People often say that Junji Ito’s skill as an artist sometimes exceeds his skill as a storyteller. His imagery is larger than life. His characters and plots are usually very stock. If that’s the opinion you have of Junji Ito, prepare to have it left utterly intact by this 2002 volume (which I read from scanlations, as it has no official English release), which features scary art and stories that are slightly more substantial than nothing.
The results are kind of scattershot. The opening story “The Woman Next Door” is probably the best thing on here. Our heroine Mimi finds herself sharing an apartment building with a strange and threatening woman, and it evokes a powerful atmosphere even if it doesn’t really have an ending. Straight after that we get the 11 page “The Sound of Grass,” which is as unsatisfying as a 0.5 course meal.
“Graveman” is a waste of paper, featuring one of Junji’s worst premises to date (a bodybuilder flexing his muscles in a graveyard) and far too little payoff at the end. I don’t know what he was thinking here. His filler isn’t usually this bad.
“The Seashore” takes a while to get going, but has a powerful ending and some great art. “Alone with You” is the tale of a dead mother who comes back to haunt her daughter, and it also gets the job done.
The volume ends with a frustrating story called “The Scarlet Circle”. Mimi has found an underground room in an abandoned house with a strange circle on the wall. Soon, she realises it’s a gate to another world. The story is really fascinating and spooky…and it finishes in what is a strong contender for the shittiest and most obnoxious Junji Ito ending to date. This is a slight step up from “She woke up and it was all a dream.” I don’t know if he cut the story off short due to a deadline or whatever, but the alternative is that he genuinely hates his fans.
From what I understand this volume was inspired by various Japanese folk tales. Fair enough. Japanese folk influences have always informed Junji Ito’s work (his story “The Red String” being a particularly obvious example). There’s a nice little afterword done in the style of those gag comics in Uzumaki where he explains his creative process. Too bad he doesn’t tell us where the ending to “The Scarlet Circle” went.
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What’s worse than a subpar book? A subpar book that has one small saving grace, one small pith of goodness, that forces you to keep reading even though you’re not enjoying the overall experience.
This has happened to me twice, with two separate series’ of books. The first was RL Stine’s Goosebumps series, which I read when my age was one digit long.
These days RL Stine is a relic from the nineties, like koosh balls and Tamagotchies, but he was the JK Rowling of his time, a children’s author who sold freakish numbers of books in the face of conventional wisdom that kids don’t read books. His books were safe but somewhat edgy in that Paul Jennings/Morris Gleitzman gross-out way. If all the characters weren’t covered in radioactive green slime by page three, you tended to feel cheated.
Also, he once said “I visit schools a lot and talk with kids so I can keep up with what they are saying these days and what real kids sound like.” This is a quote that should be spread far and wide, because it’s hilarious.
Some of the Goosebumps books were actually good, and a select handful (like “The Ghost Next Door”) actually achieved a transcending pathos. Tim Jacobus always did a good job with the cover art. But after wading through sewage like “Deep Trouble II” and “Legend of the Lost Legend,” it became painfully obvious what was going on behind the scenes: a guy pounding out forgettable, near-identical books over the course of a few weeks with fingers calloused from cashing checks.
By age 9 I was sick of Goosebumps, reading them out of sheer inertia. How many books are there in the Goosebumps series? 62. How many did I own? 60 plus 2. I read many of the Fear Street, Goosebumps 2000, and Give Yourself Goosebumps books too. RL Stine was laughing his way to the proverbial bank with me.
The second series of books was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
You might have seen the movie. Back in the day, the books were marketed as Harry Potter books for goths, all doom and gloom set in a vaguely steampunk-inspired world. They were littered with obscure references, literary red herrings, and a set of tantalising subplots and mysteries (“VFD”, a sugar bowl, the author’s relationship to the children of the story) that seemed to grow and expand, barely out of sight. You got the sense that you were watching from the cheap seats as some vast conspiracy unfolded.
By book 7 or 8 I was beginning to suspect that the series was just a big shaggy dog joke, and that none of the mysteries would ever be resolved. I was right. In the final book (number 13) we get a cursory revelation that’s meant to explain everything, explains nothing, and makes no sense given other facts presented in the story (for example, the Baudelaires have heard a certain name spoken before, but they’ve never previously commented that it’s their mother’s name). After thirteen volumes it seems Daniel Handler got sick of dragging this pile of skeletons along and just dropped everything, unresolved mysteries and all. How frustrating.
And although Jim Carrey was a good Count Olaf in the movie, we all know that Edarem was tailor-made for the role.
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I wonder how much great literature we’re missing out on because of language barriers. Probably a lot. Whenever someone performs the task of hauling Japanese novels into the Western world, it’s like we’re being given a momentary glimpse into some ancient treasure room.
Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination is collection of early stories by Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Ranpo, as translated by James B Harris. As is always the case, Western terms like “mystery” fit him imperfectly. He is a thinker and a manufacturer of ideas. After reading this volume, my mind felt stretched, as if Ranpo had physically gotten in there and enlarged it somehow.
“The Human Chair” is astonishing, a bizarre tale about an ugly man who crafts a chair with a hidden space inside for him to sit. Finally, he can enjoy physical contact with beautiful women (unknowingly on their part), and he seems far better suited as a chair than as a human being. The story’s ending irritated me at first, but I’m now starting to believe it it merely clashes with my prejudices about narratives.
“The Psychological Test” and “The Twins” are dense and involved crime stories, told from the perspective of the criminal. “The Hell of Mirrors” dispenses with subtlety and unloads horror with both barrels, and manages to be as shocking and frightening as Poe classics like “The Black Cat.”
“Caterpillar” is the story of a soldier whose limbs have been blasted off his body and of the wife who cares for him. This was written ten years before Johnny Got His Gun but leaves a similar impact. Suehiro Maruo has made a fantastic manga adaptation of this story (check out Junji Ito’s take on “The Human Chair” while you’re at it). “Caterpillar” is tragic, not a story so much as a scenario that can only be followed to its inevitable unhappy conclusion.
But my favorite story is “Two Crippled Men”. Leisurely told and understated in tone, it is about a man who walks in his sleep…talks in his sleep…and eventually commits crimes in his sleep. The ending twists in a way that genuinely shocked me. This was the story where I began to believe that Ranpo is a genius.
Ranpo’s approach to these stories is very “Japanese”. Elegant, a bit baroque in his approach, but with a drive and focus that’s often surprising in its intensity. Someone should translate more. And still more after that.
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