The Spring 2019 Manga Guide
What's It About?Smashed is the latest short story collection from renowned horror mangaka Junji Ito. From the horrifying to the comic to the downright bizarre, all the imagination and grotesquery typical of Ito is on full, terrible display. A girl develops an eating disorder and finds a bizarre relief in blood-sucking bats. A phantom flood flows through a canyon, its visage stained with the shrieking forms of all those who were washed away by it years ago.
A brother and sister are haunted by the form of the man who killed their parents. A bizarre and terrifying man travels with a haunted house so sinister that something foul must be afoot behind its curtains. Japan is striken by a surreal plague of people holding the same gangly position for days at a time. And a man begins to slavishly memorize his entire library for fear of losing his precious book. All this and more in the latest release from manga's master of the demented and macabre.
Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection is the latest from Junji Ito. It is published by Viz Media, retailing for $22.99 physically and for $12.99 digitally.
Is It Worth Reading?
Junji Ito, you may have awakened a disgust in me for clusters of small holes in a surface that shouldn't have holes and given me unreasonable fears of women named Tomie, but you will not make me believe that libraries full of rare books can make me go mad. Sorry, but that story, “Library Vision,” I'm just not buying. That's not to say that it isn't a good piece, because Ito's a masterful enough creator that all of his stories have at least a little bit of discomfort to them, but rather a statement that horror, like comedy, is a very subjective genre, and even the greats won't make you shiver every time.
I feel like each time we do one of these guides there's a Junji Ito hardcover horror collection to include in it, and for me, Smashed is the weakest of the batch thus far. (Gyo is the only one I've liked less.) While the stories are still engaging and filled with a variety of terrors and horrors, they don't quite grab me the way some of his other works have, and I feel like a few of the pieces in the book are examples of Ito overwriting a concept, or at least dragging it out ten-odd pages too long for it to fully work. This is on full display in the aforementioned library story, which tries to read like a horror version of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's exquisite novel The Shadow of the Wind, but we see the same issue in “Soichi's Beloved Pet” and “Death Row Doorbell.” The concepts are good, but the execution drags the plot out just a little too long for it to be as effective as it needs to.
Interestingly that's not the case for the two psychological horror tales in the collection, “Earthbound” and “Roar.” While both pieces have disturbing imagery – humans frozen in tortured poses in one and the ghost of a town being swept away by a flood in the other – their strengths are more in the way the stories explore their characters' psychological states. In both cases, guilt is the driving factor, whether it is merited or not, and the way Ito uses that to show how people are affected by what they've done or not done, and how it is perceived by others, is very well done. Likewise the use of the “reality or dream” trope in “The Mystery of the Haunted House: Soichi's Version” is well done, making us question the veracity of the entire first story in the trio of tales about Soichi, of which this is the second.
Smashed is a mixed bag as far as Ito collections go, but fans will still find plenty to enjoy, and even if you don't normally love his gore-fests, it's worth at least reading the two psychological tales in the library. Also, if anyone else finds that “I Don't Want to Be a Ghost” reminds them of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, please let me know!
I like Junji Ito a lot but Smashed feels a little like B-Roll. Of course, with an artist as prolific as Ito they can't all be winners, but there's just a bizarre, weirdly carefree tonality that leaves the horror feeling a lot less palpable than in his greatest work.
This is even evident in Ito's signature strength: His visual composition. For some reason, his trademark setpiece panels are just off; the perspective might be wonky, or the focus is strange and doesn't emphasize the terror effectively enough. Not to say the stories are wanting for imagination, just that they seem to be lacking the flare that makes Ito such a compelling horror artist.
The stories themselves also often end in anti-climaxes, with little having been solved and our protagonists leaving unscathed yet unfulfilled. This is fine as a deliberate choice; oftentimes our real-life scary stories end with little in the way of answers and us leaving more confused and baffled than traumatized. The problem is that because of this the stories lack real impact, frequently stopping just at the point where things have escalated to their most alarming and twisted. A story involving a phantom flood representing grief will kill someone who might be the protagonist's long-lost father, and the main character will just…walk on, moving on as if this was just a pit-stop. It's a weirdly light, insubstantial and often stakes-free volume, with characters just stopping to gawk at supernatural happenings and not really being affected beyond that.
I feel like Junji Ito is at his best when working with interlocking narratives connected by a story aspect (such as the spirals in Uzumaki, or the infamous Tomie). And the highlights of Smashed share that in common as well; a three part story beginning with a twisted man and his travelling haunted house and ending with a maladjusted child and his petty antics both makes great use of his Ito's penchant for striking, terrifying imagery and actually does well with the more offbeat, blithe tone of the volume. But here, perhaps because it's just a simple anthology, the stories blur together, leaving little in the way of real, lingering horror. And this isn't to say Smashed is bad. Just that, for whatever reason, perhaps due to the short-story-on-top-of-short-story structure or this simply not being his best material, I was left a little cold.
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