Friday, October 15, 2010

An Ito Junji Halloween 3: More Tomie!

Here's a delightful image of Tomie, Ito Junji's dangerously beautiful and malevolent school girl. He depicts her looking winsome, but note how she's above the viewer, just out of reach. And the ominous decrepitude of the setting. Why is she barefoot here? What is that peering out from the window?

Tomie is the epitome of that ever-popular stereotype: the gorgeous girl with a heart of stone. The "mean girl." The most popular girl in school, her physical attractiveness concealing cruelty. There's often one in stories set in high school, with the TV series Freaks and Geeks being a notable exception. Well, McKinley High did have Vicki Appleby, but she was actually a pretty well-rounded character-- she even gave Bill Haverchuck his first kiss.

However, in Tomie's case, she's not a spoiled suburban princess or upper middle class schemer at some posh private school where the jaded student body play twisted sexual games with each other. She's some kind of immortal freak. She's literally a monster. And not just one monster. If you were to somehow ingest even a cell of Tomie's body, something hideous would happen.

Maybe a Tomie-tumor would grow inside you, causing intolerable pain until surgically excised. Then it would start speaking and grow into another perfect Tomie. Or if she were by chance murdered in your bedroom with her blood staining your carpet, the plastic floor liner might take on her shape and rise up to seek vengeance. If you were to come into possession of a single strand of her hair and affix it to your scalp, you'd end up with a lush jungle of silky locks-- inside your body.

Versatile and complex, Tomie can embody any number of fictional types, inhabiting them in chilling ways. The formidable romantic rival, the malignant best friend, the deadly seducer, the judgmental moralist. She also functions conceptually as the living repository of male fear of female carnality, of the persistence of overwhelming sexual desire, of simple jealousy and vanity, even the perversion of motherhood.

Tomie walks among the various characters and delights in destroying them, in drawing out their inner demons in a deliberate assault on perilously thin veneer of civility and propriety. Tomie does not destroy them so much as make it virtually impossible for them not to destroy themselves. I suppose her major attribute must be sexual, but Tomie herself remains surprisingly chaste. She's certainly aware of her power over men and women and subverts it to her own ends. I just can't remember if there's actually a moment in any of the stories where she actually engages in sexual activity. She mostly lets her enemies grow more and more depraved with their desires-- the need to possess her completely in ways they never can, or to become as impossibly beautiful as she is-- and the end result is usually a murder or a mutation.

Then, more Tomies.

My favorite Tomie story is the three-part saga of Tsukiko, Tomie's most persistent enemy. Tsukiko-- by the way, even though I lived in Japan for 6 years, the tsu sound at the beginning of a word is still my most difficult phoneme-- is a high school student and budding young photographer who misuses her skills in order to make a few yen off lovesick girls-- she photographs their crush-objects and sells them the prints for a neat profit. She readily, even cheerfully, admits to it in her narration: "I also sell dreams to the pathetic and lovesick."

She's a charmingly amoral girl with a boyish pixie cut and nursing her own case of urequited love.

Already morally compromised, she runs afoul of a Tomie who is ironically serving as head of the school's Ethics Committee. When Tsukiko takes some snaps of Tomie that reveal something unexpected and horrifying, things take a dark turn from something akin to high school romantic comedy in the first installment to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller and finally into Lovecraftian grand guignol over the next two. It's one of the more cohesive Tomie narratives, and Tsukiko makes a worthy foe and narrator.

But is she protagonist or antagonist? Even if the story is told from Tsukiko's point of view, Tomie is the main character of the meta-series. In the climax, Ito seems to explain Tomie's origins and adds a peculiar and haunting grace note that calls into question just who or what Tomie is-- victimizer or victim herself. Perhaps Ito is arguing she's both.

And that's the final intriguing thing about Tomie-- she's both victimizer and victim. She never asked to be this way; it was thrust upon her by somewhat obscure means. And we're never sure of the relationship between the Tomie in one story and the Tomie in another. Ultimately, is she really so capricious and malignant, or is she merely acting out from the trauma of whatever process and abuse made her Tomie? Do you find her a sympathetic monster?

Shh! Shh! Here she comes now...

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