fragments_of-Horror-itoIs horror mangaka Junji Ito a real life Dorian Grey? He’s 52 years old, but looks younger than me. It’s as though the digits of his age imbibed cheap sake and switched position on a drunken dare.

Why doesn’t he age? Clearly, black magic is afoot. I don’t know the specifics of his deal with the devil, but I’m they involved eternal youth, in exchange for nobody ever being able to translate him to English.

The evidence is overwhelming: the landscape is littered with failed attempts to get this man in English. In 2001, ComicsOne licensed his 16-volume Horror Collection series, released the first three in English, and then vanished from the face of the earth. In 2006, Dark Horse licensed his 12 volume Museum of Terror collection, again released three, and then cancelled the series for reasons unknown. In 2011, an online manga website called Jmanga opened with Ito’s Voices in the Dark as one of its launch titles…and folded, less than two years later. Most recently, Ito was conscripted to work on Silent Hills, and then the project was given a brutal gangland-style execution by Konami. The Junji Ito Curse is not to be mocked.

Viz has licensed several Ito properties in the past, and (perhaps foolishly) has now given us one more: Fragments of Terror. Frankly, I think they are now living on borrowed time. You don’t bring Junji Ito to English and escape the consequences. I expect to wake up tomorrow and find that they’re filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, their headquarters have been overrun with flesh-eating spiders, and their CEO’s athletes’ foot is flaring up.

Fragments of Terror collects one-shots from the last few years of Ito’s pen. They’re a mixture of inventive JG Ballardian concepts, scary campfire dread, horror movie camp, and Ito’s excellent art. Not everything in here is great, and it doesn’t disguise the “serial manga fingerprints” as well as it might, but it’s still a worthy addition to the slim lineup of English Ito titles.

Affairs start with “Futon”, a story about a mattress that induces hallucinations when you sleep on it. Not one of Ito’s best efforts. Very dull and one obvious, with a pat, tie-a-bow-on-it ending. “Wooden Spirit” is stronger, with Ito drawing an inspired link between the curves of a woman’s body and the natural geometries of plants, trees, et cetera. No real attempt at a story, but the execution and art is impressive.

Issues of tone from one story to the next soon jump out at the reader. The understated “Wooden Spirit” gives way to the comical and gruesome “Tomio – Red Turtleneck”, followed by borderline shoujo bait in the sappy and sentimental “Gentle Goodbye”, followed by the ultra-violent “Dissection-Chan”. The stories whiplash erratically from one mood to the next. Why put the stories in chronological order? Why not take advantage of the opportunity to craft a bit of an arc, to build and release tension?

The best and worst story in the collection sit right next to each other. “Magami Nanakuse” involves a girl journeying to meet a mangaka she admires, and then…well, remember “Ghosts of Golden Time”? It’s that crap all over again. Very awkward and ham-fisted attempts at social commentary here, as well as a lack of focus or direction.

But “Blackbird” is a great. Intelligent, well paced, scary as hell. A man is rescued after apparently spending a full month trapped in the wilderness with two broken legs. How has he survived his ordeal? Things keep building and building, and the ending satisfies without explaining too much. I’d put this story up against anything from Ito’s classic period (1997 to 2002 or so).

In the end, if nothing else Fragments of Terror offers a statement to the fact that, despite all the events of the last ten years (marriage, fatherhood, pacts with the devil, etc), he’s still capable of serving up the goods. He’s still in love with waifish female leads, elaborate dresses soaked in blood, grotesque imagery, and stories that make no sense but have you nodding in perfect agreement.

Ito might be in cruise control mode, but he’s still here, and Fragments of Terror is an interesting if uneven collection from an underrated mangaka who’s still making inroads to the English market. No doubt Viz’s corporate headquarters will be smoking and charred rubble by tomorrow, but they did a good job here.

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