‘Museum of Terror’: The beautiful nightmare

October 31st, 2011

With this being the season for scares and screams and things that go “bump” in the night, it’s only fitting that this month’s Manga Movable Feast, hosted by Lori Henderson over at Manga Xanadu, is focusing on horror manga.

There are so many different directions one could take in discussing horror manga. Over in The Rough Guide to Manga (only four left in stock at Amazon, order soon!), I covered a number of manga that could qualify as horror manga, including:

  • Battle Royale, where 42 students are plopped onto an island and left to fend for themselves, Lord of the Flies style, in a program broadcast to the citizens of a dystopian society.
  • Drifting Classroom, the cerebral alternative to Battle Royale’s in-your-face blood-and-guts gore, in which a school of more than 800 students and teachers must learn how to survive after they’re suddenly thwomped into an alien wasteland.
  • Death Note, perhaps one of the biggest-selling horror manga stateside, in which high schooler Light Yagami wields the power of a shinigami (death god) to serve as judge, jury and executioner simply by jotting down someone’s name in a notebook.

Tag-team partner in fandom Wilma J.’s also done her share of horror-genre coverage in the past, writing about Rumiko Takahashi’s Mermaid Saga, the Vampire Hunter D novels and the VHD: Bloodlust anime.

Which brings us to the present. There were quite a few series in my manga stacks that I considered writing about — Nightmare Inspector. Hanako and the Terror of Allegory. Muhyo and Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation. Di Gi Charat: Dejiko’s Champion Cup Theater. (I had to remind myself that this MMF was about horror manga, not horrible manga, after thinking of that last one.)

But my eventual choice for today’s profile of horror sprang forth from what was a truly terrifying scene for book-lovers everywhere a few months ago: the shelves of Borders gradually emptying out, never to be filled again, as the company slowly sank into the oblivion of bankruptcy liquidation sales. Those same emptying shelves on which Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy! languished for so long held on to another series deep into the sale as well: two volumes of Museum of Terror, a collection of horror stories by Junji Ito translated and published by Dark Horse in 2006.

Several reasons spring to mind as to why those volumes sat for so long. On the outside, the covers are somewhat plain and don’t reveal very much about the horrors that lie within; on the inside, the psychological suspense that the stories generate and the grotesque art, both hallmarks of the purest of Japanese horror manga, often ends up appealing to a very small subset of the contemporary young-adult, Shonen Jump driven manga market. An even smaller subset of fans will make the connection that Ito was also the creative mind behind two series released by Viz, Uzumaki and Gyo.

And then there’s the fact that over the course of these two volumes, this Museum really has only variants of one exhibit on display. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s a pretty compelling exhibit. It’s just that with something called Museum of Terror, you’d expect a little more variety.

So consider these volumes a hall of infamy, an exhibition of the terror that one young woman with a mole under her left eye and long, dark hair can inflict on those who have the misfortune of crossing her path. Her name is Tomie, and she fits the classic, universal¬† model of a horror-genre villain: She’s beautiful enough to lure weak-in-the-knees guys (and the occasional girl who wants to be as beautiful as her), dangerous enough to manipulate their minds to the point of driving them insane, and as unkillable as Kenny from South Park. Seriously, almost every story features Tomie being stabbed or hacked into pieces by some lunatic, gallons of blood flying everywhere, in a manner that would make the people who brainstorm those fatalities in Mortal Kombat want to jot down notes for their next game. Yet, like that flatworm that we all learned about in science class that can regenerate into separate individuals after being chopped in half, those pieces of Tomie can regenerate into multiple Tomies and bring even more torment upon her victims.

With that setup, you’d expect Ito to pour a bucketful of crazy into his stories, and he doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The sole multi-part story is the first one featured, “Tomie,” and it starts off with an illicit relationship between teacher Takagi and student Tomie that eventually ends up with a field trip where all the males in the class join in on the Tomie-hacking fun and everyone gets a piece of her to bury and never speak of again … and yet she shows up the next day as if nothing happened. But that’s not the end of the story … no, Takagi goes insane, one of the students ends up in the hospital needing a kidney transplant, yet another Tomie clone shows up only to get killed, the kidney ends up in this student, and a bloody Tomie head ends up bursting from this poor girl’s torso. And then some doctors take some of the parts into the hospital basement to study their development. You can pretty much imagine how that study goes.

Yeah. Did I say “bucketful of crazy” in that last paragraph? Scratch that. It’s more a continual IV drip full of crazy that flows through these stories. People who try to capture her beauty in photos and pictures reveal her true dual beautiful/evil nature. Her body parts get thrown into rivers. Her blood spills under carpets. Sometimes she re-emerges as her beautiful self, sometimes as increasingly grotesque multi-headed mutant creatures. In one story, Tomie doesn’t even have to show up in real life; just a box of her hair, multiplying and attaching itself to two girls, is enough to trigger the madness.

According to the table of contents in each book, these Tomie stories originally ran in Japanese manga magazines over a 13-year span, from February 1987 to November 2000. And every time, we’re compelled to read to see (a) the poor soul and his/her sadly flawed life who will be lured in by her beauty and (b) the demented situation from which Tomie will die and spring back to life yet again. As countless Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Final Destination and Saw incarnations can attest, there are audiences that eat up this sort of repetition when it’s firing on all cylinders, and that’s what we see here with the Tomie cycle.

For those who tire of Tomie tales, though, there’s hope for that greater variety that I alluded to earlier. While researching this post, I discovered that there exists a third volume, one that actually may be more fit to carry the Museum of Terror label. From Dark Horse’s description:

Now Junji Ito, creator and curator of this horrible museum, brings a new type of exhibit to thrill and chill your senses! First, his lovely violinists will escort you to dinner in a vampire den. Next, in a classroom full of grotesquely masked students, which one is a demon in disguise? A musician’s possessed arm attacks a schoolgirl by way of his mouth, and another young man listens to the tape recording left behind by a suicide victim. Why did she kill herself, and is he safe from its influence? Swordplay, monk-ridden ruins, halls of upright corpses, infectious radio broadcasts, and murderous ceiling hair are among Ito’s beastly offerings in this volume! Find out why Junji Ito is Japan’s foremost creator of horror manga!

It would be the last volume Dark Horse would release; the series was canceled soon afterward due to low sales. Either Borders never stocked that volume, or the few copies that they did order actually were snatched up quickly — or at least sometime over a five-year span, anyway. It’s possible to find a copy online for a decent price (read: $13.95 cover price or lower), although you’ll have to dig deeper than the usual outlets to find it — Right Stuf, AnimeNation and Robert’s Anime Corner Store are out of stock, and Amazon, Barnes & Noble and eBay all list copies at obscene secondary market prices.

One Response to “‘Museum of Terror’: The beautiful nightmare”

  1. Manga Xanadu » Blog Archive » Horror Manga Movable Feast: Day 8 Links:

    [...] of Otaku Ohana for the Honolulu Star Advertiser puts in a last minute review of the 2 volume series Museum of Terror. He prefaces his review with this: Several reasons spring to mind as to why those volumes sat for [...]

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