Tomie by Junji Ito is a deluxe hardcover edition collecting every chapter of the horror manga of the same name. These comics were originally published serially in the manga magazine Monthly Halloween from 1987 to 2000. High school student Tomie has met a tragic and brutal end at the hands of an unknown killer, with only pieces of her body having been recovered for cremation. Her classmates gather for her funeral, mourn her loss, and consider the dangers that might await them with a killer on the loose. That is, until Tomie walks into class the next day as if it were all nothing more than a bad dream. The entire school is shaken, authorities are baffled, and her classmates and teacher begin to feel a creeping dread, having been more involved with her death than anybody else realizes. This is the stage set in the first chapter of Tomie that ignites a saga of obsession, vanity, and brutality around one beautiful young woman who just can’t stay dead.
Over the course of the last year and a bit I’ve enjoyed a lot of the Junji Ito comics that have been officially published in English. My enjoyment of his horror has fluctuated in that time, Uzumaki setting the bar high at the outset. Thanks to Ito’s art his horror can make your stomach turn, skin crawl, and haunt your dreams with twisted sights unimaginable, this book having been no exception. It’s often what leaves the biggest impression on people who talk about his work. I did enjoy and appreciate the artistry that went into his other books, but it wasn’t until I started reading Tomie that I was starkly reminded of something that I hadn’t really felt since that first book I read: Ito can be a brilliant horror storyteller.
Having been one of the first, if not the first comics Ito ever wrote, the first chapter of this book is noticeably rough. The art is less refined and some of the paneling sequences don’t flow as well as they could. The idea for who and what Tomie is, contrasted with the rest of the book, clearly isn’t quite there yet either. Regardless of all this, it set a precedent for the whole series that burrowed into my brain and stuck with me: Tomie is a victim. The chapter sees her murdered by her classmates after an accidental fall on a school trip. Their teacher, who slept with Tomie, manipulates them into cutting her into pieces and hiding them to “protect” the student who accidentally caused her fall. They realize she isn’t dead midway, but continue anyway, discussing the dismemberment with an uncomfortably perverse amount of fascination. Tomie’s return prompts madness and fear in the classmates involved, seemingly inflicting the former by unknown means off-panel when she gets some of them alone. We don’t get the best look at her character in this chapter, but her status as a victim of the derangement of others is an important note.
The chapters that follow are largely episodic, with a few following a continuing story before moving on, but we learn a lot more about Tomie along the way. The reason she can “come back” is that, for unknown reasons, any part of her body when cut off can regenerate into a copy of her, like a planarian worm, often in haunting displays of body horror. Ito really pushes the limits of how to interpret such a power throughout the book and the results are spectacularly disturbing. This means that the Tomie we see throughout the book is frequently not the same Tomie from previous stories due to the nature of her regeneration. She also has some sort of siren-like quality to her. She isn’t just a beautiful young woman; her presence alone actively makes men become impassioned and obsessed with her, most often to the point where they inexplicably want to murder her and cut her to pieces. She doesn’t appear to have direct control over this ability, but is certainly aware of it and uses it to manipulate others, which leads to the most fascinating aspect of this whole saga to me.
Tomie is a bad person. She’s deeply vain, manipulative, greedy, unfairly critical, and even cruel. If she isn’t the centre of attention she will do everything she can to get someone’s affection, then cast them aside when she is satisfied. In the cases when she does step from a passive figure to a perpetrator or enabler of cruelty it is typically directed towards other women. These stories are compelling in their own right, but it’s the stories where she engages with men that struck a chord with me. In the explicit context of each story, these men are victims of her paranormal influence. However, it is the subtext of these stories that is both haunting and fascinating. Despite the consistent affect she has, Tomie never wants to be murdered; it’s never a part of an elaborate plan. When she’s aware of another Tomie in her vicinity, she almost always goes out of her way to try and destroy her too, so while regeneration does benefit her, she presumably doesn’t want to be maimed because that will create another her that she’ll have to deal with.
Nevertheless, a clear pattern emerged in a lot of these stories, though the formula was varied in creative ways: she gets a man’s attention, the man becomes obsessed with her, she rejects or frustrates him in some way, he brutally murders her. The effect of her being a deplorable person from a social standpoint messes with the reader in interesting ways when considering these events. We don’t like her and we’re aware of the literal paranormal factors at play that vilify her more so, so there’s an angle where you feel like she deserves it. Despite this, in a lot of these cases she never actually does something severe enough to warrant such brutal rebuke, so one cannot help sympathizing with her too. These complicated feelings invoked in me made the horror all the more meaningful.
Male violence against women is a strong undertone in this collection. It is succinctly captured in a sentiment I will paraphrase here, expressed in some way by many male characters: “I don’t know what came over me, I just couldn’t help myself.” The reader knows what this means in context, but it carries a lot of real-world weight with it that stuck with me. I’m sure abusers of all kinds have said something like this. I don’t think Ito’s intention was to craft a grand commentary on this troubling subject, more incorporating and projecting it through art in an effective way. It turns a creepy collection about a femme fatale, murder, and grotesque body horror and gives it something that has more of an effect on the reader than the paranormal events and horrifying imagery alone.
Tomie is a phenomenal comic book any fan of horror should consider checking out. While I have emphasized the violence inflicted upon her, her regenerative nature makes sure she always comes back to haunt her murderer, paying them some form of destruction in kind. It’s a brutal cycle that urges you ever onward to see what form it will take next.
My Rating: 5 out of 5