Junji Ito is an undisputable master of body horror. Even comic book fans unfamiliar with manga often find themselves wrapped helplessly into his infinitesimal artistic coils. Shapes, and especially body shapes, play a fundamental role in Ito’s most popular works — from the spiral-terror of UZUMAKI to the gas-producing plague nightmare GYO. Many mangaka display an obsession with monstrous body parts and hidden deformities (Kaori Yuki, anyone?), but the themes tackled in Junji Ito works depend an unusually large amount on body perception and dysmorphia.
TOMIE is a particularly interesting study because it is Ito’s longest running work, having first emerged in 1987 to the honor of a Kazuo Umezu award. Its development from simple revenge fantasy into phobia-inducing parasitic nightmare makes it an especially potent series to read from start to finish (I recommend Viz Media’s massive hardcover edition released in 2016).
In her early chapters, Tomie appears as a beautiful and desirable woman who comes back to life, over and over, at will. There is certainly an element of the classic femme fatale here, as men obsessively worship her and follow her around like pets. In a kind of mockery of stalker culture, those most mired in her spell are driven to murder and dismember her, only to see her return.
It’s not a revolutionary idea — in Japanese horror, there is often a vengeful, immortal succubus who takes revenge on her persecutors again and again. And Tomie is, in her own way, “immortal”, despite repeated deaths. Immortal beings are often beautiful, as in the case of elves, sirens, mermaids, and even vampires, whose historical foray into the realm of “sexy” has been much documented (and often chagrined). Immortals are impervious to wounds, retain a kind of goth-chic pallor that only the terminally ill should be capable of, and sit forever on the pointed edge of deadly and alluring, frozen in majestic villainy for all time.
However, despite her familiar origins, Tomie devolves into something quite different. She is female, yes; she is beautiful, of course; she is immortal, absolutely; but she is also unnatural.
Tomie’s unique regeneration taps into the dread that causes us to fear large numbers of insects. Every wound she sustains, no matter how small, gives rise to a slowly growing copy of herself. Hit her on the head, she’ll sprout a new face from her hair. Cut her skin into pieces, and a mass of bulbous, eager-to-be-regenerated organisms will cluster and battle for space on her body. As if to prove a point, a mysterious salesman throws chunks of her flesh into a waterfall and they suction themselves to the rocks, growing and surging around anyone who dares venture into the water.
When put into contact with a human being through hair or organ transplant, Tomie takes over the person’s body like a parasite devouring its host. A new head sprouts from the chest of her freshly dead corpse like a weed. Her “beauty”, as determined by a painter, appears to be a creature in the midst of cell mitosis, dividing itself in two as a means of survival.
Therein lies the rub: Tomie reproduces asexually, like an amoeba. What appears to be the perfect human specimen becomes not only distinctly inhuman, but in no need of intimacy — neutralizing her admirers’ erotic obsessions, making them alien and even perverse. The regenerations are uncontrollable and terrifying, even to Tomie herself; indeed, at times it seems she falls victim to her own cancerous monstrosities: begging classmates to cut off her extra head, or in constant need of a babysitter to tend to a botched regeneration that looks like “a heart sprouted a face”. Most often there is a tendency toward the minutiae, the insectoid, the distinctly inhuman fungal growth of a seeming invertebrate that has nothing in common with human beings.
In one story, a photographer stumbles upon a room where she finds a girl who has been experimented on, injected with Tomie’s fluids and surgically attached to hunks of her flesh in an attempt to study the nature of Tomie’s regeneration process. In this girl, the true nature of TOMIE emerges into the hallway: an aberrant nightmare of heads, arms, braids, limbs, and regrown eyeballs that have multiplied on top of themselves into a kind of lenticular tentacle-monster. Not immortal, no; just unnaturally alive, like one of Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors.
By turning this initially beautiful, sensual femme fatale into a pile of replicated flesh parts, Junji Ito takes typical tropes in patriarchal society — the crazed suitor clamoring for female attention, the coy beauty with a mysterious aura — and turns them inside out. If heterosexual attraction is the norm, Tomie and her clones destroy the myopic concept of commitment, negate traditional sexual desire through extreme body dysmorphia, and lead throngs of aggressive men into what must be considered degradation. The men who desire her are mocked. They are forced to look, instead, into the mirror at their monstrous selves.
This essay appeared as back matter in Issue 2 of Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, and Piotr Kowalski’s COME INTO ME, published by Black Mask Studios.