Let’s Get Visual: The Jibblies

MICHELLE: So, in our last installment of Let’s Get Visual we celebrated the pretty, so it seems only fitting that this time we devote our attentions to images that make us shudder with a feeling I like to call “the jibblies.” Just like beauty, creepy is a subjective thing, so we’ve each chosen a variety of images that get our personal hackles rising.

Melinda, you want to go first this time?

MELINDA: Sure!

So, as I was perusing my manga collection for things that creep me out, it became increasingly clear to me that I’m very simple when it comes to what scares me. All it takes to really get to me is a single disturbing image–especially one that distorts something human into something sinister. I’m apparently not scared of monsters so much as I am of monsters in human clothing.

My first example comes from Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare. In this series, a group of teenagers is regularly drawn into a shared dreamworld in which they each appear as physical manifestations of their own worst fears. Some of these are visually more disturbing than others. The series’ main character, Ichijo, for instance, most fears his own confusion about gender, so his skirt-wearing dream self is really horrifying only to him. Some of the other students, however, wear their fears in a much more visually distorted manner. This short spread features two of those students.

After School Nightmare, Vol. 1 (Go! Comi)

First, you’ll see a student who appears only as an arm and hand, twisting itself around Ichijo. Second, a girl appears with giant cavities replacing her face and chest. While the second of these has the most stunning, immediate affect on my psyche, the first creeps up on me as I try to move away from the page. Both images stick with me long after I’ve put the book down, and this seems to be the real key to scaring the bejeezus out of me. If I can’t get the image out of my mind, it easily haunts me for days. That’s the power of a single, shocking image.

MICHELLE: My first thought upon hearing of your aversion to “a single disturbing image” is that you shouldn’t read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, followed by the thought that you should read it.

My reaction to the image above differs from yours, though, in that while these images certainly provoke in me an “ew” reaction, they aren’t the type that haunt me. I definitely think that the slinky arm creature is the more creepy in the image you displayed. For me, it’s because the gaping images of emptiness are immediately recognizable as symbols for what that character is feeling, but what on earth is causing that other student to appear like a grasping, creeping arm?! I feel like their circumstances in life might ultimately be the more disturbing! (This comes from someone who’s read only one volume of After School Nightmare, so I don’t know if this turns out to be the case.)

MELINDA: I think part of what makes the gaping holes in the second student so horrifying for me, is that (for whatever reason) I’m strongly affected by a lack of face. I have the same reaction to images of people with blank faces. It creeps the hell out of me when I can’t assess a person’s feelings/personality from their expression. It feels very threatening to me.

Perhaps it’s further evidence of how much a face means to me, actually, that both of my follow-up images are pretty much face-only. First, from CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, we have the face of a dead child who pleads with her mother to avenge her, and secondly, from Jun Mochizuki’s Pandora Hearts, the face of a girl that reveals itself to be a monster underneath.

Tokyo Babylon, Vol. 4 (TOKYOPOP)

Pandora Hearts, Vol. 1 (Yen Press)

I actually find both of these to be creepier than the images from After School Nightmare, though they are much simpler. Something they have in common is that they are presented against a stark, black background, giving the distorted expressions full focus. After that, though, they are nearly opposites of each other. The face of the girl in Tokyo Babylon is all too real, distorted by the power of raw emotion, while the character in Pandora Hearts is revealed to have no emotion at all, or at least none that matched what was on her false human face. Yet in the end, which is more monstrous?

MICHELLE: It’s interesting how much the things that creep us out reveal about us, isn’t it? I’d wager you get the same threatening feeling from the girl who is revealed to be a monster underneath as you do the girl with no face at all. People pretending to be what they’re not, hiding their real selves, etc. That’s definitely something all of us have experienced at one time or another.

Getting back to actual attempts at visual analysis, those deep black backgrounds really do focus the reader’s eye on what the mangaka wants them to see. It’s as if they’re saying, “I don’t want you to be distracted by anything else.”

MELINDA: Your analysis of me is spot-on, that’s for sure!

And yes, I think the black backgrounds achieve exactly that, while also evoking our natural fear of the dark, or what we can’t see. It’s a powerful tool for both showing us something and not showing us something, if that makes sense.

MICHELLE: It definitely does.

Now I’m reflecting on what the images I’ve chosen say about me. There’s hardly a face among them, for one thing, because I am less creeped out by shocking images than I am by imagining an experience, specifically an experience during which one is forced to endure something horrible for a really, really long period of time with no means of escape. Ugh, just thinking about the short story my images come from—”The Enigma of Amigara Fault” by Junji Ito—has given me the jibblies while typing this paragraph!

Gyo, Volume 2, “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” (VIZ Media)

Page 178

Page 185

Page 198

Page 203

Page 204

I’ve chosen this particular sequence of images from this short story because they illustrate the entire plot without me needing to introduce it beforehand. By now you probably don’t need me to explain that when the TV news reports on a mountainside full of people-shaped holes revealed by a recent earthquake, people flock to the site and can’t be dissuaded from climbing into their personal holes, where long, icky agony awaits them. At first the site seems innocent enough, if a bit strange, but soon people are walking into holes, having nightmares about what happens to you in a hole, and eventually discovering the exit and…. Holy crap, it’s terrifying. This is the kind of thing that will haunt me for ages.

I’m honestly trying to analyze Ito’s artistic techniques dispassionately here, but I find that the disturbing power of the images is so great that it is affecting my ability to reason even now!

MELINDA: Hmmm, I’m wondering if what it’s saying is that while I’m terrified of people betraying me, you’re terrified of your environment betraying you. Or something like that.

In any case, these panels are undeniably creepy. Even if they creep me out in a less personal way, I can certainly see what’s giving you the jibblies! Interestingly, we again see the human form distorted, though in this case it’s happening sort of *to* the character we’re relating to rather than in front of him. (Maybe I’m afraid of the people I trust being compromised, and you’re afraid of yourself being compromised?)

This has a Twilight Zone feel to me, where some unexplained supernatural phenomenon is turning the lives of ordinary people into a nightmare. The artist does a great job of evoking the real terror of what’s happening, too. The texture of the stone walls around the man gives the images a three-dimensional look that makes it feel more real than a lot of what we see in manga. It’s the only thing that has that kind of thick texture, too, so it really stands out.

MICHELLE: More like I’m terrified of taking a step that can’t be undone and ending up in eternal torment because of it!

And yes, now that I’ve regained my senses, I agree that it’s the realistic three-dimensional detail that really makes it so disturbing. The details of the setting itself establish it firmly in the here and now, and then we’re shown that within the here and now exists something completely alien and unexplainable! Regarding the texture of the stone walls… it’s that bit of dialogue about how they’re carved to prevent backtracking that really gets to me. It’s mute, immobile stone, and it’s going to be your tormentor for the next several months, slowly inflicting more gruesome horrors upon you than something living could ever do. Uh-oh… jibblies.

MELINDA: There, there!

MICHELLE: Thanks. I also really love the bottom left panel on page 185, when you see the outside world from inside the tunnel. Interestingly, this is an angle from which the guy who just entered the hole could never have seen the characters. He’s got his back turned to this world, and is resolutely leaving it behind. And, too, I love the “less is more” approach here. We don’t see the distorted figure actually emerge from the mountain and thrash around terrorizing people. One glimpse is enough to confirm what has happened. It’s almost kind of elegant in its structure.

MELINDA: Yeah, I agree, the threat of what is about to happen is actually scarier by itself than it might be if we actually saw it happen. Or at least it’s creepier that way.

MICHELLE: Well, I fear this column has actually been more about us than the art, but it’s been the art that made us feel that way, and that’s something, isn’t it?

MELINDA: It is!

MICHELLE: So, that’s it for us this month. What gives you the jibblies?

Uzumaki, Vols. 1-3

By Junji Ito | Published by VIZ Media

As with Ito’s two-volume work, Gyo, the best word to describe Uzumaki—despite a back cover blurb promising “terror in the tradition of The Ring”—is “weird.”

High school student Kirie Goshima lives in Kurôzu-Cho, a small coastal town nestled between the sea and a line of hills. She narrates each chapter in an effort to share the strange things that happened there. It all begins when, on the way to meet her boyfriend Shuichi Saito at the train station, she spots his father crouching in an alley, staring intently at a snail. Shuichi confirms that his dad has indeed been acting odd lately, and suggests that the entire town is “contaminated with spirals.”

Mr. Saito’s fixation with spirals grows to the point where he dies in an attempt to achieve a spiral shape, which drives his wife insane with spiral phobia. She too eventually passes away, leaving Shuichi alone to become a recluse who is able to resist the spiral menace while being more perceptive to it than most. Other episodic incidents fill out the first two volumes, including unfortunate events involving Kirie’s classmates (boys who turn into snails, a bizarre rivalry over spiralling hair, etc.), her father’s decision to use clay from the local pond in his ceramics, a mosquito epidemic that leads to icky goings-on at a hospital, and an abandoned lighthouse that suddenly begins producing a mesmerizing glow. Things come to a head in volume three when six successive hurricanes are drawn to Kurôzu-Cho, leaving it in ruins. Rescue workers and volunteers flock to the area, but find themselves unable to leave. Dun dun dun!

Creepy occurrences mandate creepy visuals, but I wouldn’t say that anything depicted herein is actually scary. Oh, there are loads of indelible images that made me go “ew” or “gross,” but was I frightened by them? No. The real horrors of Uzumaki are more subtle: the suggestions that there are ancient and mysterious forces against which humans are utterly powerless and that the spiral’s victims will live in eternal torment. Many tales of horror involve bloodthirsty monsters, but a menace that forces you to live and endure something horrific is much more capable of giving me the jibblies. It’s the ideas behind Uzumaki, therefore, and not the surfeit of disturbing images, that evoke dread.

Uzumaki has a much larger cast than Gyo, which prompted me to notice that Ito actually draws some really cute and realistic-looking female characters. Kirie is a prime example, but her classmates and TV reporter Chie Maruyama also fit the bill. I was pretty distracted by Ito’s rendering of a girl named Azami, though, because she reminded me so much of Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue. Observe:

Flames... FLAMES on the side of my face!

Uzumaki definitely delivers an unforgettable story with memorable art, but I would’ve liked to get to know the characters more. Kirie is a reasonably accessible lead and is smart, strong, and kind, but I felt at times that she was too strong. If anything gross is going on in town, Kirie is the one who’s going to discover it, and though she reacts in the moment, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cumulative effect of having witnessed all this madness. She keeps going and being shocked by things right until the very end, but a more normal person would’ve broken down long before. And why weren’t more people fleeing, I wonder? True, once the storms hit, nobody could leave, but for a while there plenty of crazy stuff is happening and folks are just sticking around.

I also would’ve liked to spend more time with Shuichi. He’s a pretty interesting guy, who wants to get out of town from the very start but remains because of Kirie. He seems to have inherited equal parts fascination with and fear of the spiral from his parents, which keeps him alive if not entirely sane, and is able to function at times when others are mesmerized, allowing him to come to Kirie’s aid on several occasions. Through these actions we see how much he cares for her, but I actually had no idea they were supposed to be a couple until he was specifically referred to as her boyfriend a couple of chapters in. Okay, yes, this isn’t a romance manga and I shouldn’t expect a lot of focus on their relationship, but even just a little bit of physical affection would’ve gone a long way.

Uzumaki is grim, gruesome, and a whole host of synonyms besides. This isn’t jump-out-of-your-skin horror, but a psychological tale with a decidedly grisly bent. I’m not sure I’d universally recommend it—I think I know several people who definitely shouldn’t read it, actually—but if it sounds intriguing to you, give it a whirl.

Uzumaki was published in English by VIZ Media. It is complete in three volumes.

For more entries in this month’s horror-themed MMF, check out the archive at Manga Xanadu.

Gyo 1-2 by Junji Ito: B+

Walking fish aren’t the usual sort of monsters one associates with Halloween, but their invasion makes for creepy reading nonetheless!

Tadashi and his high-maintenance girlfriend, Kaori, are vacationing in Okinawa when Kaori begins complaining of putrid smells. Soon after, a chase ensues between Tadashi and a barely glimpsed, fast-moving creature, culminating with the discovery that said critter is actually a fish with four spindly mechanical legs. This is just the tip of the fishberg, though, as Okinawa is soon overrun by walking fish, which quickly spread to mainland Japan and eventually the rest of the world.

Despite the attempts of the back cover to induce me to regard the series as “horrifying,” the primary adjective I’d use to describe it is “weird.” The scenes of walking fish—and sharks, squids, and whales—swarming down city streets are alarming but fun in a disaster movie kind of way. For most of the first volume, I actually smiled as I read. Things get more serious in the second volume, with revelations about what the creepy legs will do once they run out of fish bodies to use as fuel, but the weird only gets weirder—there’s a critter circus, for example—and the series never loses its page-turning momentum.

While I’d primarily classify Gyo as something fun that’s not too deep, it does offer some commentary on scientific ethics, particularly in the person of Tadashi’s uncle, who immediately begins trying to create a walking machine of his own. Some will be put off by the lack of a finite ending, but I find it interesting. If this were a disaster movie, we’d probably be given the opportunity to cheer on our battered heroes as they figure out the creatures’ vulnerability and blow them all to smithereens, but Gyo stops short of that point. Will mankind prevail? Will the world be overrun? We’ll never know.

Two short stories are included in volume two. “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” is short and random, but I liked “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” a lot. In it, an earthquake has revealed a rock formation riddled with human-shaped holes that go farther back into the rock than researchers are able to measure. People have flocked to the site after seeing it on TV, somehow drawn to holes that seem to have been tailor-made for them. A young man named Owaki tries to keep his new female friend, Yoshida, from entering her hole, and suffers some vivid (and way more horrifying than the fish-monsters!) nightmares about what could happen to a person who enters. The final page suggests he was right.

In the end, I wouldn’t classify Gyo as amazing, but it—and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault”—are certainly entertaining and memorable. I may have to check out more from Junji Ito, like the spooky spiral menace of Uzumaki!

Gyo is published in English by VIZ and is complete in two volumes.