Chaos Trifecta #4: Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre

chaos trifecta
Written By Ai Jiang

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work can be found in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, among others. She is the holder of Odyssey Workshop's 2022 Fresh Voices Scholarship. Her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (

TW: Child death, brief mentioning of suicide

I am a lover of anime, as most can probably tell by my previous CT column piece on Death Note, but I also love manga; to see them adapted is always a treat. Recently, I’ve been interested in the presentation of stories through the visual art form, not only manga but graphic novels and comics as well. It fascinates me to see the different subtleties, and what we usually present through written subtext, appear in the minuscule details of drawings, the use of colors and lines, of spacings, of panels. It’s been a while since I’ve focused on visual arts myself, but it’s something that never fails to draw me back.

I had heard much about Junji Ito’s work, but never picked the stories up myself, so the Netflix series adaption is my first exposure to Ito. The art is unsettling, skin-crawling, and reflects so prominently the nature of the characters in each piece, their mindset and interiority, and hints at the potential protagonistic or antagonistic roles. Ito expertly sets the tone through his unique art, and forefronts the eerie mood and tone of each story, even in the most mundane of settings and somehow makes mundane the most horrific of places, creating the sense of uncanny effortlessly.

But what strikes me most of all is the deathly nature of Ito’s work. Though I won’t be touching on all the episodes of the series, I’ve chosen a few that best suit this month’s chaos trifecta.

Family Hauntings

In the opening episode of the series, “The Strange Hikizuri Siblings,” a woman interested in the presence of ghosts travels to an abandoned town—except for one strange family that remains—where many children have jumped into and drowned in the river nearby. The episode emphasizes the way our family’s responsibilities plague us with ghosts—demons that consume us from within, that hang above our heads like hungry shadows terrorizing our own. It shows how the living might become like the ghosts of the dead, take on their personalities, make it seem as though they are still there, alive—a performance by the living to hold onto the dead. In this story, Ito showcases how trauma manifests in the present, passes on through generations, a vicious cycle that does not end simply with death, and suggests that trauma is something trapped and bound by blood—something difficult to escape.

Similarly, in “The Mysterious Tunnel,” the story is one that focuses on how the ghosts of our family bind us, haunt our minds and bodies, drawing the living to places of the dead, and draining them of their life. It is a beckoning, a clinging, an unavoidable echo.

Pressures of Society

“Hanging Balloon” offers a very different perspective on death in how it first comments on the way the death of those famous might become public property rather than a private affair, a mass mourning rather than an intimate wake. But, like previous stories, it speaks about how trauma follows, is shared, how it influences those around us—close family or not—and how it disallows escape. Underneath is the suggestion of societal pressures, of how we must uphold duty and appearance in the face of not only the public but also our families. Ultimately, “Hanging Balloon” makes clear that trying to escape death is futile. It comes for us all.

“Four X Four Walls” shares commonalities with the previous story in how it focuses on Japan’s societal pressures. But in this episode, the pressure is one specific to Japanese study culture and how suffocating it can be. With both literal and metaphoric shrinking of space and suffocation of confining walls, Ito creates a sense of claustrophobia. I am no stranger to the horror stories surrounding the education systems in Asia, and often, what is supposed to prepare us for bright futures results in untimely deaths—and sometimes, through the darkness that swallows our minds, this death is brought by our own willing hands. 

Remains of the Dead

“Library Vision” is an interesting episode that shows how the written word captures our memories, the dead, and holds onto both within their pages. In a sense, a library can be seen as a collection of dead, a place that holds memories of those who have passed and help connect us when we find our memories fading. But on further thought, I can see how our own libraries might also serve as such, even as it holds the works of the living, as books are the hosts of “dead” thoughts—ones that have passed, that have lived in our minds during the writing, buried within the pages after we complete a project with “THE END,” then lingers as we revisit these past ideas and written words.

“Layers of Terror” approaches the idea of death and remains through a woman who has lost half her face in a car accident, but her family quickly realizes the woman’s child-self is still alive within. This story comments on the way our families might have difficulties letting go of our childhood selves even as we have outgrown them, and how a return to this past self might require the “death” of our current self. Ito shows us the lengths parents might go to reclaim lost time, to hold on to the past, out of fear that their children are no longer children and no longer depend on them. What I find most fascinating is the way we “die” at each stage of our lives, as we let go of who we once were, whether physically or mentally, to become who we are now and who we have yet to become.

End Note

After watching this series, I was keen to see what other works Junji Ito has and how might they manifest differently in manga form, where I’ll be able to brew and linger on every detail as I read.

Did you miss any previous Chaos Trifecta posts? Check them out:

#1 – Cabinet of Curiosities
#2 – On Guilt
#3 – Death Note

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