Monday, October 24, 2011

October MMF: The Museum of Terror Volumes 1 and 2 - Tomié

Even in an allegedly enlightened and feminist modern world, people hold “beautiful” women as examples of purity, completely untainted by the world, living as nurturing icons of goodness. Be it in American Barbie dolls or Japanese moé pillows, there is still a market for a nonexistent ideal of good in both physical and mental behavior. However, many people agree that the idea of perfection is just that: an idea, and an unattainable one at that. But what if the ideal woman was real? What if there were a woman who naturally possessed both the perfect body and the perfect soul? In his debut work Tomié, manga-ka Junji Ito answers the question as anyone working in the horror genre would: If there was a perfect woman, she’d be pure evil.

It begins as a simple tale of comeuppance theater. Tomié is a very cute sixteen-year-old girl who was killed in mysterious circumstances, her body found cut to pieces. However, a few days after “death”, she’s back at school as if nothing happened. Eventually, we discover the truth behind Tomié’s murder, and she gets her revenge. The end. It’s after this opening story that things get really interesting. See, Tomié isn’t merely attractive. “She” is a supernatural force that drives normal people to obsess over her to the point of insanity. She cannot become ugly, so any time an imperfection (such as a lost limb) appears, her beautiful form regenerates in grotesque detail. She travels around Japan, fickly toying with and ruining the lives of once honest men and women, finding a new way to exploit the most base desires of humanity in every chapter.
Tomié, like all of Ito’s work, showcases storytelling that straddles the line between humor and horror, too bizarre to take completely seriously, yet too nauseatingly human to ignore or make light of. In one story, Tomié herself does not appear, but instead a box full of her silky, still growing hair, which after being found is cultivated and worn by plain school girls who want to look pretty, and then die when the hair shoots out of every pore of their skin. In another, pieces of Tomié’s flesh are dumped at the bottom of a waterfall, growing underwater, as suicides among young men mysteriously increase. Quite obviously, this is the stuff of B-movies. The events that transpire are almost always conceptually implausible, making little to no sense when thought about. And yet, Ito manages to craft the stories with such skill that they make emotional sense, told with such a straight face that one cannot even doubt the author’s sincerity. Unlike artists such as the great Kazuo Umezu (an artist to whom Ito is frequently compared) there is little hyperbole in even the most bizarre stories. Drawn in a moody, realistic style, and paced with slow deliberation, the mood of Tomié is that of building dread. It isn’t quite at the level of madness depicted in the later Uzumaki: Spiral Into Terror, a comic about evil spirals, but it deserves credit for some genuinely rewarding and unlikely chills.

 From reading a description, one may be left with the impression that Tomié is a “femme fatale” or “bad girl” type character, a glamorized (and sexualized) depiction of a beautiful, man-hungry woman who ruins the lives of good men, simply taken to the furthest extreme possible. While this is a valid interpretation, and may even be what the author intended, I would argue that Tomié transcends the concept of femme fatale.  To demonstrate, I would like to compare Tomié to a character from Koshun Takami’s controversial Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-Kill-Bill franchise Battle Royale, Mitsuko Souma. Mitsuko uses her sultry body (as well as her trademark scythe) to win “the game,” only to die near the end. For most of the story, Mitsuko is portrayed as either being sexy, evil, or both, but in a later chapter Takami attempts to humanize her with an almost comedically dark flashback sequence. It does not work. Instead of making us think of Mitsuko as a real human being, the ideal of beauty is actually enforced. The reader is manipulated by the horridness of her past into thinking, “If only Mitsuko had never been tainted by those bad men, she’d still be pure. If only she’d met some good people to restore her faith in beauty and goodness, like me.” Unlike Battle Royale,Tomié never falls into this trap. For better or for worse, the very idea of humanizing Tomié has been thrown out the window, because Tomié is not sympathetic, not human, and certainly not a femme fatale. Instead, she is a force of nature, one that destroys lives by toying with the weak, lustful, obsessive side of human nature. We are meant to sympathize not with her, but the people around her and I think that is for the better.

I realize now that I have given the impression that Tomié somehow transcends the format of short horror stories, growing organically from simple vignettes of comeuppance theater into something far more meaningful. It doesn’t. While much of Ito’s manga does edge into unknown territory (or should I say, terror-tory), Tomié stays within the boundaries of genre work. Tomié  is simply a series of self-contained stories with the same central character and themes. Many of the stories are excellent, some are just OK. Having seen what Ito has done in later work such as Uzumaki, this is almost disappointing. There is so much complexity to Tomié and the world she inhabits that is never quite delved into for the sake of format. We never, for example, see Tomié at a moment of true weakness, or in fact, at any level of nuance beyond pure evil. Yet even though Tomié could have been much more, what there is remains impressive. Taking a fascinating premise, Ito crafts stories that follow a deceptively simple template that once repeated enough becomes secondary to the author’s vast imagination. Sometimes we laugh, like in Moromi, the chapter where ground up bits of Tomié are stirred into saké by madmen, sometimes we cry, like in the surprisingly poignant Little Finger; but with the stories in Tomié, and all of Ito’s comics, we also scream. 

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