed.
Reading through some of Remina’s more outlandish parts I couldn’t help but think of poor Dr. Matt Taylor, the British astrophysicist and project lead on the landmark Rosetta mission, which managed to successfully land the Philae space probe on a moving comet 300 million miles from Earth. This momentous feat, an unparalleled achievement, had its celebration abruptly cut short when some people watching his speech online were more outraged interested in his outlandish shirt than what he was actually saying, not seeing the astronomical forest for the sartorial trees.
Commentary on religious fanaticism and entertainment ickiness aside, Remina is lesser Junji Ito, in both scope and vision, a simple story that would have been more effective in shorter form. There’s really no character development or coherent plot points that merit such length, but I imagine readers will focus more on the (admittedly great) body horror and gross interplanetary licking than Ito’s commentary on the truly grotesque “Idol” factory system of fake celebrity. That said, this is still a startling work of imagination on an artistic level, and kudos to Viz for bringing yet another little-seen gem to the English masses.