Smashed is the latest collection of translated stories Junji Ito from Viz Media and that's always an event especially if you love horror. Ito is arguably the best writer and artist of horror comics in the world.
Ito is not the only Japanese mangaka who specializes in horror stories, but he's probably the best. He's probably the reigning king of horror manga, and certainly the only one famous in the West, thanks to his 90s manga series Uzumaki, which was made into a live action movie, and Gyo, all published by Viz.
Smashed consists of thirteen stories, some longer than others with titles like "Bloodsucking Darkness", "Death Row Doorbell" and "I Don't Want to be a Ghost", which show Ito is not messing around. A high school girl who wants to lose weight wakes up every morning with tiny bite marks all over her body and finds herself losing weight and blood… An unfunny comedy act by two creepy women causes their audiences to die laughing… A pair of hikers discover a town plagued by a phantom flood with endless victims… A mysterious syndrome locks heartbroken people into poses that turns them into living statues… and these are the least gross and creepy of the stories. They get even more clammy and claustrophobic as the collection goes along.
The characters in Ito's stories are punished for the smallest infraction, being curious, stepping out of normal bounds out of curiosity and paying a horrible price. They are usually ordinary people who have stepped into the Twilight Zone and can't escape. Body Horror is a recurring theme and imagery in the stories: people are mutilated, warped, distorted and changed. Ito's people recoil in terror, their eyes wide in disbelief, mouths agape at the rational world falling away from them to reveal a yawning existential chasm of horror that's the true face of the world they live in. They encounter people who act increasingly irrational and escalate into outright Lovecraftian madness. Fear of sexuality is also prevalent when men and women's desires for the main character becomes something beyond merely menacing. Bodies bleed, fluids ooze out of opening, unhealing wounds. Depression, despair, mental illness are recurring emotions in the stories.
It's weird to review Junji Ito horror stories. To just describe one is to spoil it since its entire premise is its reason for being. These are short, sharp bursts of shock and horror like a good episode of Twilight Zone, only there are no morals to be learned, only a Lovecraftian attitude of being at the mercy of a cruel universe that's out to get you when you show the least hint of vulnerability. Ito's universe is not indifferent to you. It actively wants to mess with you and mutilate you. It laughs at your cries of pain and pleas for mercy. It can reach out at you randomly, or Nature notices what your fears and anxieties are and exploits them specifically to come at you. This indicates that Ito's universe isn't godless. There is a god and this god is a sadistic psychopath. Sometimes I feel like Ito is either as freaked out as his protagonists, thinking of the most terrifying images and ideas to challenge himself, or just coming up with the most shocking thing he can to shock and horrify the reader. It's that conviction that makes his stories work.
The title story in this collection was adapted into anime in the anthology series Junji Ito Collection, which was broadcast on Japanese TV last year and simulcast on streaming services like Crunchyroll. Unfortunately, they were awful because the animation studio wasn't up to snuff – they didn't seem to have the time or budget or resources. Much of the work seemed to be outsourced to a cheap studio overseas and the art and animation were horribly inconsistent. The faces were often askew, the animation was stiff, the anatomy and perspective were a mess and it was possibly the worst, most amateurish anime series of 2018.
But I don't think Ito's stories really work as anime or live action. Their purity lies in the author's intentions etched in his art, the linework, the faces, the cross-hatching and shading that he uses to create an atmosphere in his stories. The artist's personality is imbued in his artwork, and anime usually consists of other artists copying that art, so a certain purity is lost.
Viz have published Smashed in a lavish hardcover with high quality paper because they rightly believe Ito is a creator whose works are to be treasured, and this book is one that should live long on your bookshelf to be rediscovered or introduced to new readers… like a timebomb patiently waiting to explode inside your brain and change the way you look at reality.