Monday, March 30, 2009

Museum of Terror Vol. 2: Tomie 2: A Comic Review

Museum of Terror Vol. 2: Tomie 2
Publisher: Dark Horse
Written and drawn by Ito Junji
Translation: Naomi Kokubo

Tomie, you’re so beautiful. Won’t you please be my girlfriend? Oh sure, that’s how it begins- with flowers and hugs and kisses and sharing an umbrella in the all too frequent Japanese rain. But it ends with jealousy and insanity and chopping Tomie into little tiny pieces- pieces that each have the ability to blossom into a brand new and equally entrancing Tomie.

Volume 2 of Dark Horse’s Museum of Terror series kicks off more Tomie madness as the crazed and supernatural seductress Tomie goes to war against… crazed and supernatural seductress Tomie. For the various Tomies, this means finding new dupes to carry out their nasty work. In the first story, an average guy named Tetsuo falls under Tomie’s spell. As Tetsuo can probably testify, if a gorgeous someone makes a dying wish for you to bury her in a secluded spot, it’s not a good idea to dig her up again. Even if she begs you to.

Because the next thing you know, you'll have severed heads whispering to you from the wastepaper basket and knife-wielding creeps with bowl haircuts like Moe Howard barging in and making demands like “Give me the woman!” Kind of makes it difficult to get any studying done.

Tomie doesn’t just subvert romantic relationships; she also attacks the notion of family. In “Adopted Daughter,” she insinuates herself into the lives of a childless rich couple and in “Little Finger,” she completely destroys a tight-knit clan, leading to a particularly grisly denouement in a damp, murky cave. Pinkies may be the smallest and most helpless of the fingers, but when the pinky belongs to Tomie, she lives to laugh last.

Oh look! Tomie heard we were discussing her comics career and brought us a snack. How nice of her:

Whatever could it be? The bottom of the bag seems kinda soggy... and red...

While Tomie freely indulges herself in selfishness and narcissism, one recurring theme in her stories is the punishing of vanity in others. In “Hair,” Chie and Miki discover a lock of hair with amazing beautifying properties. You can just stick one to your head and it begins to grow as if it were your own. But their need to hew to societal standards of attractiveness leads to hirsute tragedy. This is pretty typical of the Ito story set-up- protagonists make a singularly bad decision that deliberately plays on audience expectations to generate tension. Then, the inevitable consequences, which are usually strangely logical and still appallingly gruesome.

One of the weirdest stories that follows this pattern is “Gathering,” where yet another young guy ends up in Tomie’s thrall, and joins a strange Tomie-obsessed enclave. The Tomie presiding over this mess enjoys being their object of worship but eventually finds it hollow. I’ll tell you her solution involves lots and lots of knives and scissors and leave it at that.

This volume ends with “Old and Ugly,” where the themes of beauty, narcissism and familial ties come together as two of Tomie’s victims- one gruesomely maimed by her machinations- conspire to trap her in a block of cement for decades, all for the joy of releasing her as an aged crone.

This image isn't found in volume 2, but it's a damn fine piece of Tomie art by Ito Junji:

For some reason, there's a vocally ignorant chorus of American comics fans who think Japanese artists can't draw. Yeah, right.

Ito glories in detailed and downright disgusting renderings of all the carnage Tomie causes, accompanied by solid storytelling that shifts from standard issue Japanese houses to romantic dreamscapes to quiet gardens. Panel layouts and compositions are clear and easy to follow, but his figure work tends toward stiffness, and he relies on the same basic body types, leaning towards the gangly. Sometimes it can be difficult discerning between unrelated characters from different stories because Ito also repeats faces and hairstyles. Still, his clear, uncluttered drawings make the gory “money shots” all the more effective.

With his wickedly twisted plots, Ito is like a sick O. Henry, and, for my money, the finest horror writer in comics today, and one of the most original working in the genre in any media. These stories are short and nasty, each iteration serving to heighten the suspense. And these stories don’t even represent his finest work.

Because ultimately, the Tomie 2 stories can’t quite match the vigor or baroque horror of those in Tomie 1, and it seems Ito’s interest in Tomie is flagging in this collection; perhaps it’s a matter of extending the concept past its natural expiration date. Still, compared to the standard zombie or vampire fare most American horror comics offer, these nightmarish Tomie stories feel much fresher.

Ito’s stories are also some of the truest expressions of what we mean by "horror." In a true horror story, trusted institutions (boyfriend-girlfriend, family, friendship, cultural norms) are subverted and the status quo is damaged forever, certainly not reestablished by heroic intervention; indeed, in stories like “Assassins,” Ito depicts the traditional male protagonist as not only ineffective, but as doomed by his very impulse to help Tomie. In a true horror story, altruism turns on the altruistic and dooms them to tragic fates. At his best, and in this spirit, Ito’s nasty stories linger on in a poisonous feeling of dread and mistrust that resides in the stomach or even the soul, rather than in the mind. Ito accomplishes this not only in these Tomie tales but in his other works, such his masterpiece, the Lovecraftian Uzumaki.

Once again Dark Horse puts out a superior translation. I discussed this in my review for the Museum of Terror Vol. 1: Tomie 1. All too often, Japanese comics translations fall flat, being either bland or else overly cutesy. Here, Naomi Kokubo and Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh combine to give the characters distinctive, believable dialogue. It’s conversational and natural without relying on distracting slang; I doubt it’s any kind of literal transcription of the original Japanese into English but truer in spirit. To me, this is the very definition of a good translation.

Note: Lately, it seems Ito has been working less in the continuing series format and doing more stand-alone tales. Dark Horse needs to get Kokubo and Waugh cracking on volume 4. I’ve got a Japanese graphic novel collecting some really cool and disgusting stories by Ito that I really want to read in English… a friend gave me the gist of them, but my own Japanese studies are progressing so slowly I’ll be as old as Tomie’s final enemies by the time I can read it on my own!


Anonymous said...

Hey, for some reason, I can't find many of the tomie stories you talk about \: Such as old and ugly? I would really love to read it, could you please give me alink where I could?

Joel Bryan said...

Hi! I'd love to help you out because you really do need to read these crazy stories, but I don't know of any links. The only place I know they're available is in the Museum of Terror books.