Every now and then, an artist comes along who is so original, so defiant, that they break all conventions that came before and force us to invent a special new category just for them.
Comics existed before Rube Goldberg, but he alone invented the complicated machine gag. Thereafter every humorous complex contraption, be it in comics, cartoons, or even in film with Peewee Herman's "breakfast machine," is referred to as a Rube Goldberg machine.
Single-gag one-panel comic strips had appeared in every newspaper, but Gary Larson was the first to introduce high-brow nerdy humor in his ground-breaking strip The Far Side. Thereafter, every nerd humor comic which is aimed at an educated and mature audience, from Dilbert to XKCD, owes a debt to Gary Larson. (Oh yes, mine too. Perhaps somebody read it once.)
Horror manga existed before Junji Ito; we swear to God it really did! There was Kazuo Umezu, for one, whose first work was published just one year before Ito was born. It's just that nobody before Junji Ito has published horror manga that was so… weird. Horror manga before had dwelled on familiar tropes and topics: big stompy Kaiju, Yokai folklore, or moving to western influences, werewolves and vampires and whatnot.
But when Junji Ito sits down to write a horror story, he… wait a minute, this just takes some explaining.
How Does Junji Ito Work?
Ito is an artist and storyteller who has a unique character aspect of creating the most engrossing and uncomfortable horror from the most ridiculous premises imaginable. Fish zombies invade land walking on stilts. Balloons shaped like human heads fly around a town. Spirals, they're scary now! But that's the premise for, respectively, Gyo, The Hanging Balloons, and Uzumaki. If you remove enough context and detail, you could make a game out of playing "Junji Ito or Dr. Seuss?"
You could say "holes shaped like people appear in the side of an earthquake fault line" and that pretty much describes The Enigma of Amigara Fault. A sort of supplemented reading of it here, but be warned if this is your first time: Junji Ito has a habit of slithering under people's skin.
The Enigma of Amigara Fault went viral after the English translation was posted to 4chan's boards around 2006. While you can take the story on a humorous level, many readers report being freaked way out by the idea of the premise. It's not just that there are holes shaped like people and people fall under a spell compelling them to enter the hole and sacrifice themselves to an unknown fate. It's that each hole is individual, personalized, so when you feel drawn to the fault and investigate, you find your hole! How can you refuse then?
The same idea of adding dread by personalized horror comes back in that The Hanging Balloons story. Here's a panel from that:
Still sound silly? Who's laughing now?
Junji Ito gets you every time with this. All his ideas sound like if stoners sat around passing a joint they were taking turns toking while they trade riffs like "Yeah what if people had layers like onions, man?" "Whoa, far out, trippy!" You want to see a panel from that idea?
Yeah, bet you're sorry you asked now, huh? That story's called Layers of Fear and that panel is very far from the most horrifying scene in that story.
The hook with Ito's work is that it latches onto the adult side and the kid side of you at the same time. As children, we have absurd fears like "what if a monster lives under my bed?" or "what if the cork comes out of my belly button and I deflate like a balloon?" As adults, we master the world around us and discover truly bone-chilling horror worse than anything we can dream up, but we never again fear of bogeymen. Ito grabs all that and ties it together in one sack, uniting our adult realization of the concrete inevitability of death and our childish fear of surreal dreads.
Come to think of it, Ito glosses over a lot of story-telling conventions. There is next to no development for his characters. His plots almost vanish inside the premises. All that's left is the raw ideas, and his remarkable genius at starting from simple hooks and developing them into brain-freezing terror at their wonkiest possible conclusions. If you notice, for instance, in The Enigma of Amigara Fault, some of the holes in the ground are shaped like little kids, implying that toddlers are on their way to meet their fate as well!
We certainly can't do better than let the man speak for himself:
...albeit a labored interview, since a translator has to take notes and then read back to the Toronto audience. One of the aspects of horror he mentions is that the Holocaust and terrorism are two things he finds more horrifying than traditional kaiju monsters. Ito has in the past named some influences for his work, starting with the previously-mentioned Kazuo Umezu, and other mangaka such as Hideshi Hino, Shinichi Koga, and Yasutaka Tsutsui.
But turning westward and wandering astray from manga, Ito has a couple of other obvious cultural influences which westerners are quick to pounce on.
He has openly acknowledged horror codifier H.P. Lovecraft as an influence, and that's a connection that leaps right off the page. Your Present Author has established himself as a bit of a Lovecraft historian by now, and I can definitely spot the similarities between Lovecraft and Ito horror tropes. Mainly, in both Lovecraft and Ito stories there is no villain, usually not even a monster in the traditional sense. Instead, it turns out we humans are just another puny species afterthought, and it's something in nature that comes to finish us off.
Sure, there are still traditional ghosts and zombies in both Lovecraft and Ito's work, but the stuff that grabs us for its originality is when nature, some aspect of ourselves, or even the universe itself is our natural enemy. Such is the case when people turn into their own gravestones when they die, or people start to plant themselves in the ground like trees, or the very Lovecraftian title The Thing That Drifted Ashore, complete with a beach-side cosmic natural force that's all writhing tentacles and nightmares.
The next-most compared horror influence to Junji Ito is director David Cronenberg, himself a brilliantly original horror creator who invented the "body horror" genre. It's true that many of Ito's works rely on squicky things happening to human bodies, which get stretched, flayed, pulped, and even… uh… spiraled. One need only ponder that fact that Ito previously worked as a dental assistant to appreciate how staring into somebody's advanced tooth decay can warp a guy.
Outside of that, you could maybe name Franz Kafka as a distant influence on Ito, but here the connections already draw thin. Like Kafka, Ito's characters exist in a universe that casually toys with them or assassinates them with no pity, at whim and wile of the wind. Surrealism is pretty much necessary in cosmic horror to begin with.
It says something for how ground-breaking an artist is, when the closest comparisons to them are also ground-breaking artists! No matter the influences, Ito has taken the pulpy heart of horror and the potential of manga comics and made it into a unique brew all his own. He's pushed so far into his unique niche rabbit hole that nobody else can follow him now. There will always be exactly one Junji Ito.