How Junji Ito’s Deserter Showed Glimpses of the Famed Mangaka’s Future

Junji Ito is known as the master of horror in the manga world who has been in the field for over 30 years. Although his name has been praised for decades among Japanese fans, it's only recently that he has garnered the same attention in other countries. Be it because of Crunchyroll streaming The Junji Ito Collection in 2018 or publisher Viz Media making his content available to an English-speaking audience, his fan base is larger than it has ever been before.

The newest collection published by Viz, Deserter, contains stories from the early days of Ito's manga career, spanning the 1980s and 1990s. Readers familiar with Ito's style or not are treated to his art evolving with every short story, gradually getting closer to the beautiful, detailed art he's known for today. In this way, it feels similar to reading the complete collection of the Tomie series, which started his manga career and has been added to throughout the years.

Fans of Ito's can also detect themes and ideas that he first used in these stories and refined later. Here are a few examples.

References to Lovecraft

Junji Ito Sensor

Ito has said that one of his biggest inspirations as a horror author is H.P. Lovecraft. The influence is clear upon looking at Ito's body of works, especially his most famous ones. Deserter tells the reader that his earliest reference to the esteemed author is also the most blatant.

"Where the Sandman Lives" is the story of a man named Yuji who refuses to sleep because he believes that a dream version of himself is trying to escape into reality. He enlists his friend Mari to observe him while he sleeps and prevent his dream self from coming out. On the first night, Mari looks at the books on Yuji's bookshelf.  Amongst the books, the reader can see a complete Lovecraft series split into three editions as well as a copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula. She takes one of the Lovecraft books to read and comments, "He has these weird dreams because he keeps reading books like this." It's a fun poke at Lovecraft, and perhaps something Ito himself has been told by friends or family.

While his references are more subtle in the present day, Ito is still heavily inspired by and tries to put his own spin on the cosmic horror that Lovecraft is known for creating. This is plain to see in Ito's best-known work Uzumaki as well as Remina and his most recent work Sensor. All of these stories feature a horror that is beyond the scale of human comprehension. They're otherworldly, unstoppable forces that the characters are completely helpless against and have no hope of understanding.

Junji Ito Long Hair in the Attic Uzumaki

Ideas Later Refined

It's possible that these early short stories were utilized as a playground of sorts for Ito, where he experimented with different themes and ideas before committing to his longer works. "Long Hair in the Attic" showcases Ito playing with a very specific idea that supports this theory. In it, a girl named Chiemi is dumped by a man who she did everything to keep, including changing her appearance. She grew her short hair out after he told her his preference for long hair, but nothing was ever enough for him. Chiemi decided to cut her hair after the breakup, but she is somehow beheaded before she can go through with it. It isn't until some time later that her family finds her head, suspended by still growing hair in the attic. Despite its host being dead, the hair is still alive.

The concept of living hair makes a comeback in Chapter 6 of Uzumaki "Medusa." In this chapter, the main character Kirie's hair begins growing and curling in a way that it never has before. It attacks anyone who tries to cut it and even defies gravity, gaining attention from others the same way that a peacock's feathers do. As it grows, she becomes weaker and more resigned to her fate. Another girl is experiencing the same thing and sees Kirie as a rival. Eventually, Kirie's hair is cut and she's spared but the other girl isn't as lucky. She withers and ultimately dies because of how demanding the hair is.

Another more obscure reference to Uzumaki can be found in one of these earlier short stories. At first, "Unendurable Labyrinth" seems to be Ito's first venture into the horrors of cults. In it, two girls find themselves lost during a hike and stumble across a Buddhist temple. With no other options, they take the monk's invitation to stay the night. Eventually encouraged to try their practices, the girls spend days in the temple and realize the only way they'll leave is if they escape. One night they follow a crowd of believers in hope they will be led down the mountain, but wind up at a door with a very familiar pattern to any Ito fan. The door is covered in spirals and, behind it, lies a tunnel that turns into a horrific maze.

Spirals are the center of everything in Ito's Uzumaki. The central town of Kurozu-cho is haunted by the very concept of the spiral. It begins in benign ways like characters becoming obsessed with the shape, only for Ito to take it from places in every day life and biology to make a new monster every chapter. Towards the end of the tale, the town itself becomes a maze similar to the one seen in "Unendurable Labyrinth" but it's done in pursuit of making Kurozu-cho itself a spiral.

Junji Ito A father's Love Dissolving Classroom

Recycled Character Types

There is one very specific character archetype that Ito uses in one of the stories in this collection which makes a comeback in one of his most bizarre series. In "A Father's Love," three children are cursed with headaches that cause strange behaviors they don't remember once they pass. The only girl, Miho, is most noticeably different in these moments. She becomes harsh and violent with no warning. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this personality change isn't a problem with Miho herself. Rather, it's being caused by possession.

That said, there's another character in Ito's roster who is in an eerily similar situation to Miho. In his short series Dissolving Classroom, Ito weaves the absurd tale of a pair of siblings with odd tendencies. Yuuma Azawa seems to do nothing but apologize and his sister Chizumi is known to stalk and scare strangers. On top of this, the young girl has an obsession with eating brains. Yuuma reveals that Chiumi wasn't always like this and claims that she's possessed. Both siblings are, in a way, as this particular story plays with devil worship and what happens to those who make deals with such creatures.

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