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Junji Ito's 'Smashed' manga collection is strange, disturbing

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"Smashed" by Junji Ito (VIZ Media LLC; Reissue, Translation edition, 416 pages, in stores)

Before yesterday, if you'd asked me to talk about manga I would've said something about Japanese comic books featuring schoolgirls with huge eyes, cyborgs, giant mechanical armor and characters with exaggerated facial expressions.

That's because I'd never read any manga.

Now, after reading "Smashed" by Junji Ito, I am slightly more informed. (I owe a debt, as well, to a fan site called perspectiveofawriter.com.)

So what shall I tell you? Manga is, in fact, a generic term for Japanese comics. Often they are initially published in magazines, then collected into something similar to graphic novels or actual books. Some manga proves so popular that it is adapted into cartoons, called anime, or even live-action films, such as the Scarlett Johansson flop, "Ghost in the Shell," which may have been more popular if the directors had cast an Asian woman in the lead role.

There are versions of manga aimed at particular age and gender groups; each type has its own name. Some are lighthearted and fun, appropriate for young children, and some are distinctly inappropriate for kids and are NSFW.

Forgive the elementary primer.

What drew me to Junji's book was an interesting cover image and the words "master of horror." I tend to associate that term with Stephen King; he's worn that mantle in the U.S. for nearly my entire life. It turns out that Junji is about as prolific and revered in Japan as King is here; at least 28 of Junji's books have been adapted into cartoons or films, and he has a unique style that makes his work easy to pick out of the crowd.

"Smashed" is a collection of 13 short stories, some better than others. Junji claims H.P. Lovecraft as one of his influences; that comes across clearly to anyone familiar with the late author's strange existential and metaphysical writings, such as "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Call of Cthulhu."

I know little about the work of others Junji names as inspirations, but if you're a manga fan, you may recognize them: Hideshi Hino, Shinichi Koga and Yasutaka Tsutsui. Hino is known for horror manga with titles such as "Hell Baby" and "Panorama of Hell;" Tsutsui is an 84-year-old actor and celebrated science fiction novelist whose work challenges Japanese norms; some of his books have been turned into manga and anime.

I don't know if "Smashed" is representative of Junji's other manga; many of the customer reviews on Amazon.com suggest this isn't his best work. It is plenty creepy, however, in large part because the narratives don't follow the forms American readers expect.

To explain, I'm going to ruin the first story in the collection for you. In "Blood Sucking Darkness," a young woman stops eating after her boyfriend leaves her for someone else. She shrinks to an unhealthy weight but ignores everyone who tells her to eat. She is approached by a stranger, a man about her age, who implores her to end her starvation diet. She waves the man off, but she soon sees him again.

He is significantly skinnier and drawn, telling her that he won't eat until she does. It turns out that he has imported vampire bats into Japan; he lets them drink his blood, which they then inject into the woman to give her more vitality. She runs away, horrified, but he and his bats chase her. He doesn't see a train coming and is smashed so hard by it that he is dismembered. Days pass, and the woman continues to be covered in bat bites. She searches the area around the accident and finds his head, which is still alive. It speaks to her. Then it suddenly transforms into a giant bat. She screams. The end.

Again and again, Junji's protagonists find themselves in bizarre situations, generally through no fault of their own. It's as if fate lays traps and waits for someone to walk into them. The second story, "Ghosts of Prime Time," is about a pair of unfunny comedians who are magically capable of making everyone laugh; only one boy is immune, and the comedians seek him out to make him pay.

A few stories focus on a traveling "haunted house" occupied by the same characters each time. People pay to enter, only to emerge scared out of their minds. Among the house's inhabitants is a young boy with too many teeth and a mouthful of nails, which he spits with such force they lodge securely into boards. But he's not the only one in the book with nails in his mouth. It seems to be an idea that plagues Junji, and in one story, nail-mouthed children proliferate across Japan as if they are victims of an actual plague.

Is it weird? Absolutely. Is it scary? Some of the images are. The art isn't over-the-top, in general. It's black-and-white, and the characters resemble actual humans. That thing about schoolgirls with huge eyes? You won't find that in "Smashed." But the nail-mouths are disconcerting; they're so specifically wrong that they may haunt your nightmares.

In the end, "Smashed" isn't enough to sell me on manga — but I'm turning into an old man and am well aware I know too little about this particular literary format to make any recommendations about it.

Just remember this: You read manga from back to front and from right to left, exactly the opposite of books in the western world. Know that going in, and the procedure will confuse you less than it did me.

Ken Raymond

Ken Raymond is the book editor. He joined The Oklahoman in 1999. He has won dozens of state, regional and national writing awards. Three times he has been named the state's "overall best" writer by the Society of Professional Journalists. In... Read more ›

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