Wednesday, August 1, 2018

What Junji Ito Taught Me About Writing Horror

Yesterday was Japanese horror legend Junji Ito's birthday, and man, I'll take any excuse possible to write about this dude.

I discovered Ito's work on an insomnia-riddled night, coasting around through Tumblr (back when I still used it). I first encountered, as most of us did, The Enigma of Amigara Fault. It was equal parts ridiculous and utterly horrifying, with an ending so viscerally weird that I just had to have more.

Fortunately, Ito has been creating manga for literal decades, so I ended up with more than enough reading material for a long time. And he scratched that itch that so few horror creators scratch: actually going full-throttle with the worst case scenario.

What Ito does is such a dangerous mix of things you're taught to never do and things you're taught to absolutely do that straight-up imitating him would be about as productive as straight-up imitating Douglas Adams. But as someone who loves to throw dashes of horror and surrealism into her work, I come away from each encounter with Ito's stories learning something new I'd like to attempt to play with.

The Joy of the Uncanny

As an artist, Ito has a tool at his disposal that many horror creators don't: the ability to draw a visual hard line between the normal and the supernatural. And he does that in an absolutely gorgeous (and disgusting way): by heightening the realism of the unreal.

Weirdly, the tendency toward horror being "real squared" is something I see turn up a lot in lost episode creepypastas — you know, the ones where someone ran across a video of The Simpsons or Spongebob Squarepants and everyone died and it drove the animation staff crazy or something. There's a repeated theme of the horror of the episode being depicted as "photorealistic," standing out hard against the animation. Doki Doki Literature Club put this into action with Yuri's photorealistic eyes in the game's second act.

And, well, that's really Ito's MO. His moment-to-moment art style is... "average" isn't the right word because he really is a good artist. But even though his standard art style is fairly recognizable, it's also fairly straightforward. Not overly cartoony, but simplistic enough that it's obviously a comic.

But when something horrible comes in — a monster, a corpse, whatever — suddenly it's there in full HD. And it sticks out amid the standard style like some sort of hallucination.

It's a fantastic approach... sadly, it's what makes adapting a lot of Ito's work to live-action so difficult, since the swerve into realism is how he evokes much of his horror. But it's a good working model of how jarring realism is amidst our escapism. Not a thing I can literally put into practice in my writing, but it's absolutely an element I can bear in mind when offering descriptions.

When Imagery Outweighs Empathy

As storytellers, one of the main things we're called upon to do is make our audience feel a certain way about our characters. We want them to be liked, or disliked, or in some way seen the way real people are seen.

But Ito achieves something that seems like it should be a mistake, and yet is essential to what he does: with the occasional exception, he makes his characters completely unremarkable.

This isn't to say he does "bad" characterization. We can look at his creations and understand that this man feels disconnected from his family, or this woman has a crippling moment-to-moment phobia of death, or this boy is scared of being left home alone. They're all people we can observe successfully for the span of their story. But if something were to happen to them, we would be largely unaffected. And considering misfortune is a recurring character in Ito's work, that's a good thing.

When we form opinions of characters, how they end up at the end of their story will characterize it as "happy" or "unhappy," as a "bad ending" or a "good ending." When we're largely unconcerned with the well-being of the protagonist, a curse or a debilitating transformation or what have you can take place without it coloring the "tone" of the ending. If someone we like succumbs to a strange sleeping curse, it's sad. If a guy we're sort of watching from a distance becomes a millennia-old future-human overnight before disintegrating, our focus is on the happening, not on whether or not it was "deserved."

Obviously this is a "sometimes food." Making characters unremarkable is not something to do in every story. But if the centerpiece of your creation is "hey look at this weird scary shit," the people it's happening to need to exist at a safe distance from the audience.

You Decide if You Need a "Why"

When it comes to long-form series like Uzumaki, Ito absolutely sets up a question-and-answer scenario. Everything in the town is getting warped into spiral shapes. Why? By having his characters search for an answer, he has established that there will be an answer. And in the end there is one. It's pretty insane, but it's there.

Meanwhile, many of his short subjects don't have a firmly established "why" to them. Again, the horror is the show piece, and we're here to observe it. For example, Marionette Mansion never explores the background of its seemingly cursed puppet, and it leaves the ending largely ambiguous. But the protagonist, the audience association character, never shows interest in an explanation — he only shows an interest in making the weirdness end.

There will always be audiences who want a full answer to absolutely everything, and that can't necessarily be helped. But when you write, if you're gearing up for an unexplained ending, you need to prep for that. If you want the story to simply exist and a deeper dive is not forthcoming, then it's helpful to not situate your characters and their thoughts in such a way that you make false promises. (Unless that's what you're going for, I guess.)

Perhaps if Ito's characters asked more questions, more of them would survive. But from a creative standpoint, having them focus away from wanting reasons and instead trying to brute-force away the horror helps the reader immerse themselves in the spectacle without expecting an eleventh hour lore dump.

Junji Ito's work isn't necessarily for everyone, but for me it's the closest I've found yet to what I want to achieve when the horror bug bites me. If you're unfamiliar with his work and want bite-sized introductions, check out the anthology series Junji Ito Collection on Crunchyroll.

And, of course, here's wishing him many more years of creating his beautiful weirdness.

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