More than any other genre of fiction, horror is where a single creator can thrive and build up a devoted fan base for themselves. Stephen King. Anne Rice. Clive Barker. This is also uniquely possible in manga, where creators can develop enough of a devoted following to keep them in magazines and book sales for life.
The ur-example of how manga and horror can allow a singular creator to flourish is Junji Ito. Ito’s newest collection for Western audiences lends his unique approach to horror to an adaptation of one of the oldest and most influential horror stories in Western literature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Ito, at only 55, has built up a dedicated fan base on both sides of the Pacific, seen his work adapted for anime and long-running movie franchises, and racked up a slew of award nominations and wins. What makes him unique, though, is that he’s done this by sticking to a format largely relegated to the minor leagues in most media: the short form story.
He has published several series, like the Eisner-nominated Uzumaki (about a town plagued by a curse involving spirals) and Gyo (where an aborted WWII Japanese military experiment leads to legged fish swarming the earth). But the bulk of Ito’s output are short, punchy narratives that oscillate between the Twilight Zone-esque (like “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post,” about a man who dies literally holding up his new house) and disturbing body horror yarns with hyper-realistic detail (like “Greased,” which involves a teenage boy drinking cooking oil and squeezing a face full of zits onto his sibling). Within these tales, Ito is able to conjure up gross, unsettling images that linger long after they’re read.
“Ito often likes to base his short stories around one “money shot” image,” says Jacob Chapman, associate editor of Anime News Network, “like a girl whose head becomes the shell of a snail (with the slug coming out of her mouth) [Uzumaki], or a canyon full of people-shaped holes that characters are compelled to dig into like sand fleas [the much-meme’d “The Enigma of Amigara Fault”]. Even if you don’t remember the rest of what happens in those stories, the core image will stick with you, and I think that’s an indispensable quality to have as a visual artist.”
Into Ito’s canon comes a new collection: Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection, released stateside by Viz Media, contains ten of Ito’s trademark short stories. And alongside those tales are one main feature: a 184-page adaptation of the lodestone of Gothic horror that invented science fiction, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
A monstrous anniversary
Released by Viz on October 16th to capitalize on the 200th anniversary of the original novel’s publication in 2018, Ito’s “Frankenstein” was created to promote another adaptation by someone whose sensibilities couldn’t be more different from his own: Kenneth Branagh. Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starred Robert de Niro as the monster and Branagh as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and was released in 1994.
“In 1994,” Ito told Polygon by email, “Asahi Sonorama (now known as Asahi Shimbun Publishing) commissioned a manga version from me to match the release […] of the […] Kenneth Branagh film. That’s when I read the original novel.”
When asked if he felt constrained by having to adapt someone else’s work, Ito is quick to dispel any such notions. “The original is a classic, so I didn’t particularly feel constrained. In fact, I actually wanted to be as faithful as possible to the original. Unlike the Frankenstein movies that had been released up until that point, the original novel is a piece of literature that poses deep philosophical questions, so I wanted my adaptation to reflect that aspect.”
“There’s one part,” he concedes, “that I changed quite a bit — the scene where the monster’s companion was created. In the original, the monster asks Dr. Frankenstein to make him a companion, but in the end, his companion was never finished. I wondered why he didn’t use the perfect material — the head of his female servant who was executed by the guillotine — so in the manga, I had him use her head to create the companion. At that point in time, I hadn’t yet seen the Kenneth Branagh movie, but he also used the servant in order to create the monster’s companion. It’s interesting how, as creators, we both independently went for the same thing.”
While Branagh’s film was content to simply bury de Niro’s recognizable visage under fake stitching and scarring, Ito ultimately went with a combination of Boris Karloff’s iconic look — Shelley’s description of the monster as having “yellow skin [that] scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair [...] a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips” — and his own interpretation, a cross between a mummy and a rotting corpse.
It’s that same mix and matching of Ito and Shelley that made its way over into Viz’s publication. Nick Mamatas, who adapted Jocelyne Allen’s translation of Ito’s “Frankenstein” (Allen also translated and adapted the other stories in Frankenstein) for the reprinted edition, described his process like this:
“I combined Shelley’s 1831 edition, a Japanese translation of which Ito adapted, with Ito’s own work [...] It made more sense to reintroduce the original English than depend on the English work being translated into Japanese, adapted into a manga, translated back into English, and then edited. I reintroduced a lot of the 19th century prose, and of course edited Shelley’s and Ito’s sentences to fit into the balloons. Ito himself makes some changes to the plot, so I couldn’t always depend on Shelley’s text.”
The blending is what makes the story stand out, not only as a “Frankenstein” adaptation, but among Ito’s own oeuvre. His artwork here is very restrained and formal, even shojo-esque when it comes to the way he draws the faces of Victor Frankenstein and his doomed best friend, Henry. That’s all by design, of course, meant to contrast all the more with the grotesquerie of the monster.
Something for everyone’s nightmares
This new collection also offers, for lack of a better word, more typical Ito stories, beginning with six, slightly connected stories about Oshikiri, a teenage boy who lives in a house full of ghosts with walls that span dimensions. Ito described Oshikiri’s creation as him “wanting to bring out the atmosphere of Western gothic horror, so I decided to make him a lonely little boy who lives by himself in a Western-style mansion [...] I wanted to draw something like the little boy in The Omen, and I used him when I came up with ideas for stories that would feature a lonely protagonist.”
When asked if he was also inspired by Shigeru Mizuki’s legendary boy-raised-in-a-graveyard manga GeGeGe no Kitaro, Ito demurs, “Not intentionally, but I’ve loved the character of Kitaro since I was a child, so it’s possible I was unconsciously influenced.”
Other short stories included in Frankenstein are horrifying in a different way. “Face Firmly In Place,” about a woman abandoned at a dentist’s office (possibly inspired by Ito’s previous career as a dental hygienist), is merely terrifyingly relatable, and two stories about Ito’s old dog, Non-non, echo the same “cute but creepy” tone in Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon and Mu (diary comics about him, his wife and their two cats, released Stateside by Kodansha Comics). When asked if he finds doing stories like the latter a refreshing change of pace, Ito responds “Absolutely...It’s a great change of pace from the constant writer’s block that you have to overcome as a creator. They also serve as diaries for me, so it’s a lot of fun to go back and reread them later.”
For his part, Ito seems to be chuffed by the way his work has been received and adapted. When informed that Steven Universe homaged “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” he sounds astonished.
“I’m really surprised and honored,” he says, “that my work is read by people outside of Japan, especially that they would want to pay tribute to it. I’d love to watch it.”
And when Polygon asked about The Junji Ito Collection, an anthology anime adapting several of his shorts that aired earlier this year (and is streaming on Crunchyroll and FunimationNow), his response was surprising.
“I think several episodes are actually better the original manga versions. I really appreciate how faithful they were to my original stories.”
In the meantime, with Frankenstein now available in stores and online, manga readers have the chance to see for themselves why Ito has survived and thrived in the competitive world of manga for so long.
Tom Speelman is a freelance writer and editor who’s worked for several websites and on dozens of books, including adapting Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka by Makoto Fukami and Seigo Tokoya for Seven Seas Entertainment, which will air as an anime in January from Liden Films. He lives in the Chicago area and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, yelling about cartoons.