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What the manga horror legend Junji Ito does to make his work terrifying

Ito is considered one of the greats of the horror manga genre, and there is a clear reason why.

In a small Japanese town, a man named Saito develops a strange infatuation with spirals. He collects anything that had a spiral shape, his food has to be in the form of a spiral, even before getting into the bath Saito creates a spiral whirlpool. Tired of this nonsense, Mrs. Saito takes her husband’s collection, and destroys it. Furious, he nearly strikes his wife, but is stopped by his son. Several days later, Mrs. Saito and their son come home to find a strange crate in one of the rooms. Lifting off the lid, they discover a horrific sight: Saito’s corpse, stretched and contorted impossibly into the shape that took over his life.

Thus begins the horror story Uzamaki, written and illustrated by Junji Ito. Ito is a manga horror legend, his manga catalog mainly consists of short stories like the claustrophobic horror, The Enigma of Amigara Fault, but he does have longer stories too, like Gyo, the thriller turned body horror. Ito has three main things that really make him stand out: his skin crawling art style,his use of using the fear of the unknown, and his effective use of the page turner. 

Ito’s art style isn’t aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense as every single visual is made to make the reader feel uneasy. An example of this would be the woman from “The Window Next Door.” The amount of detail Ito has put into her disgusting bumpy skin, crooked nasty teeth, and the life in her eyes makes her disturbing and unsettling to look at. 

Panel from The Window Next Door
Junji ito/Simon & Schuster
Screenshot from The Window Next Door anime adaptation
Junji Ito/Crunchyroll/Studio Deen

Compare this to her anime counterpart where her skin, instead of being entirely covered with warts, has a strange marble texture and a couple of blemishes, her eyes resemble a soulless snake, and her teeth are less threatening. Anyone has the ability to make a monster scary, but Ito has such a good grasp on making visuals eerie. He is able to make a simple house cat feel uneasy. 

While miniseries like Uzumaki and Gyo gave Ito international success, his short stories are where he really shines. The best part about writing a short horror story is the length which encourages the writer to leave a lot unexplained. There is one fear that every human has, the fear of the unknown. Take any popular horror movie that involves some type of monster or demon as an example: once the audience learns more about the creature that fear of dealing with the unknown is gone. Ito only gives the reader enough information where the reader is scared but curious enough to speculate and try to find out more. In his story “The Hanging Balloons”, we don’t know where the mysterious balloons are from, or why they are hanging people. All we know is that they are inescapable. 

A page from My Dear Ancestors
Junji ito/Simon & Schuster

The one thing that puts him above almost all other horror manga writers is a technique that he perfected, called the page turn. What makes manga or any comic different from other forms like anime or prose is that a reader a reader flips a page and all the information is given more or less instantly. A great horror manga artist can take advantage of that. Ito often puts a little panel of the protagonist reacting to something at the end of the page, right before a really bad thing happens. This works something like a jump scare minus sound effects or flashes that trigger a reflex. Anime YouTuber, “The Anime Man,” describes it as “a jump scare of seeing something you expected to see, but not in the way that you imagined.” And since it’s a book, the reader has complete control over when the page turn is going to happen, unlike a cut from a movie.

Page from Uzamaki
Junji ito/Simon & Schuster

The advantage Ito has is that manga is fairly inexpensive to produce, this allows people like Ito to write stories with little risk of losing a lot of money. Uzamaki wouldn’t have gotten a movie adaption if the manga didn’t gain success. It would be too difficult to pitch most of Ito’s stories due to how out there they are. The events that happen in Uzamaki could really turn people away, from people turning into snails, to the protagonists hair turning into a strange display of spirals which grabs the attention of everyone. There were a couple of adaptations of Ito’s stories but they never really worked as it strayed away from Ito’s vision. With horror, the genre is never about cheap jump scares that only trigger our reflexes; it’s supposed to draw out our emotions, whether it’s feeling paranoid, scared, or uneasy. 

Another page from Uzamaki
Junji ito/Simon & Schuster

With his art style, using the fear of the unknown, and giving the reader a strike of sudden fear with the page turn, Ito is able to show the audience what real horror is like. 

Image Credit: Lucca Comics & Games

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