For whatever reason, I haven’t really been getting into too much that falls into the realm of horror this year, until very recently. A friend and I got talking about manga and I mentioned that I admittedly fall more into the shojo-type reader (for better or worse), and because he knew I really like horror and wanted to diversify, he recommended the work of Junji Ito. At the moment, Tomie was the first book by Ito I was able to get my hands on, so I brought it home with little expectations, figuring it might kill an evening during a stressful week.
This book…this book…
This book had a slightly slow start for me, but once it got going, it really sucked me in. We begin at Tomie’s funeral, where we learn she’s been hacked to pieces by a psychopath, leaving behind her grieving friend and boyfriend. And the teacher she had an affair with. And other classmates who weren’t too fond of her. And by the way, it was her class that killed her after an accident. And then she comes back to class the day after her funeral like nothing has happened.
And that’s just the first story.
The really interesting thing about Tomie, is not just that she’s beautiful, but that she isn’t what I’d call a typical horror monster. I think she’s referred to as a succubus, but I don’t think that’s a really accurate term for whatever this thing is – if there is an actual term for it. There’s also a really clever, repeated use of her name throughout, so you don’t have to name her as a creature or thing – she’s Tomie. She’s not necessarily out to suck the life from someone or anything else…if anything, she craves other people’s attention. And the more they give to her, the more she wants, until she drives them so mad that they commit murder..which usually ends up being her.
You would not think you could fill a book with stories about this, but Ito does it. And they’re unsettling, uncomfortable, and diverse. You have two hikers who find her frozen while they’re looking for the one hiker’s missing brother. You have the two girls who find the strands of Tomie’s hair that one girl’s father has kept and end up infecting their whole class with bits of Tomie. You have medical experiments, a young boy torn between Tomie and his mother, a girl who is manipulated various times by her, a strange salesman selling bits of Tomie to create a mass amount of her to infect the world, a warped plan of vengeance….it just goes on and on.
Really, that’s where it’s effective as a volume. It wears you out. It just keeps going, and you can’t stop reading. You want someone to come out on top against her and just when you think it happens…the other shoe drops.
The art is magnificent for horror manga – Ito really pulls out all the stops. I will say, having become used to shojo style art, it was a little bit of a switch for me, but very quickly the art becomes more detailed and expressive once you’re let loose on the roller coaster. This stuff is over-the-top, dramatic, gory, and monstrous. The different forms Tomie takes, the way she regrows, or reforms herself, plus the variety of her deaths as people desperately fight back…it’s a lot to take in. The sheer amount of different ways Tomie regenerates and clones herself, the different expressions of people as they lose their minds, the different ways they try to rid themselves of Tomie through terror and love…it’s intense.
And really, for me, that’s where the horror came in. Story-wise, all the ways that love is shown to grow manic, obsessive, and toxic is deeply unsettling. The people that you want to cheer for turn horrible, or you just know in the pit of your stomach that they’re going to be victims and be touched forever once Tomie shows up, because once she does there’s no escaping her. There’s no underdog awkward girl coming out on top, no one getting the last laugh. As horrifying as the illustrations are, they were almost cathartic after the tension of watching Tomie manipulate people. She’s intensely cruel and apathetic in turn, her manipulations are really uncomfortable. You’re put in the horrible position as reader as not wanting to cheer for her death, but not quite blaming the other characters when they snap, either.
I think, in horror, it’s common to try to game the story, to have in the back of your mind what you would do, how you would ‘win.’ I just don’t think there’d be any way to win with this creature and the intense, obsessive emotions she provokes just by being around people. And that is absolutely terrifying, especially considering her desire to mutiply and go out into the world – the thought that these stories may not even cover all the multiple Tomies that were made in one of the stories just makes the whole concept even better (and thinking long-term on it so much worse).
What also bothered me with this is that, essentially, the monster is a young woman whose purpose is to get killed repeatedly, so does that propel misogyny and the whole succubus/evil woman stereotype in horror? Usually I’d give an immediate yes, but with this, I’m honestly not sure. I feel like I should have something to say on that, and yet the story really says as much or more about how other people take to Tomie, about their own inherrent monstrous qualities that are lurking below the surface, as much as whatever she’s supposed to be. Really, no one is innocent in this book, no matter how much they claim to be. Tomie may affect people, but you also get the sense that that desperation is already there, and is drawn out rather than implanted. In some ways, she does have agency – it’s just incredibly twisted.
Still, it does worry me that so much of the theme of this is violence against a woman, even if she obviously is not human and is very much drawing out the reactions of others in a calculated way (you could argue that inciting her own death makes Tomie potentially grow and multiply faster, and as long as she’s not being ignored, she’s somewhat satisfied..if she’s ever satisfied). My own reactions to the book have given me a lot to think about, and I’d be curious to know if there’s supposed to be any further symbolism or anything there, or what the thought process was. This is a book that definitely makes you consider who you are and how you’re reacting to the material, so while I found myself entranced by the story, I was also highly unnerved that I was so taken by it, too. And you get the feeling that that’s the way the character would want it, which also mildly freaks me out.
This book gets under your skin quickly and stays there – it’s definitely haunted me long after reading. A fast read, it also probably isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not one of the most unsettling horror books I’ve read, but I think the visuals help propel it to the unnerving category much quicker than a straight novel. I definitely recommend this one, but be warned – Tomie comes back, and she likes to stick with you.