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Interview: Horror Manga Mastermind Junji Ito

by Kalai Chik,

The master of contemporary horror manga, Junji Ito, took time out of his busy schedule to come to San Jose for Crunchyroll Expo 2019. As one of the most ground-breaking, popular manga artists to put pen on paper, Ito has published works that scare and influence some of the most prolific horror buffs of our time, such as Guillermo del Toro. His range varies from creepy stories such as Tomie to comedy in Itou Junji No Neko Nikki: Yon and Mu, an autobiographical parody story about his daily life with two of his cats.

Just a couple weeks prior to CRX 2019, Ito won an Eisner for his manga interpretation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which retells the original with an Ito twist. Newsweek spoke to Ito about his childhood, where his creations came from and how he feels about the anime adaptation of his work. ANN spoke with Junji Ito on his experiences and thoughts on his 30+ years of work as a manga author.

Note: this interview was conducted press-junket style, with journalists from many outlets present to ask questions. "ANN:" precedes the questions asked by our representative.

What is the most important thing to focus on in a horror story?

Junji Ito: In my experience, I would say that it's the mood and atmosphere. The story is important too, but for the most important for a visual medium such as manga would be the images and bring the atmosphere from there.

You recently received an Eisner award for your manga adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. How did you approach adapting such a well-known story?

Junji Ito: I didn't know much about it at the time; I first knew it from the old 1931 movie with Boris Karloff. I later found out about the story 25 years ago from the Kenneth Branagh 1994 movie. After that, I got offered to draw a serialization of the series a while back. When I did my research, I found out that it was a highly scientific story. It's about an android character that comes out and I wanted to convey that feeling from it into my manga. The original story involved Frankenstein asking the scientist to create an artificial bride, and I wanted to put my own spin on the female android bride. I don't want to talk too much about it because I don't want to spoil the story, but when I watched the Kenneth Branagh movie, I was surprised at how similar it was to what I had drawn.

We all know you've made a slightly creepy version of cats in your stories. How do you approach making something cute and making something completely different from that?

Junji Ito: I'm not actually good at drawing animals, but because I have cats they were easy to draw. That's why I draw story based on cats. My wife currently has a lizard, but they're not as cute so I don't think that'll be adapted to any story.

Going back to Frankenstein, are there any horror classics from other countries that you'd like to illustrate?

Junji Ito: I love H.P. Lovecraft and really admire him. It would be great to adapt him as a serialized manga, but I actually saw Gou Tanabe create a great adaption of H.P. Lovecraft's stories. Afterwards, I ended up not doing it because I thought I wouldn't be as good as Gou's version.

Is there a specific genre you think you'd like to tackle other than horror?

Junji Ito: I'd like to try comedy, but I think it might be exhausting to pursue. I joke about this, but I'd like to try a refreshing story about youth like a romantic comedy. Even that seems challenging and impossible for me.

Have you had any interest in doing content for games?

Junji Ito: To be honest, I'm not very well-versed in games and manga takes up most of my time. If I did play games, I would be hooked and wouldn't have time for manga. However, I did do a novel game a while back, and I'd be interested to do it again in the future.

How do you feel when your work is adapted into other mediums such as anime and movies? For example, Uzumaki was adapted into a movie in 2002.

Junji Ito: Whenever my work gets adapted to film, personally I love films, that's something I'd like to work but I don't have time. In my works, I try to portray it as a movie, so whenever my works becomes a movie I'm happy to see it in a different medium. During a movie adaptation, I'm able to to meet actors and actresses, which I consider a great bonus.

You recently released your first artbook, Igyou Sekai, which collects all your work from the past 30 years. Was there anything you couldn't include in book that you wanted to?

Junji Ito: The reason why I released the artbook is because I've been drawing manga for over 30 years, and the publishing company approached me because it was my 30th anniversary. I wasn't very confident in the artbook because it's just art and not a story, but the people who worked on collecting my works put a lot of effort into gathering everything. There were originals from other companies that we were able to get back and put together in the artbook. As for the art that didn't make it into the artbook, there was one from a company that went out of business and there was no way to get it back. The art was actually with a girl and different parts of her in a chimney, and I think it was from The Smoking Club. It's unfortunate that it couldn't be included.

ANN: You started reading and drawing horror manga when you were very young. Were you inspired by anything growing up in Gifu?

Junji Ito: I actually grew up in a small city next to Nagano, which is surrounded by mountains and had a lot of hilly roads. I would say that I grew up in a very 3D environment. In terms of growing up, there were a lot of narrow roads in between buildings, which looked like a maze. I would play hide-and-seek around there and around old hospital buildings that were scary, and I believe is reflected in my manga.

How does it feel to be the inspiration for a lot of young artists? Are you ever surprised at the people who are influenced by your work? There is a scene in an American show called Steven Universe where the characters go into human shaped holes.

Junji Ito: Having something like that in a cartoon is something that I'm surprised about. I just remembered that 20 years ago, director of Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro came to Japan and said he was a big fan and wanted to see me. At the time, I was living in Gifu and had other scheduling conflicts, so unfortunately, I wasn't able to meet up with him. But I'm very happy that he's a fan of mine and enjoys my work.

What is the scariest movie or book you've seen, and how did it inspire your work?

Junji Ito: I think we've touched upon H.P. Lovecraft earlier, and one particular story was The Color Out of Space, where there's a scene in which the meteor hits Earth and there's a color that comes out that doesn't exist on Earth. The color consumes other stuff around it, and it was scary at the time. As for books, Koji Suzuki's Ring was really scary when I read the book. The Exorcist was extremely scary and traumatic for me when I saw it. Another would be Suspiria that was released last year.

What classic fairytale would you like to adapt and make into a horror manga?

Junji Ito: John Steinbeck's short story The Snake and Charles Dicken's novel, The Signal-Man, would be interesting to do a manga adaptation.

What do you find more satisfying? To give a reader a good outcome, or a horrific ending?

Junji Ito: For me, it depends on the length of the story. In terms of a short story, I'd like a more horrific/bad ending. In terms of longer stories, fans usually get emotionally attached to characters when reading long form. If I know that's the case, I want to end it on a good note, so people don't end up hating it. For me personally, I prefer short stories and ending it in a horrifying way because I'm also good at it.

Viz Media will be releasing your adaptation of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human later this year. What piqued your interest in that particular novel?

Junji Ito: In Japan, a company called Shogakukan releases that manga. For this kind of industry, it's important to have a connection with the editor. In the past, I worked with this editor for a young reader's magazine, and they later moved into a magazine targeted towards older adults and reached out to me about a new project. Most of the time I would be working on something for younger readers and a Josei female audience, but this magazine was more towards middle aged men. I was thinking that a surreal story might not be as exciting to the readers, so I thought a classical literature story from Japan would fit better. The editor listed out the titles for me, and No Longer Human from Osamu Dazai popped out, which I hadn't read it before. After reading it, I could feel sympathy with the main characters, much like in my stories.

Your work is very popular in the US, but what do you see as the future for your works here in the United States?

Junji Ito: It's great that the English speakers are reading my works and that companies are publishing my works, and I'm very happy for just that. Even for me, I was influenced by American movies growing up, and it's a dream that people here enjoy my manga.

When you're working on a project, do you base your story on visual elements or plot?

Junji Ito: Most of the time, I don't have a story and don't start with a story. The process, for me, starts off as a visual or a strong image based off my intuition. I'll start brainstorming ideas on a memo pad, and if I have an interesting image in my head I can create a plot around it. If I have a picture of the climax scene that I can visualize in my head, I can create and make the story interesting. However, it's difficult for me to do the other way around when I'm given a story and need to draw around it.

In Uzumaki, you take spirals—which are naturally occurring in nature—and turn it into something sinister. Do you choose elements of design because they exist all around us and create a sense of paranoia for your reader?

Junji Ito: Uzumaki was a project from Shogakukan, but before that I was working a lot with Asahi Sonorama for ten years on stories such as Tomie. Now that Shogakukan approached me, and they had a lot of readers, I was nervous when thinking about what story I should come up with. When it came time, I thought of people who lived in a unique town and with weird long buildings that turn into spirals. In Japan, spirals are usually used in gag/comedy manga on character's cheeks. To make it into horror, I was thinking I could make the spiral design more complex and more detailed to give off a creepy feeling.

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