Interview: Junji Ito's Frankenstein

by Rebecca Silverman,

Although it comes at the end of the Gothic novel craze, which began in 1764 with the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein is considered among the best the genre had to offer, and arguably has had the most staying power. It has seen numerous adaptations in print and film, and with Viz's publication of horror master Junji Ito's take on the tale, readers now have the opportunity to see how a modern manga creator envisions Shelley's classic tale. Ito says that that several things drew him to Shelley's work: “The deep and thought-provoking nature of the story is of course fascinating to me, but I'm also personally interested in the background of how the story was created (the fact that Mary Shelley met with Lord Byron and others at the lakeshore of Switzerland and they came up with the idea for them each to write a horror story) and in Mary Shelley's genius, who produced this massive story when she was in her early twenties.” Ito is referring to a competition hosted by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816, where Byron, John Polidori, and both Shelley and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, were all challenged to write a Gothic tale. Of the four, only Mary Shelley's can be said to have been fully completed; although Polidori published The Vampyre in 1819, it is more of a short story and is nowhere near as developed as Shelley's novel.

Those themes Ito mentions are part of what has made Shelley's book so enduring – although popular culture, egged on by the B films of the early horror industry, has caused the name “Frankenstein” to be associated with the monster, it actually refers to the monster's creator. Victor Frankenstein, after a childhood fascination with alchemy, thinks that he has found the secret of life in the application of electricity to dead tissue. He builds a human out of parts (a nod to the “resurrection men” who robbed graves for medical schools) and brings it to life. He is, however, promptly horrified with what he has done, and abandons the creature, who is, despite his appearance, very human indeed. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Victor himself is far more monstrous than his creation, not only meddling in God's realm, but then abandoning his “son.” Everything that his creation then does is cast as Victor's fault for having tossed him aside.

Ito's work manages to paint both Victor and his man as equally sympathetic and at fault. Although Ito had some reservations about his adaptation, saying, “I had a hard time to gather references of the country where the setting of the original novel of the time. It was also difficult to draw Westerners, so there are few things I should have done better,” his version is impressive in both his fidelity to Shelley's original and his own special touches. His depiction of the so-called monster, for example, not only has the grim details we've come to expect of his work, but also hearkens back to the early film versions, with hints of Boris Karloff's 1931 take on the role and the earlier 1910 silent film featuring Charles Ogle. Ito also leaves the frame story of Captain Walton intact, which isn't always taken into consideration by others adapting the work and serves to preserve the feel of Shelley's original.

Although Ito doesn't have any other specific Western works of horror on the back burner at this time (“I was interested in adapting the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but Mr. Gou Tanabe did what I consider the definitive version, so I gave up on that.”), his Frankenstein can be considered a success, both as a take on the original and as a work of his own. Fans of both Shelley and Ito should find this appealing, and it certainly does prove the validity of his advice to aspiring horror creators, “please absorb many different art forms like novels or movies.” Ito has also said that he's looking forward to the works of new horror authors and illustrators and that he does peruse fan reactions on Twitter. Ito's Frankenstein is evidence that borders do not have to inform horror fiction – and that's scary good news indeed.

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