Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spookey Month: Museum of Terror 3: Long Hair in the Attic: A Comic Review

Museum of Terror 3: Long Hair in the Attic
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Stories and Art by Ito Junji

Now that my favorite anti-hero Tomie has met her fate-- or has she? Cue ominous music-- Ito Junji tells a series of one-off horror stories in volume 3 of Dark Horse’s wonderfully disgusting Museum of Terror series. Actually, the stories in Long Hair in the Attic pre-date the Tomie Saga (as I like to call it). These are from early in Ito’s career, when he was still working as a dental technician.

I don’t know how much influence working in an industry so devoted to pain and torture had on Ito’s oeuvre, but I’m guessing there’s at least a teeny bit of orthodontic cruelty hidden in each and every story.

Long Hair opens with “Bio-House,” a distaff vampire tale that seems equally influenced by Bram Stoker and David Cronenberg, or perhaps even Stanley Kubrick with its opening aerial shots of a traveling car. Kubota, a young biotechnology company employee, is invited by her boss for dinner at his country house. It seems they share a “yen for unusual cuisine,” which is the hook Ito uses to explore various aspects of zoophagy and haemophagia.

He's obviously partially inspired by Stanley Kubrick's The Shining:

In this offering, Ito’s linework betrays a certain lack of confidence. But as the stories progress, Ito quickly gains in skill and self-assurance. That’s one of the charms of volume 3- watching Ito’s growth as an artist and writer, and his introduction of his various ongoing concerns and themes.

Like many modern horror auteurs in various media, Ito relies grotesque imagery relating to various violations of the human body. This may be relatively restrained, as in “The Face Burglar,” where a vicious gang girl gives a mutant her comeuppance, or almost rococo in its ornately gory detail; for example, when Ito depicts the fate of both protagonists of “Den of the Sleep Demon,” literally turning them inside-out as they merge, “on-camera.”

While chock full of this sort of delightful nastiness, Terror 3’s main attraction is in charting the growth of Ito's distinctive voice. Even in the crude early tales, his nightmarish story-logic and recurring motifs and concerns are already evident, developing rapidly over the three year period covered by these works. Along with the first two volumes, this collection also adds to an already strong case for Ito as one of horror’s finest practitioners. He's definitely pre-eminent in the graphics form.

Because he’s not content with merely pushing the boundaries of physical transformation, Ito’s horror stories at their best are crafty dissections of cherished institutions. He delights in revealing all their nasty little secrets as he both subverts and perverts government, religion, friendship, romantic relationships even that most ostensibly secure of social units, the nuclear family.

In “Village,” two young adults return to the rural village they abandoned years before to visit their parents. They find the place in thrall to a massive siren that sounds all night, every night.

As Japan’s population ages and economic necessities force the abandonment of the traditional family structure (younger generations living with and caring for the older), it’s becoming increasingly common for young people to leave smaller towns for places like Osaka and Tokyo.

But what happens to their cast-off parents? In Ito’s imagination, they fall prey to reincarnated sorcerers and transformation into demonic, bat-winged creatures, a scenario with apocalyptic implications. Still, true to form, Ito's vision doesn’t lend itself to a simple conservative reading; the young people who stay behind to do their duty suffer madness and death. As horror is by its nature a nihilistic genre, even adhering to societal values offers no escape.

The title story combines many elements of Ito's subtextual favorites. In “Long Hair in the Attic,” a young woman suffers through a painful breakup with her shallow lover, despite her having grown out her luxurious black hair. Desiring change, she asks her sister to help her chop off it all off. So far, pretty prosaic stuff, almost slipping into romance comic-land… but the hair has ideas of its own, including designs on the old boyfriend.

Malevolent, sentient hair? This is one of the earliest indications that Ito is a true original, and the story’s key visual, that of the lovelorn woman’s head being borne up the steps into the attic on a spidery wave of hair is fairly unprecedented. Unless you count some of the grisly images from John Carpenter’s The Thing.

But if you want something really dark and worrisome, let me direct your attention towards “The Bully.” This queasy short begins with Kuriko breaking up with her current boyfriend to enter a relationship with a man she tortured as a child. After their wedding, Kuriko's former victim fathers a child with her, then abandons them both as his revenge. Driven to madness by parental responsibilities and increasingly obsessed with her child’s resemblance to the boy she once knew, Kuriko reverts to type in a sequence that is absolutely pitiless. With the mother-child bond being one of society’s most sacred, “The Bully” is a profoundly disturbing tale.

While its final page and a half doesn’t match Ito’s other climaxes for overt violence, this perversion of motherhood and its promise of further physical and emotional violence is easily Ito’s nastiest achievement in this volume. Its counterpart can be found in “Heart of a Father,” another dark exploration of family ties, this time with a malevolent father causing all the trouble. It’s creepy, but since it involves a group of siblings it can’t equal “The Bully” and the lonely fate of Kuriko's innocent child.

The book concludes with “A Deserter in the House,” where a rural family has been hiding a friend who went AWOL from the Japanese army during WWII… although it's now eight years after the atomic bombs ended the war. They even stage visits from a phony army inspector hot on the man's trail as part of the family's elaborate revenge over the death of a sister in an American air raid. The shock ending is effective, but surprisingly conventional for Ito.

Once again, Dark Horse has put together an excellent package, containing all the strengths of the first two volumes. And yes, again, one positive adding a great deal to the book's enjoyment is the fine translation work by Naomi Kokubo and Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh. I especially like the line, "It blows my mind that such a pretty thing like you would be into gross food."

Under the loving caress of Ito Junji's relentlessly dark imagination, gross is a well-chosen understatement! And really, all of Volume 3 is food that's at once gross and delicious... even if it's a apt to lead to indigestion and sleeplessness. Just toss some of those miniature chocolate bars on top for the perfect Halloween.

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