Lovesickness by Junji Ito is the latest story collection by the horror manga author to be published in English by VIZ media. The featured story stars Ryusuke, a middle school student who has returned to the foggy town of Nazumi after his family moved away eight years previously. Soon after moving back and reuniting with some old friends, rumors begin swirling about a bewitchingly handsome young man who has been compelling girls to commit suicide after telling them their fortune at the crossroads. Eerily reminiscent of a dark secret of Ryusuke’s from before his family first moved away, the boy takes it upon himself to confront the beautiful boy of the crossroads and bring an end to the mystery once and for all.
Though advertised as a story collection, this book more closely resembles the release of Ito’s adaptation of Frankenstein from late 2018 than the likes of Shiver, Smashed, or Venus in the Blind Spot. As with Frankenstein and its titular story, Lovesickness has a featured story of the same name that takes up the bulk of the book. It is five chapters long and makes up roughly 60% of the book’s content. What follows is a smaller, two chapter section called “The Strange Hikizuri Siblings” and then three other short, standalone tales, the final only a handful of pages long. It’s still technically a collection, but it’s worth knowing that one story stands out as the headliner of the book, rather than one among many that just so happened to become the namesake for the collection.
The story “Lovesickness” itself took a chapter or so to grow on me. At first, I did not realize just how long the story would be, the premise was a little flimsy, and the details laid out seemed to be leading down a predictable path. Fortunately, despite my misgivings, this is a tale that Ito allowed to grow into something a little more. By the end of the first chapter that we learn of Ryusuke’s uncanny connection to the suicides taking place and, more importantly, much of the predictability dissolved away. Where at first his connection to it all seemed too convenient from a storytelling angle, it became a great motivation for just how dogged Ryusuke becomes in trying to resolve the bizarre events unfolding.
This story was a real gem among the other Ito stories I’ve read most recently, in this and other books. He took an uncertain premise and molded it into a compelling and unique ghost story. The crossroads fortunes, a strange folkway of Nazumi where you ask the first stranger who passes you at a crossroads for advice, were a great focal point for the story because they were so evocative of youthful whimsy and wishful thinking. It was increasingly effective as they became twisted into something much more haunted and menacing. It was like witnessing the birth of an urban legend with real consequences, as the rumours spread infectiously around town, had a real lasting impact on its citizens, and the threat was all too real.
The story was just as vague as it needed to be, the chain of events being easy to follow but the ultimate reason behind everything obscured and foggy. By the end we have an idea of why the beautiful boy of the crossroads may be haunting this town, but nothing concrete enough to dispel his mystique. I really loved a lot of Ito’s art in this story too, which made great use of fog and portrayed the spirits of the boy’s victims as stupendously horrifying to look upon, especially as they linger longer and longer in the world of the living. Everything culminated in an ending that felt surprisingly definitive and satisfying, while still keeping things nebulous.
This story certainly wasn’t without its faults, but I talk it up so much because I have to be frank about the rest of this collection: I didn’t like it. The other stories weren’t outright bad, but were so underwhelming that once I finished the whole book I had to remind myself that I actually liked the first 60%, because I was left feeling so disappointed. “The Strange Hikizuri Siblings” were a pair of stories that were just weird, but in a boring way. Sometimes, Ito seems to want to tell stories that are more goofy and grotesque than straight-up horror, and these definitely fell under that. Maybe this quirky style appeals to others, but I really didn’t care for it here.
“The Mansion of Phantom Pain” was an all right standalone story with an interesting idea, but it wasn’t given enough time to grow, suffering a fate I imagine “Lovesickness” would have if it had been reduced to one chapter. Certain ideas within it certainly struck a chord with me, it just took no time to dwell on its environment. “The Rib Woman” I suspect was born of Ito having an idea for a disturbing image and building a story around that. The premise was paper-thin and a little contrived, the type of weird that puzzles me more than it unnerves. “Memories of Real Poop” was humorous and presumably autobiographical, but at just four pages long it was at best an amusing little epilogue.
My feelings about Lovesickness are rather starkly polarized. I think “Lovesickness” itself is a great ghost story and, honestly, whack $10 off the price and cut out the other stories and I’d buy it as a book on its own. I can’t judge this collection off of that story alone, however, and the rest of this book (nearly half of all its content) made me feel worse about the collection overall. It feels like they were added to pad the book out. I suppose I’m happy to just have more of Ito’s work collected and translated, but it made a book that started so strongly end on a bad note.
My Rating: 3 out of 5