Updated: Nov 6, 2020
[WARNING: The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS!]
I spent hours searching for the right adjective to describe the unique flavor of horror at the heart of Tomie, Junji Ito’s critically-acclaimed manga series. “Versatile” is probably the most accurate word for it, but it feels so... academic and sterile. “Malleable” packs a bit more punch, but still doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. I settled on “amorphous” because it evokes The Blob—a classic movie monster that lacks a solid physical shape, but is nevertheless terrifying due to its relentless hunger.
The narrative of Tomie operates on the same basic principle, despite the apparent simplicity of its premise. The overarching plot revolves around an unnaturally beautiful woman (emphasis on unnatural) that has a penchant for destroying lives. Every man that has the misfortune of encountering her is immediately enthralled, becoming obsessed to the point of insanity and—once he realizes that he cannot truly possess her—homicidal rage; she tempts, teases, tantalizes, seduces, manipulates, demands, demeans, ridicules, belittles, and shuns—but she never gives her various “boyfriends” the satisfaction of an actual romantic relationship. Ultimately, her cruelty and callousness always result in her murder and dismemberment... whereupon each individual body part regenerates into a fully-grown duplicate of Tomie, much like a butchered starfish (ergo, cutting her into forty-two pieces will only succeed in creating forty-two equally ruthless clones).
While this setup certainly sounds lurid, the series’ anthology structure works to its advantage, allowing Ito to essentially reinvent the tone and style with each subsequent chapter, rather than adhering to a strict formula. The tale that introduces Tomie, for example, is a pure psychological thriller, emphasizing the emotional consequences of the villainess’ death instead of lingering on the gory details; the grotesque “body horror” that would eventually define the title remains conspicuously absent until the last panel (indeed, the story isn’t even explicitly paranormal until the twist ending). “Mansion”, meanwhile, draws its inspiration from the old-school chillers produced by such studios as Universal and Hammer, featuring the requisite ominous, foreboding Gothic architecture, unhinged mad scientists, and shambling, deformed monstrosities born from twisted experimentation gone awry. “Revenge” flirts with dark comedy when a veteran mountain climber literally strips naked in the middle of a blizzard in order to prove his devotion to Tomie—to his companions' profound bewilderment. And, of course, “Hair” (my favorite vignette in the collection) demonstrates that Tomie is perfectly capable of wreaking havoc without ever appearing on the page—a few strands of her parasitic hair, which doubles as a powerful hallucinogen (it’s complicated), will suffice.
And that is why I chose to describe Tomie as “amorphous”: its identity is anything but concrete, shifting and transforming from episode to episode—which merely serves to make it all the more unsettling. Thus, the book is as haunting, enigmatic, and unpredictable as its eponymous character.