Frankenstein is the latest English translation of collected stories by horror manga artist and writer Junji Ito. The featured story of this collection is unsurprisingly an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the classic tale of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who discovers the secret to creating life. Putting his discovery to the test he stitches together a humanoid being of giant proportions and imbues it with life. It is only when the grotesque giant stirs with life that he realizes he was so obsessed with whether or could that he didn’t stop to consider if he should. Following this tale is a collection of episodic stories about a 14-year-old boy named Oshikiri who lives alone in a large, disorienting house and is constantly beset upon by supernatural experiences and otherworldly intrusions.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is actually one of my favourite books, so I was cautiously excited to see how Ito would adapt the story. While I have loved most of his work, Frankenstein has been iterated upon so many times I couldn’t help but wonder what he would bring to the table. We often associate the character of Dr. Frankenstein with a mad doctor in a castle on a hill, assisted in his graverobbing endeavours by a handicapped assistant whom he mistreats. In the original novel Victor is more simply a university scholar who throws himself into the study of natural philosophy after the loss of his mother. Learning from both the old masters and contemporary knowledge he discovers something he becomes obsessed with confirming through a macabre experiment: the ability to imbue non-living matter with life.
This book quite precisely adapted Shelley’s story, though understandably abridged by the comic book medium. This included the frame narrative of Captain Walton coming across Victor pursuing the Creature across Arctic ice, to whom Victor tells his tragic tale. There were only a few key differences, one of which I have mixed feelings about and the other I appreciated more. The one I had trouble with was Ito seems to have gone out of his way to make adjustments that vilify the Creature more than in the novel. He was still sympathetic, but there were a few instances where his acts of violence appeared more motivated by cruelty rather than a desire for retribution for his suffering and Victor’s absent sense of responsibility.
The other change pertains to Victor’s creation of the Creature’s mate, which differs significantly from the novel by borrowing some ideas from the film Bride of Frankenstein and altering the role of Henry at that point in the story. I enjoyed these changes, giving this adaptation its own unique twist on the tale without differing too dramatically. It also helped to clear up some idiocy on the part of Victor in its aftermath that always bothered me in the novel; namely, that he takes the Creature’s threat to “see him on his wedding night” as a threat against himself. The creature had previously threatened to kill all his friends and family to see Victor ruined, so why he didn’t think anyone else to be at risk was always a flaw to me. The end result in this telling is more or less the same, but the creature races to Geneva ahead of Victor with no secrets about his mission, rather than waiting to strike after his wedding.
Ito’s illustrations were as good as I come to expect from him, but I really must commend his design on the Creature, which especially takes cues from the novel rather than the iconic look we all know. He is downright grotesque, really emphasizing that he doesn’t just look like a misshapen person, but a genuine monster. One design choice that really got me was the way he draws the Creature’s eyes. They always look like they’re covered in some sort of sickening goo, giving them a great unnatural quality. Despite all this he is still sympathetic too, the most important thing to getting this story right. He may look horrifying, but he still has moments that inspire genuine sympathy as he suffers the continual onslaught of human rejection. I believed he suffered while also completely understanding why he invoked nothing but horror in others.
The Oshikiri stories were a little strange at first, though not without their own moments of great horror imagery. As they progressed a fairly intriguing story about parallel worlds emerged, though you have to just go with some of the developments that take place. The idea of living alone in a huge house, hearing footsteps in the middle of the night all the time, and then discovering that an evil version of you is intruding upon your world to dump their victims is pretty unsettling. I was more thrown off by the continuity of it all. The first story presented the character as dramatically different from how he appeared later, the second felt completely non-sequitur to the story eventually built up, and the third was compelling as a standalone story, but the connection to the greater story felt tacked on at the end without anything developing further afterwards.
Frankenstein is less of a collection than I thought, but the featured story was a more faithful and detailed adaptation than I was expecting, which left me pretty happy with it. It’s certainly worth checking out for this story alone, though it is only half of the entire book. The Oshikiri stories are all right, but a little weird. They honestly felt like he was making them up as he went along and couldn’t decide if he wanted to write episodic stories with a recurring character, or have each of them connected somehow. It was ultimately disjointed yet intriguing. A couple shorter standalone stories follow to close the book out, which were short and sweet, ending things on a high note.
My rating: 4 out of 5