The other week, in re Princess Jellyfish, I wrote that comedy's deceptively hard to do well. The same goes for horror, because while it's easy to make someone jump, or gross them out, it's far harder to get under their skin and make them uneasy. Jolts are of the moment; creeps are forever. Shiki creeped me; ditto Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. And ditto Junji Ito's Tomie, because it takes a devilish concept and uses it as a springboard for launching one little nightmare after another, all of them wicked commentaries on the weak hearts of men (and women).
A young woman who calls herself Tomie appears somewhere in this world — preternaturally beautiful, always with a "weeping mole" below one eye. Vain, haughty, selfish — but somehow irresistible to men, in the way moths throw themselves at a flame. Sometimes she throws herself at them as well, the better to get them to fall for her. Eventually, she drives them into a murderous rage, where they slaughter her and sometimes even mince up the corpse. But no matter how she's killed (short of, perhaps, being incinerated in a blast furnace?), the corpse always comes back to life. Or the individual pieces do, each one becoming a full Tomie in its own right, each going its own way to begin the cycle anew.
Tomie began as a one- or two-shot story, among the very first works Junji Ito created for his manga career, presumably with no intentions of it becoming an ongoing thing. Those first couple of chapters in the Tomie anthology, published by VIZ, trace her origins at a high school, where she comes back from the dead after an accident, proceeds to seduce teachers and students alike, and passes her infection (as it were) on to a hapless patient in a hospital. From this we learn not only her modus operandi, but the mechanics of her transmission: a transfusion or a transplant from her will take root in a host. And any piece of her at all — even a discarded hunk flung out to sea — can regenerate.
Those early chapters have all the hallmarks of a budding artist still finding their voice and vision, with muddy art and storytelling noticeably less pointed than is normally the case for Ito. But the end of each of those chapters feels like the full-blown Ito we know from his best works — both in the lingering dread that ends the first part, and the body-horror capper for the second. The third chapter also follows close behind, showing how an organ donated by Tomie reproduces her in toto. The doctors there have ambitions to use her as some kind of universal cure, but Tomie eyes the (male) doctors and has other ideas ... and that's apart from the way the patient they use as their test subject manifests a weeping mole and begins behaving flirtatiously ...
The rest of the book resurrects Tomie in a variety of settings and circumstances, many of them linked tentatively to each other — e.g., with a particular instance of Tomie escaping from one episode of seduction and death into another, sometimes with a character from the last episode reappearing in this one. The only real continuity, though, is Tomie as a concept, rather than as a person. After all, every instance of her is exactly the same; all that's new is the various opportunities that come her way to seduce, spawn, mutate.
Her infinite variety (and ours, too)
My first exposure to Ito's long-form storytelling was through Uzumaki, his other now-legendary work, about a town that becomes obsessed with the concept of spirals. Half the fun of that story was seeing how Ito would try to work the concept of a spiral into one progressively more outré storyline after another. Tome is the same way; no stone of permutative possibility remains unturned. There is never any attempt to explain where she came from, but that's fine: it's the effect she has on others, not her origins, that are the real story here anyway.
In one episode reminiscent of classic monster-in-the-castle-keep Gothic horror, a tormented Tomie in a dungeon attempts to divide of its own accord, and turns into a ghastly, shambling, multi-faced monster, like a bodhisattva from hell. In another, Tomie's blood impregnates a plastic carpet runner, and in time new Tomies rise from it like fungus out of a Petri dish. In another, a mere hair from her head — preserved by (who else?) a man who pined for one of her previous incarnations — becomes transplanted onto the head of a plain girl, whose looks and personality soon begin changing in a dismayingly familiar way. Sometimes the absurdity of Tomie's powers is the entire point, as with one grimly funny episode where her body's disposed of by being rendered in a saké fermentation vat, and what will happen to the masses when they drink the resulting product is hinted at when we see firsthand what a swig of her does to the mind.
Tomie's affects also span the generations. She plays murderous surrogate mother to a child (until Dad steps in ... and since we know how that is likely to end, the story ends right there too); she becomes "daughter" to a bizarre couple who take in children and torment them, and have no idea how badly the tables have been turned. And in the last story, Tomie ends up in the hands of a couple who try to break her by robbing her of her beauty in a way that I can only describe as a lifetime project.
What Ito always keep in sight is how to connect the gruesome convolutions and goings-on back into the themes Tomie exposes by simply existing. The hair episode, for instance: the locks are discovered by the man's daughter, and her friend grows increasingly jealous of how Tomie seems to have passed her up. When women envy Tomie's beauty, they find the only way to acquire any soupçon of it is to become her. The war-of-the-sexes spell Tomie weaves is toxic to both male and female alike, much as misogyny cripples both women and men albeit in different ways. But they never notice their own evil, only Tomie's allure.
Horror (and science fiction, and fantasy) have long been vehicles for cultural criticism designed to get past peoples' deflector shields. The Twilight Zone tackled Cold War paranoia, xenophobia, prejudice, and a host of other societal ills by way of dark fantasies that shaded over into horror or comedy. With Tomie, and with Ito generally, the moral lessons take a back seat to the fiendish ingenuity of the author. But only a back seat — and the back seat is the perfect place for some thing to rise up from and devour you when you're not looking.