Horror mangaka don’t get more famous than Junji Ito. His creepy and over-the-top imagery stands out above the pack. With that said, I’ve found his actual narratives to be hit-or-miss. For instance, while his adaptation of Frankenstein was ghoulishly enjoyable, I found most of the original works in the same collection to be underwhelming. His latest release, Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection, was recently published by Viz Media. The manga included feature all manner of oddities, from a phantom flood to a trilogy about a haunted house and demented children who hoard nails in their mouths. So, is the collection good?
The aforementioned trilogy is the book’s longest semi-continuous narrative, and it’s a fun one. It centers around a traveling haunted house run my a frightening businessman with a mouth full of nails. The further into the story one gets the more disturbing truths about the house are revealed, and the more we see of how the house’s customers are ultimately affected by their visits. The creepy faces in this story are among the volume’s best, and the set-up for the haunted house is great. Upon first entering the building guests are surprised by how cheap and kiddish the decorations are, but their disappointment quickly shifts to horror as they keep progressing further inside. The idea of a source of terror that moves from town to town is also a classic one, and Ito does a good job imbuing it with life.
A lot of the standalone stories included also impress. “Earthbound” has great visual motifs that unnerve without needing to resort to gore or monsters. One day, people who are stuck in strange poses begin appearing at various locations throughout Japan. The affected are unable to move and just stay in the same place for days on end as the rest of the world wonders what’s to blame. “Bloodsucking Darkness” also enamors with an unsettling premise and some of the most downright scary panels in the entire collection. “Roar,” meanwhile, has one of the book’s most creative concepts: a phantom flood. A natural disaster having a ghost is something I never thought of before, and it adds a new twist on apparitions.
Unfortunately, this collection also features many of the same cons that have marred Ito’s past works. There are a number of sudden reveals that feel tacked on for the purpose of eliciting shock but which are executed too poorly to feel anything but forced. Revelations about strangers being relatives or co-workers having sinister hidden connections receive a little foreshadowing, but not enough to build up actual interest in the characters. These twist endings seldom actually enhance the horror; rather, they undermine it by making the narrative arcs feel less well-crafted.
There are also a few bland stories where the core ideas just aren’t memorable enough to make up for their underdeveloped characters. “Ghosts of Prime Time” and “Splendid Shadow Song” are particularly weak. Other manga, like the titular “Smashed,” introduce intriguing horrors but end before achieving their full potential. Fortunately, the artwork always looks good even when the writing falters a bit. There’s never any doubt what characters are feeling thanks to how expressive Ito always makes them. If you’re looking to actually be scared by most of the book’s contents then you might end up disappointed, but if you’re content just to watch strange happenings to unfold you’ll likely have a good time.
Overall, Smashed: Junji Ito Story Collection is a fun bunch of horror stories. They vary a lot in terms of how frightening they actually are, but the consistently great artwork and the variety in ideas make most of the manga worth reading. If you like horror manga and/or Ito’s past works, check this book out.