5 out of 5
My main, subsisting criticism of Junji Ito regards the vein of misogyny that runs through his tales. While some of this I try to filter through my cultural ignorance – the differing gender roles in Japanese society to which I’m not sensitive – there’s nonetheless a rather consistent narrative thread in Ito’s stories of women being at the root of various evils. It’s not rampant or necessarily lascivious; it’s not the leering eye of a horror film; violence and sex are there but they’re often besides the point of just landing on an unsettling concept or image, and the argument could be made that mens’ pursuits and drives fuel just as many of the nightmares in Ito’s works. Still, in general, I think the criticism persists. And in the glimpses I’d had of Tomie – like, the ultimate femme fatale, who drives men insane via tickled fancies to the point of their first wanting to murder any others who covet their Tomie, then to the point of their wanting to murder Tomie herself in a twisted “if I can’t have her…” resolution – the character seemed to pretty much formalize this misogynystic bent into its own reoccurring story arc.
Reading the collected Tomie works, though, brought together by Viz in an impressive hardcover, seeing how Ito evolved the concept from a “normal” ghost-revenge tale into the many, many imaginative iterations over the next several years… adds some necessary dimension to the character and idea. And, admittedly, muddles the picture on my take on its sexism to a degree, as the stories that are more connected – slowly telling a bit of Tomie’s origin – move it out of realm of those criticisms and into weirder, wilder, almost science fictiony madness. Your brain starts wandering down the fascinating hallways Ito constructs… and all of the one-off tales in which Tomie (or one of her endlessly replicating proxies) causes mayhem make more “sense” in the context of what seeing her chronologically ordered stories offers.
At story’s outset, Tomie is dead, found dismembered. Her classmates mourn her passing, and then… she returns. And we flash back to learn of the events leading up to her fate, and it seems that this is all in line with any given Japanese-ghost revenge tale. But then Ito keeps going… showing how Tomie is an entity: inject her blood into someone, and they turn in to Tomie; try to isolate her or injure her and she’ll split off into another Tomie. Her ire extends to everyone – every man and woman within earshot – and her only desire is to replicate like a plague, pushing people to desire her, or hate her, or whatever it takes to kick them in to overdrive – killing her, splashing her replicating bodybits and blood about, to keep the plague going. Watching this idea flourish and spread out into – to the normal person – unimaginable directions is not only page-turningly gripping for 700 pages, it’s also frightening as all get out, with Ito tapping in to something very primal that preys on our unavoidably human weaknesses and exploiting them, matched with unbelievable disgusting (-ly awesome) artwork, which impossibly never bores, or repeats itself, even once you know that every story is going to end in some type of explosion of gore. Ito’s very first Tomie strip is rough in comparison to his more modern efforts, of course, but even then you can see that his eye for composition is a step above most, and he grows in leaps and bounds from that point forward.
Viz’s HC Ito collections are all very nicely put together, and this is especially impressive, given how readable it is – flippable, lightweight – at its size. There’s an afterword from Ito in terms of bonus content, but just having all of these strips together is pretty grand. That the material itself manages to surpass any possible expectations – and even challenge some of my assumptions – makes it a must-own.