The Museum of Terror books are collections of Junji Ito’s early manga stories. In 2006, English readers lucked out when Dark Horse started releasing them in English. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled at volume 3 due to lack of sales. Lesson learned: manga fans are the most dedicated and passionate fans on Earth…unless you want to earn money from them. Then you starve to death.
The first volume is all about Tomie, who is Ito’s most famous character…a girl who inspires madness and obsession in the men around her, to the point where they try to kill her. They often succeed. But it soon becomes clear that Tomie is not even close to human, and she always comes back.
Apparently she was inspired by an event from Ito’s childhood, when a classmate died in an accident and he wondered how people would react if she showed at up school the next day. The nine 30-40 page stories all hit a similar riff: Tomie appears, guys fall in love with her, guys kill her, and she is reborn.
The Tomie formula soon becomes very familiar…even overfamiliar. Honestly, these are far from Junji Ito’s best works. Tomie launched Ito’s career and paved the way for a lot of great manga, but set against his later material they seem fairly tame and unremarkable. Ito imagination is nearly limitless, and Tomie constrains him.
How so? There’s no sense of mystery about Tomie. We know what her powers are, and what her personality is like, and the effect she has on people around her. We know everything about her, and that’s boring. The crazy off-the-rails madness of Uzumaki makes Tomie look suspiciously like a Dead Teenager movie, where we know all the beats it’s going to hit, and the only question is whether Jennifer Love Hewitt or Sarah Michelle Gellar will survive for the sequel.
…But of course, another difference between Uzumaki and Tomie is that Tomie is creepy undead moe-ish girl and is thus hugely marketable With nine movie adaptations of Tomie to date, Ito’s humble creation has become a horror franchise, questions of quality aside.
Out of these nine stories “Painter” is by the far the best, mostly because of its powerful Gothic atmosphere. All of these stories are violent and intense but some of them are a bit lacklustre in execution, either because of poor art (some of these are Ito’s very first stories) or lackluster plot or execution. “Revenge” is dull, just an uninspired retread of other ideas in the manga. “Mansion” is overkill in the other direction. Ito tried way too hard with this one, it’s one unbelievable and over-the-top plot development after another until eventually I gave up caring.
Yet at the core of the Tomie mythos there is a powerful idea. The stories lean pretty heavily on gore and shocking imagery, but ultimately they’re not about that. They’re not even about Tomie! These stories are about obsession, and how quickly we can slide from being rational human beings to automatons of our primal urges. Tomie might not be interesting. But the insane, obsessed males around her are actually fairly frightening.