Junji Ito is an author with two major sides to him. The first is the one most know him for the horrific, grotesque, and utterly unsettling master of terror. He’s had numerous hits to his name, ranging from Tomie to Uzumaki, and his seemingly endless supply of short stories.
The other side, however, is the one that woke up one morning with what may well be the single greatest idea for a manga ever: Killer zombie fish with mechanical legs.
That’s the trickiest part of trying to read Shiver, the latest anthology of Ito’s shorts. While there are some genuinely terrifying plots in this set, even with things you’d otherwise think of as silly or goofy, others just take that leap of faith and walk right off a cliff. It’s not that any of these stories are bad, far from it — they can still have some intense imagery, and Ito’s talents as a master of suspense are plain as day. Some of the works in Shiver just have a bit more luck in combining these disparate sides than others.
The high point of this anthology by far is the artwork, showcasing the best of Ito’s hyper-detailed style with some of the most striking imagery in basically all of manga, period. Whether it’s a monstrous model offering a shark-toothed grin or the utterly distorted, almost alien face of a man with endless dreams, Ito brings a sense of genuine reality to everything he draws. This works well in two distinct ways. First, it emphasizes the grounded nature of his stories’ worlds, making it clear that this isn’t something taking place in an alternate dimension or in some far-off fantasy realm. This horror isn’t just in our lives, but it could be right next door. Second, it allows for the creation of visuals that lean heavy into the uncanny valley just because of how comparatively normal everything else is. Some of these stories look incredibly life-like, with average people in average clothes doing average things. It makes seeing the grotesque creatures and eerie scenarios feel even more unnatural. Ito’s love of close-ups and page-turner shock panels help to sell the sense of reality (and in some stories, finality) that makes the best of his work shine.
Ito also has an immense talent as a storyteller, with strong skills finely tuned over his years of work. The fun of Ito’s stories is in the way he dances around his plots. They always start off mundane enough — a neighbor who’s freaked out by repeated doctor visits, an ugly model that keeps showing up in a screenwriter’s magazines and dreams, a weird puppet owned by a guy in an already weird family of puppeteers — they start off as slightly-darker Goosebumps stories. They swerve into full-on nightmare fuel eventually, but they’re always preceded by some of the most mundane lives possible. People go to school, visit cafes, even make movies. But unnatural influences always worm their way into their peaceful lives. Ito’s stories are crafted carefully to build suspense, with the requisite dips and spikes in terror, all leading up to one big reveal. Sometimes that reveal isn’t the end, making you wonder just where things might go next, and sometimes there’s more than one. While that doesn’t always work in Ito’s favor, each story is at least an interesting experience if not always an enthralling one.
There are a few standouts in this volume that make it well worth reading. The titular “Shiver,” while not as bombastic as being the title story makes it out to be, makes for some tense reading with its look at greed and a subtler brand of horror — the kind you know as little about as possible. “Marionette Mansion” is also a fun one, with a simple hook that makes way for some interesting thoughts on the nature of what it means to be human. “The Long Dream” and “Hanging Blimp” are probably the strongest pieces of them all though, with enough plot and development that you truly feel for the characters and their strife, compared to the more “hey, here’s a nobody who gets caught up in some freaky crap” kind of stories scattered throughout the volume. “The Long Dream” especially feels like a story that would come right out of the pages of early Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, aided by probably some of the scariest visuals in the whole book.
That’s not to say that every story is a winner here. In many of these stories, one of Ito’s biggest faults comes into play: the dude just can’t write an ending sometimes. The plots build up in either events or tension (it usually tends to be one or the other in Shiver‘s stories especially), and then it just stops. Sometimes, this works-we don’t need to know how everything ties up in some stories because we’ve been given all we need and want to know. It makes for a harrowing way to close out a scene. But sometimes, it just feels like he got bored or tired of his current work and wanted to jump right into his next project. Some of his twists also leapfrog over the “silly/creepy” line hard; for example, blimps with faces on them are terrifying to imagine. A vinyl record that makes people want to murder each other sounds like an off-brand Twilight Zone episode, and reads like one too. And let’s just get this out of the way: “Greased” is solid horror, but it is utterly unsettling. If you’re even the teensiest bit squeamish, don’t read that story. If you think you can stomach it, go for it-but it is not for the faint of heart.
Shiver isn’t the perfect anthology, but it contains some fun reads, some of the most beautifully unsettling art you’ll find in any manga, and quite a few moments that will keep you up for nights to come. Its faults come more from the nature of Ito’s style, but the flip side of the coin makes for some masterful storytelling. Whether you’re in the mood for a monstrous scare or something on the quieter side, Shiver has something for you.