Deserter HC (VIZ, 2021) – Junji Ito

5 out of 5

These early shorts from Junji Ito – stemming from around 1987 until 1990, and mostly, I believe, previously published in English by Dark Horse in their third ‘Museum of Terror‘ collection – are not only a perfect encapsulation of the terrors that work at the heart of even Ito’s most sprawling works, but also show how much the artist’s technical abilities grew across just a few years. This is also evident in the various Tomie collections, of course, since those stories span a similar publication time range, but since these are all standalone tales, and thus can vary greatly in setting and tone (from more horrific to slightly macabre to fantastical), I think it’s more interesting to note the progressions – they can be framed separately from how an ongoing narrative is developing.

While none of the tales collected here might hit on the explorations of the unknown that pop up in, say, Uzumaki, the more intense focus on emotional horrors – jealousies, mostly, but grudges, and plain human pettiness as well – highlights how Ito maintains that as a seed in almost all of his stories, which I think is what makes those journeys into the unknown all the more frightening, and elevates when he goes off on gorier parades to be more affecting than just simple splatterpunk.

We are still occasioned with abrupt endings, and the way Junji occasionally wanders from one focus to another, but every entry in Deserter is so wonderfully weird and imaginative and varied, from one to the next, that it’s not a distraction. I feel like we also see a small handful of slightly more fantasy-styled horrors than in other short story collections, which further fleshes out the value of this particular collection – elsewhere, after 400 pages of Ito, you often see the repeat of one concept or another, and that’s not the case here.

I don’t know enough about Ito fandom to say whether or not any of the tales collected in Deserter are considered classics, but many should be, or could easily stand toe-to-toe with other stories I have heard referenced as such. Knowing that these are from very early in Junji’s career, that’s incredibly impressive, but it’s also interesting to see how he’s iterated off of the ideas here – already incredibly imaginative, and often quite frightening – to go in more complex and bizarre directions later on.