Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition by Junji Ito.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
If someone hadn’t read any manga before, and you really wanted to fuck with them, you’d probably show them some Junji Ito. I mean if you wanted to warp them irreparably you’d throw them a bit of Suehiro Maruo – that’s a Wikipedia link, but I’d be leery of actually Googling the dude if you were at work – but if you just wanted to weird them out, it’d be Ito all the way. Because this is pretty much the initial reaction to his work:
Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition is a collection of almost 15 years of monthly instalments of strangeness. Over the course of 700ish pages, it tells stories of an uncanny girl, Tomie. She always looks the same – well, mostly – and each story is fringed with death, either hers or someone else’s. The settings and the times may change, but the girl at the middle of the gruesomeness is always the same beauty-spotted young woman.
It’s the sort of book that likes to present continually shifting ground. Is Tomie the victim or the aggressor? Is she real? Is she a collective hallucination? A plague? Some kind of human worm? The story – like Tomie herself – bifurcates. There’s no stability in what we know of the girl: according to some people she’s always been here. According to variants of her, she’s lived in France and Spain. She has a taste for foie gras. There’s an affinity for water in her iterations. And she knows that people like to murder her. And that she likes to take revenge.
Ito gives us no clue as to what Tomie is. She just is. The work is a collection of almost monomaniacal mash-notes to a violent end, and to an almost inhuman level of icy kawaii. It’s as if he’s drawn to her visage, again and again, as if she’s a seed planted in the cerebellum. Indeed, some of the best images – a team of nude women walking from the deep; several heads darkened hair turned away; a milky eye, devoid of pupil – have the stuff of dream or nightmare in them. You don’t want to look but you can’t turn away.
This edition reads in typical Japanese fashion: right to left, with dialogue and action framed accordingly. It does take a little while for that process to become second nature if you’ve not read any manga for a while, but the content is so off-kilter that a little confusion adds to the experience. The confusion was something I found stayed through the book: I made the mistake of thinking that the first story in the text – a tale in which Tomie was the victim – was the set-up, and that everything that followed was going to be a supernatural revenge tale, like you’d find in Ringu, say.
It doesn’t quite work out that way. Yes, there’s distinct supernatural elements at work here, but there’s the feeling – as elsewhere in Ito’s work – that there’s more oddity based in biology than in ghouls. There’s growth, abhorrent, weird, inhuman styles of growth. There’s fixation. There’s the desire for supremacy, and the sort of rawness that sees some twins devour the other in the womb. It’s almost as if the author trucks in only the natural occurrence – but it’s the natural occurrence that blows our well-constructed frames of reference all to shit.
This isn’t the first Ito I’d read. I powered through his Uzumaki as it’s considered by many to be his ‘best’ work. The difference between Uzumaki and Tomie is all in the way the story holds you. Whereas Uzumaki petered out towards the end – I read it in a three-volume format, where I loved the first and thought the second and third were just ehhh – Tomie is relentless.
I wonder if the book’s sense of forward movement if it is because of the perverse nature of the work – Ito won the 1989 Kazuo Umezu prize when he was still working as a dental technician rather than a full-time creator – because it was a labour of love. Perhaps it’s the sort of love someone can only have for a succubus, but hell, this book gives you an opportunity to look right into its eyes.
Tomie is such an unearthly work, I find it hard to express my feelings on it cogently. You really should dip in and try and figure her out for yourself. It’ll be worth it.
(Or you know, you’ll go mad. One or the other.)