Leisure & Culture #39

Creepy Creativity

Junji Ito: Aesthetics of Horror

Written by Kit Chan
Translated by Derek Leung

Who will come up with a sky of human heads each of whom is looking for resembling one(s) to hang to death? More unexpectedly weird is someone cannot but complain about failing to leave home for work in a city full of lethal hanging balloons!

This is indeed the story of Hanging Balloons, one of Junji Ito's horror classics. Regarded nothing strange and stunning, the manga shows something more real than the stark reality. Terror, according to the comic artist, is the daily routine in the human world.

Born in 1963, Ito started his terror comic career at the age of 24. Tomie, his ever first work illustrating a girl seducing her lover to dismember her for her incessant reproduction, gave an astonishing blow to the manga circle in Japan due to its beauty of horror.

With signature horror stories in the following 30 years including Lovesick Dead, Long Dream and Spiral, Ito is hailed to be the most important Japanese horror comic artist since the 1990s and even crowned as the legend of Japanese aesthetics of horror.

Horror and beauty should go to the extremes but Ito tries to link up both ends. "We can have both horror and beauty together, and all horrible things have their beautiful sides. For example, someone thinks cockroaches are terrible but you can still find their beauty when you look deep down at them," he said with his definition of aesthetics of horror.

Beauty is neither totally subjective nor untraceable. Ito is excellent at escalating intensity by the illustration of solid wiry lines among boxes and pages, where all readers cannot help feel the suspension simply by looking at the drawings.

Ito is excellent at escalating intensity by the illustration of solid wiry lines among boxes and pages

While other horror comics focus on the plots, Ito pays deliberate and even punctilious attention to the illustration: physically beautiful characters, monsters with golden proportion, hair of different thickness with various use of pens, among others to showcase authenticity and to welcome additional appreciation.

"I want a perfect picture whenever I draw," he claimed and showed his efforts to hand-make a multitude of tiny tools like a hanging clipboard with absorbent paper for removing excessive ink and hence more precise illustrations.

His pursuit and creativity may be attributable to his background. Before working in the comic field, he was a tooth mould technician after graduation from a relevant graduate school. It was the time to manifest his pursuit of perfection: mould carving is impossible if the teeth print is not carried out when the wax is hot, but Ito always work slow for best details. The carving process cannot be carried on or cracks will show as the liquid wax has already cooled. "All fellow colleagues have got off work, but I have to start from scratch again," smiled Ito.

It is the utmost commonness of his stories that make them extraordinarily horrible. The more unexpected the peril stems from the mostly-considered safest place, the more vulnerable one can be.

Ito reiterated that his works look unreal but are indeed inspired by the real world. "I eye on the dark side and even give it a twist so as to show my fetish about pondering."

So, here come Hanging Balloons inspired by his dream of floating in the sky, Souichi's series exemplifying his somewhat gloominess through the nail-nipping badass persona Souichi, and Spiral inspired by the shape of the inner ear owing to ear-picking.

Ito's success results from his challenge over the readers' guts away from the mainstream works. He is of the view that mishaps arise for no reasons and evil may still live well without having its necessary retribution. His works are mostly open-ended and always end in the emotional climax to leave space for readers to ponder.

This magical power cannot be underestimated as it is, though invisible and inaccessible, deeply rooted inside one's mind that can go viral and disastrously destructive.

Stories end and the personae fall into nightmares with the readers, with hopeless reincarnation.

What terrify lives the most are probably not the evils, badasses or beasts but the hope and the inborn instinct that look for well-being.
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