Reviewby Christopher Farris,
Maruso meets up with three others for a group suicide, but immediately, something seems off about the entire situation. After a series of strange, supernatural close calls threatens to end the foursome's lives before they can kill themselves, they're led to another bizarre discovery about what may actually wait for them in the Great Beyond— and what they can bring back from there. Is this an opportunity to better the lives they were previously so ready to throw away? Or will it turn out to be a lesson on the true value of human souls? Some trips to the other side might not be worth coming back from.
Black Paradox is written and drawn by Junji Ito, with English translation by Jocelyne Allen and lettering by Eric Erbes. Black Paradox is published by Viz media.
Originally published in 2009, Black Paradox can come off like a 'hybrid' or 'experimental' work, depending on how familiar you already are with Junji Ito's repertoire. Opening with a conceptual story that wouldn't be out of place among the author's one-shots, it climaxes with a sequence of revelatory 'punchlines' that exemplifies the tightrope between horror and comedy that Ito has always reveled in walking. So similar is Black Paradox to that of Ito's one-shots structurally that you'd almost be forgiven for thinking this whole book was going to be another short-story collection, before the following chapter rolls up and that initially-introduced plot just…keeps going. It provides a unique appeal for those who might have gotten into Ito through those aforementioned anthologies: The chance to see one of his wild little campfire stories continue past its odd, esoteric initial stopping point.
Not that the arc of Black Paradox feels exceptionally consistent as it goes. There is a full story that we're watching unfold from beginning to end, but it's told in escalating layers, each chapter often centered around its own specific, unsettling revelation of visual exploration. Events occur and status quos shift, but each successive entry subsists on its own arc and climax. It's to the point that even the final chapters feel less like the apex of an overall storyline, and more like the highest escalations the concept for the plot can reach before finally opting to wrap at a satisfying realization. This can be a boon, in some ways: Plot points can be espoused for future chapters as that preceding chapter is wrapping on another of Ito's 'punchlines', leading to instances like the black comedy of a matter-of-fact narration describing a pile of newly-expelled soul stones being put up for sale as we bask in the shocking page-spread spectacle of them pouring out around the horrified characters.
That propensity for presentation does bring up another distinction Black Paradox has compared to other more well-known Ito works: It's not really especially 'scary' in a traditional sense. There aren't a lot of page-turn jump-scares included, and even the idea of gnawing, anxious dread is tied more to a character's interior development rather than tangibly imparted to the reader. Black Paradox instead mostly thrives on general conceptual weirdness, letting Ito cut loose with body horror in time with the broadening of the plot. That's illustrated in some appreciably apparent ways, such as an early scene of a character having a camera sent down their stomach to determine the source of the soul-gem-spewing, which gets reflected in a much grander, grosser way later on in the story.
Instead, the fear-induction of this book comes in the form of more existential, conceptual dread. With the multi-chapter length, Ito is able to more deeply explore the ideas behind the weird thought-experiments that his strongest works spawned from in their conception. What if, instead of the depths of the sea or space, the next unknown frontier for humanity to explore resided within our very selves? It leads back to the fear of interiority that might lead a group of people to meet up and attempt suicide in the first place. Getting to know other people can be scary enough, but the possibility of truly knowing yourself? Horrifying. The idea of the evils within humanity, how that might spill out as a broader result of knowing and exploring the realm of the soul, ends up contributing as well to the more 'real' feelings of fear at the heart of all the weirdness being illustrated in Black Paradox. It ends up with the postulation that we as a people would literally sacrifice our own souls for the sake of industrial advancement. That was a prescient take back in 2009, and comes off as even more exhaustingly relevant today.
Presenting these conceptual escalations alongside those explorative ideas in a brisk, single-volume package means that other elements of the book end up being undercut. Much of anything resembling characterization is shortchanged, even as the leads' arcs about arriving at a point where they no longer desire suicide, and the irony of deadly elements catching up with them by then, are nominally a key thread of the narrative. One character is seemingly effectively killed off before a last-minute revelation reveals his soul was still present in the story the whole time, while Maruso, ostensibly the main character, gets indisposed for a stretch so another character introduced only a little earlier can swerve into antagonism and initiate the last couple major story escalations. It can feel uneven if you're here to read those arcs as more insight into Ito's ideas on humanity and personal interiority here, when they mostly end up working as plot devices to move pieces of the story around, and wrap by extolling some of what we're supposed to have learned from this experience.
Even as it's presented in a lower key than expected, Ito's art can at least always be counted on to not miss. His knack for sequential storytelling gets some appreciated breathing room in an ongoing plot like this, even as he utilizes less of those suspense-delivering page turns. The sheer strangeness of some of the visual punch-lines (sights like a giant bio-engineered stomach suspended in a pool) still land with their audacious shocks, and the sense of oddity extends to basic depictions of some of the characters themselves (You've got to love the raw weirdness of Piitan's design). It lacks some of the mind-invading memorability of Ito's other more infamous images, but it's no less effective for the clear effort that's been put in and the consistency that results for the book. If that's not enough, there is a very brief, full-color bonus story included at the end, which features some of the more outrageous imagery-based insanity strongly associated with Ito.
I don't know if Black Paradox would make the best introduction to Junji Ito for the uninitiated. It's a bit too aside and uneven to the works that define his appeal and legacy in the manga landscape. But there's a sense of range and willingness to experiment with storytelling in his horror stylings that make it interesting. And for me anyway, I'm an absolute sucker for the sorts of concept-heavy material he tackles here. So as a curiosity for those already familiar with Ito's works, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Interesting use of an escalating, ongoing plot, Strong ideas illustrated, Ito's art is as impressive as always
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