The Radical Gaze of Junji Ito | Cinema Cartography

We have always told horror tales. We turn
to horror to explore the darkest corners of our unconscious mind, and we always will.
For as long as there are darkness, discomfort, catastrophes, there will be horror storytellers
willing to traverse to the other side of Truth. The mangaka Junji Ito understood that. He
knows that horror is an artistic expression of a deeper truth about ourselves: we are
formed not only by what we love and cherish but by what we are afraid of. Fear is a fundamental component of our consciousness, It’s a key ingredient of ancient and primal human instincts. Nothing haunts men like Death does. The horrors of Death that bypass all intellect, all civilizations, all cultures. It’s in the explorations of the splendors of Life and also in the fears of the Unknown that we are all equal. While diving into Horror, we are often trapped
between desire and revulsion and that’s exactly where Ito’s work thrives. It destabilizes the fundamental pillars of human identity and human interaction. In most of his work, Junji Ito begins with
a simple, clear idea, and gradually transgresses all expectations. And although contemporary and classic horror writers have used this narrative technique, Ito still seems to be
at the forefront of innovative macabre storytelling. The cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft and the
frenetic body horror of Kazuo Umezu are by far Ito’s biggest inspiration, but the best
comparison I can use to describe Junji Ito’s work atmosphere for a first-time reader is
the German Expressionist movement. In Art, literature, and Cinema, Expressionists
tried to present the world through an extreme subjective perspective, often incorporating
radical distortions of color, light, and mise-en-scene in order to evoke an emotional experience,
an idea, or induce a mood. Junji Ito does that, akin to expressionists
he is more concerned with experience than physical reality. It’s in his use of black
and white, his themes, his characters. We traverse Ito’s universe often by a gaze of a passive narrator, watching as the horror unfolds in front of our eyes. But unlike the aggressive strokes of Expressionist paintings, the detailed, precise black and white ink
of Junji Ito combined with the strong contrasts of both the beauty and the horror elements of his drawings evoke in us, what I like to call a Radical Gaze. For an Expressionist wish, above all, to express
his inner angst, while Junji Ito wants to undermine the reader’s emotions through his
wicked, precise craft. A good example of this technique is perhaps his most influential
manga In Uzumaki we observe, the helpless town of Kurōzu-cho being slowly
consumed by a spiral curse. In a slow built upon climax, Ito chooses to emphasize the
mundanity of the streets and their inhabitants, The atmosphere transpires from the drawing
to the reader’s mind. The haunting presence of the spiral curse is in every corner He spends every single moment of the visual storytelling dedicated
to the subjective, emotional experience of the reader. Ito’s radical gaze is able to immerse us into
a state of profound dread and discomfort. His characters experience a sense of fragility
and vulnerability towards the profound changes they encounter, but can’t do anything about it. The experience is overwhelming to us because is overwhelming to Ito’s characters. In Expressionism, subjectivity is the central
piece. Rather than focusing on objective reality, Expressionists explored emotional responses
that reality had on the Self. They explored the idea that our sense of identity is strongly connected to three fundamental pillars: The Mind being what controls our thoughts and mediate our intellectual experience, the Body being the tangible part
of Self and the Soul being what lies in our unconscious and gives a special quality to
our individual experience. In Junji Ito’s work, the dread comes exactly
from the transgression of those three pillars. The characters experience irrational mania,
they lose their minds, sometimes events defy the intellectual normality of their reality.
They also experience disintegration of their bodies, haunted by curses that transform their
physical being. But what makes Junji Ito horror gaze truly radical is how we transgress
the Soul. Some of his most terrifying work comes from the familiarity of his character’s
haunting experiences. They traverse what we know as the Uncanny Valley. Changes around them are sometimes not quite easy to describe, they don’t alter the world too much to be
unfamiliar, but they are there… lurking. Identified by Freud in 1919 and later by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, 不気味の谷現象, or the Uncanny Valley,
refers to an object’s resemblance to a human being. and the emotional response that such
an object provokes. Amongst all things, Freud was referring to wax dolls, and their strange similarity to real humans; Masahiro Mori was referring to robots. But the term is perhaps most popular through the eyes of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan described the Uncanny as an experience
that is strangely familiar, placing us Junji Ito’s radical horror gaze provokes exactly
this feeling. Horror has been around since the dawn of storytelling. It echoes the fears
of the animal side of us. Our Self (mind, body, and soul) looking at the Other, the
Unknown, Death. For we recognize that our world is strange, wicked and broken. It’s
full of monsters, sickness, and despair. But Junji Ito’s radical gaze is a reflection of
what is inside of our minds. His horror can thrive because our unconscious is strange. Our fears are irrational. While Horror is preoccupied with the Other, Junji Ito’s radical gaze is preoccupied with the Self. And what is scarier than looking at our own shadows?


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