The Black Paradox HC – Junji Ito

4 out of 5

As someone still relatively new to manga – maybe five years into reading / collecting it? – and even newer to Junji Ito, having only really become aware of the mangaka as a known quantity a couple years into that five – I’m here to espouse my newbie opinion all over everything, and say: Junji Ito’s classics are imperfect, y’all.

I really like Ito, to be clear. While he certainly has his influences, no one quite taps into the weird and creepy like Ito, bridging the gap between body-horror and sci-fi and Lovecraft unknown with a very particular balance; I’ve been buying up all these VIZ reprints of Junji’s material gleefully, and enjoy digging into them – and noting the creator’s habits – whether or not they’re presentations of Gyo or Tomie, or some “off” stuff. And it seems most (from my sample of reviews) consider The Black Paradox an off book, with at least one commentor citing its gap between publication (2009) and translation (2022) as evidence of, y’know, something.

But the problems I see here are similar to things I’ve found in most of Ito’s works, including his heavy-hitters; I think it’s just that the core imagery / ideas in those heavy-hitters are more distinctly unnerving, and so even if the surrounding story tends to wander – and almost all of them do, into silly or pointless or random territory – that core image sticks in one’s mind, elevating the rest. And look – there’s strength in that wandering. I’d say it’s particular to manga, in a way: to the scheduled style of publication, and of course, different cultural attitudes; American horror has its own ups and downs, but it’s often very limited. I dig the way an Ito story can bounce around tonally in ways that allow it to wind through varying emotions. The Black Paradox is actually very linear in comparison, taking its concept from a starting point to something of a conclusion. So what it might lack in striking imagery, I feel it makes up for with a stronger story, and a set of characters who all feel identifiable, instead of variations on a singular and meek girl or guy who are generally just stand-ins to bounce a tale’s horrors off of.

The Black Paradox starts off with four strangers who’ve connected via a suicide board, and plan to do the deed together. Using fake names, and not discussing their personal lives much, in revealing the circumstances of their desires, it is discovered that each seems to be where they are due to a “doubling” of selves, in a sense: one has a robot clone; one believes their mirror images is after them; etc. Even from here, we have a nice blend of the off-putting and the weird, and Ito dives into these stories with a bit more detail and dedication than I feel he often might. While that doesn’t make the characters deep, per se, as mentioned, it makes them recognizable.

The group’s plans are disrupted, and lead to the discovery of a distraction: a unique item/s that bring potential riches, but also troubles. But anyway – let’s put off this suicide thing for a while, eh?

From here, BP never quite sinks into comedy or full-on horror, but it has a delightfully off-kilter vibe that leans, tonally, toward the former, but then includes splashes of very Ito weirdness that makes sure we’re never too far away from some unknown element. Story threads are followed in an internally logical manner, taking us pretty far along this journey, and making the book into an almost absurdist origin story…

I feel the tone here is well-summarized by a bonus story VIZ included, which features a horrific monster being oohed and ahhed at by a crowd, then some violence, and then a punchline. It’s a silly little bit (though very entertaining!), but its quick one-two punch of gross and gags is perfect; The Black Paradox surely runs with that vibe, but it’s page length gives Ito room to trail out both halves of that tone, following his plotline to a relative conclusion. Do any of the bits and pieces along the way actually matter? No? Yes? But when have they ever, really?