Manga Legend Junji Ito Talks Making Horror, Adapting It, and Cats

Even when it comes to kitty cats, Ito can still chill your core. (Image: Junji Ito/Kodansha)

Uzumaki. Tomie. The Enigma of Amigara Fault. Gyo. You may not recognise the names immediately, but no doubt you’ve seen the haunting works of Junji Ito plastered all over the internet. His incredible, detailed ability to capture the psychological trauma and graphic body horror in his work has made his manga iconic. So what drove him to look for the comic horror behind his own pets?

Ito has been around in the business long enough not just to create his own vast body of work, but to see it adapted many times into new mediums over the years — including the upcoming adaptation of Uzumaki coming to Adult Swim. Following his appearance at the recent Virtual Crunchyroll Expo, Gizmodo had the chance to virtually sit down with the legendary mangaka over email. We asked about his thoughts on the horror genre after decades of writing creepy tales and why, after years of writing horror, he made the surprising switch to…cat comics? Read his thoughts below!

James Whitbrook, Gizmodo: You’ve been publishing stories for over 30 years at this point. What is it about the horror genre that still compels you to explore it as a creative to this day?

Junji Ito: When I was young I took an interest in the horror manga of Kazuo Umezu and horror movies from all over the world, and that interest stayed with me as I grew. The things I’m familiar with from my youth help me find my footing now that I’m grown. Horror tends to stimulate an interest in the extremes of existence, like curiosity, fear, and the grotesque. I think that’s why I’ve been interested in it for so long. Another part is how, when it incorporates something fantastical like supernatural phenomena, it allows for the expression of really unique ideas. That element of it really helps nurture the creative impulse.

Gizmodo: We’re getting a new Uzumaki adaptation later this year — it’s not the first time it’s been adapted outside of your original manga, much like Tomie’s multiple adaptations. What do you think it is about Uzumaki in particular that invites exploring it in other mediums beyond manga today?

Junji Ito: I think Uzumaki is the most complete demonstration of my artistic ability and imagination. The contrast of the black and white art really leaves a vivid impression, and I wonder if that’s what makes other creators curious about trying to adapt it.

Gizmodo: Speaking of adaptations, it’s rare to see you as a writer tackling someone else’s work, but English-speaking audiences finally got to see you do that with the release of your 1994 Frankenstein adaptation a few years ago. What made you decide to make the exception and adapt such a beloved work — and looking back on it now, what challenges did you face adapting someone else’s work compared to creating your own from the ground up?

Junji Ito: A few months before the 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh debuted in Japanese theatres, Asahi Sonorama’s editorial department caught wind of it and proposed a manga adaptation to be published in time for the premiere. I was only familiar with the character from the old Universal movies, and after reading the original novel, I was shocked by the serious themes it had, and decided I wanted my adaptation to reflect the original work.

That said, there are a few differences. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is asked by the monster to create a companion for him, but he stops partway through the process (even though he finds the perfect body parts to create her form, in the story!). Since I wasn’t satisfied with that, I did what I thought most horror fans would want, and had the doctor finish work on the companion. And when I saw Kenneth Brannagh’s movie adaptation after I had finished the manga, he had made a similar decision. My reaction was less surprise and more along the lines of “Well, of course, why would you let those body parts go to waste?” Branagh’s companion for the monster was more elegant than what I drew, and experienced a more climactic end. I thought it was a wonderful movie.

When making a manga based on someone else’s story, it’s easier in the sense that you don’t have to come up with the plot, but you have to be careful in preserving the appeal of the original work. And since Frankenstein takes place in 19th century Europe, it was a lot of work getting the correct reference materials. I regret how some of the scenes in the Arctic turned out thanks to that lack of reference.

Gizmodo: Your autobiographical manga series Yon & Mu is quite a step out from what people typically know you for. What drove you to make the switch from horror to a slice of life about living with cats?

Junji Ito: I had drawn some short autobiographical comics in the past, and I enjoy working on them because of how easy they are to make. When I got married, I started living with the cats that my wife brought with her, but prior to that I had never been around cats much and honestly got the impression they were a bit creepy. At some point, I realised that a manga about learning how to deal with these new circumstances could be interesting. Not long after, my editor somehow caught onto the fact that I was now living with cats, and proposed the idea of drawing the manga. I was between projects at the time, so it was perfect timing.

Gizmodo: You’ve explored horror so deeply — aside from a series like Yon & Mu, are there any other genres you’re particularly interested in writing in outside of horror?

Junji Ito: Other than horror, I also like sci-fi, so I’d love to do a story with that kind of setting. Beyond that, a heart-warming coming of age romance would be something I’d like to work on (that one seems less likely, though.)

Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu’s English translation is available now. Adult Swim’s adaptation of Uzumaki is set to come to Toonami sometime later this year.

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