Illustrations from “Uzumaki,” courtesy of Viz Comics.
Into the Spiral
A Conversation with Japanese Horror Maestro Junji Ito
By Mira Bai Winsby, translated by Miyako Takano | Feb - March 2006
In the early 1990’s, Junji Ito was faced with a life changing decision; continue his promising career as a dental technician, or embrace his awesome talents as a horror manga artist.
Fortunately for his fans worldwide, he chose to pursue his passion for writing and illustrating original comics, trading the real life horror of dentistry for that of horror fiction.
Since making that fateful decision, Ito created the ultra-popular manga series, “Uzumaki.” Ito is most well known for his critically acclaimed horror manga, “Tomie,” for which he received the “Umezu Kazuo” prize for excellence. However, even after winning the “Umezu Kazuo,” Ito still continued filling cavities and straightening teeth.
Ito eventually dropped dentistry, opting to focus all his attention on comics. His comics have been so successful that several of his works have been adapted into films.
Born in Gifu prefecture in 1963, Ito’s interest in comic books began in grade school when his older sister lent him her Umezu Kazuo horror comics. Ito decided to take up comics as a hobby, inspired by this unique form of storytelling and his older sister’s drawings. Since then Ito has become one of Japan’s most well known and influential manga artists. No small feat in a country where nearly everyone reads comics.
Ito made his debut in 1987 when he submitted one of his stories to “Nemuki’s Halloween Monthly” magazine.
Throughout the 1990’s Ito published numerous stories in “Nemuki’s” and “Bizarre Tales of Sleepless Nights.” In 1997 he published a four-part comic entitled, “The Tragic Story of the Giant Black Pillar” in “Shougakukan's Big Comic Spirits Weekly.”
By 1998 he became a regular contributor in “Big Comic Spirits Weekly,” publishing his infamous “Uzumaki” series. In 2001, Ito began running another horror series in “Spirits” magazine with the printing of “Gyo.”
By the conclusion of the “Uzumaki series,” the film adaptation of “Tomie” was released in Japan. A film version of “Uzumaki” quickly followed, as well as the first of many “Tomie” sequels.
In 2001, an explosion of Ito film adaptations were released, each of widely divergent quality, including “Kakashi,” “Lovesick Dead,” “Tomie: Rebirth,” and in 2002, “Tomie: Forbidden Fruit.”
Ito’s latest foray into the movie biz was last year, contributing his artistic abilities to the making of the film “Marronnier,” but we’ll learn more about that once we speak with the master himself.
78: What inspires you to write horror?
Ito: I get inspiration from various things in my daily life. I see things from different angles, and I often get interesting ideas that way.
Mostly, I get inspiration from horror movies, mystery stories, and horror comics. Natural scenes and sounds, such as dusk and thunderstorms also stimulate my creativity.
Lately, I’ve been interested in documentaries about ancient samurai. I’m also very interested in the work of puppeteers. Lost lands and cultures are a great source of inspiration too.
78: You’ve stated that the artistry of Kazuo Umezu is a big influence on your work. How so? What is it about his work you enjoy?
Ito: Kazuo Umezu has been my favorite comic artist for as long as I can remember. His work is very inspiring. When I draw comics I’m influenced by his work without even realizing it, and I believe many other artists are too. His comics leave a lasting impression due to high quality art and compelling storytelling. I don’t think any horror artist can surpass him in Japan. My favorite Umezu comics are "Drifting Classroom," "Fear," and "The Grave of Butterfly.”
78: What inspired the strange and frightening tale of “Tomie?”
Ito: I began writing "Tomie" because I wanted to create a bizarre tale of a dead person returning to life as if nothing ever happened. I was inspired by the phenomenon of lizard-tail regeneration. "Tomie" is a story where people fascinated with the girl end up killing her, accelerating her rebirth. The proliferation of “Tomie” was created while writing a serial storyline, which helped greatly to convey the concept of regeneration.
78: “Spirals” seem to be a prominent symbol in many Japanese films, manga, and anime. What does the spiral represent in Japanese culture, and what inspired you to write “Uzumaki?”
Ito: The "spiral pattern" is not normally associated with horror fiction. Usually spiral patterns mark character’s cheeks in Japanese comedy cartoons, representing an effect of warmth. However, I thought it could be used in horror if I drew it a different way. Spirals are one of the popular Japanese patterns from long ago, but I don't know what the symbol represents.
I think spirals might be symbolic of infinity. The different stages of the spiral (in “Uzumaki”) were definitely inspired from the mysterious novels of H.P. Lovecraft. His expressionism with regard to atmosphere greatly inspires my creative impulse.
78: In many of your tales the female character’s hair seems to take on a life of its own. Why is that? What does it represent, if anything?
Ito: Historically, long black hair has been symbolic of Japanese women, and most women value this image. The long hair of a woman is common in Japanese horror, because it conveys an enveloping feeling of movement. I think it conjures up fear in people unconsciously. For example, we know what snakes are, but they still evoke spooky feelings inside us, and for similar reasons hair is common in Japanese horror.
78: Many of your stories such as “Uzumaki” and “Tomie” have become successful films. What do you think of the film adaptations of your work?
Ito: The production of a movie is not as easy as creating comics. Filmmaking involves many people, and concerns many things such as production schedules and budgets. My original comics are created solely by me, so it’s done the way I envision it.
Comics utilize images, angles, and feelings that are hard to create in the real world. I think it’s hard to reproduce the overall atmosphere of a comic into a movie, because a film must use real actors and actresses that are not perfectly matched with my original work.
I always look forward to seeing what a filmmaker does with my original stories, and I really think a great director can make a good movie by melding their own unique style with my work.
78: What American comics, films, or filmmakers do you enjoy?
Ito: I don’t know a whole lot about American comics, but I really love American filmmakers. It’s hard to say which movies I like best, but “The Exorcist” and “Enter the Dragon” have to be two of my favorites. I love monster movies as well, and I have a great deal of respect for Wills O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. I also like Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Chaplin.
78: Do you ever miss dentistry?
Ito: Dentistry demands a craftsman’s skill, and I’m very proud that I worked as a dental technician. There were more skills I needed to learn, and for a while I had a few regrets about not pursuing that career. However, creating comics is so much more exciting than dentistry, and I don’t regret anything now.
78: What inspired you to write “Gyo?”
Ito: “Gyo” was definitely inspired by Steven Spielberg’s, “Jaws.” He masterfully captured the essence of fear in the form of a man-eating shark. I thought it would be even greater to capture that fear in a man-eating shark that goes on land as well as sea.
78: What led you to get involved with the independent horror film, “Marronnier?”
Ito: I was asked to design an original character from “Koganemushi Theatrical Company’s,” Hideyuki Kobayashi, who is a puppeteer playwright, as well as the president of my own fan club. I designed a girl character and a member of the fan club named it, “Marronnier.” After that Mr. Kobayashi wanted to make a movie, creating a doll from my designs. I only contributed designs of Marronnier and a few cameo appearances in the film. Mr. Kobayashi’s hard work and that of the other performers contributed most to the movie’s success.
78: Manga and anime have grown immensely popular in the states over the past few years. What would you like to say to your American fans?
Ito: Since childhood I’ve always really enjoyed American films, so I was pleasantly surprised when my comics traveled across the Pacific Ocean to reach American audiences. I’ve always believed there was some common ground between my comics and American horror. I’ve recently gotten many letters from international fans. It makes me realize that there are so many fans outside of Japan who love my work. I will continue my work, hoping everyone will keep enjoying it in the future.
78: What advice can you give to young manga and comic artists working in today’s marketplace?
Ito: Keep your own point of view, but always welcome advice from others.
78: What are you working on right now? What can fans expect in the future?
Ito: Right now, I’m drawing a short story for a comic magazine called, “Nemuki.” I’m planning to draw four short stories for this comic series, and then I’m going to do a story about Japanese mystery writer, Ranpo Edogawa. However, it is not clear how long this story is going to be. I think it will be long, but I’m not very good at doing long stories. Even though it isn’t my usual style, I’ll try to make it as appetizing as possible for all my fans.
Kobayashi on Ito
A few words from the founder of the Junji Ito fan club
I would like to talk about my relationship with Mr. Ito. I have been making “Junji’s Monster Puppets” and 3-D Artwork from his stories for over 10 years. Some of my work has been printed on the covers of the horror comic magazine, “Halloween Monthly,” which is the publication that printed Ito’s debut comic, “Tomie.”
Mr. Ito is a very nice and humorous person, and his personality shows through in his work. I was very fascinated with his artwork from the beginning, and I soon began producing the Junji Ito fan club.
The character of “Marronnier” was created exclusively for the fan club. “Uzumaki” and “Tomie” captured themes of fear, but “Marronnier’s” themes are otherworldly and comical, which are also recurring traits captured within Mr. Ito’s worlds.
We used puppets to capture his style because we wanted to make solid 3-D images from his artwork. We also wanted to make our own film without any relation to the comic enterprise or publisher, which is why the movie is low budget.
The film “Marronnier” is especially enjoyable if you’re familiar with Ito’s comics. If you’re a big fan of his work I also recommend you to see, “The Mystery Painter.” I think people will enjoy Ito’s acting, because he captures the style of his comics very well in his performance.
“Marronnier” screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival and NY Asian film Festival. Many Japanese movies at these festivals were made by famous directors and were considered blockbuster hits. Considering the talent showcased, I think it was amazing that our low budget independent production played on the same screens.
In San Francisco there were day and night showings, and it was interesting to observe the different reactions depending on the time of day. The night showings were very successful and audiences seemed to be into the movie, but the daytime audiences were not as enthusiastic.
In New York, audience reactions were much better than expected. I was very surprised people were so into the film. They laughed, screamed, and even whistled with excitement. I think American audiences express their reactions to a film very clearly, and as a filmmaker I am glad I got to see this firsthand.
In Japan, people watch movies quietly, so I was very moved when American audiences applauded and whistled at the end of my film. Many people really seemed to like it, and I think they enjoyed how we captured Mr. Ito’s bizarrely humorous world.