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The Western Influences Behind Junji Ito’s Manga Work

The spiral of horror influences twists through Jaws, H.P. Lovecraft, and more.

By 4 min read

In recent years, horror manga artist Junji Ito has gained increased global recognition for his rich, elaborate works, such as Tomie, Uzumaki and Gyo. He’s won praise from famous admirers like filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and taken home multiple Eisner Awards (the U.S. comic book equivalent of an Academy Award).

Ito’s dark illustrations are filled with grotesque yet fascinating images, some of which draw inspiration from Western sources, including Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and the Winchester Mystery House in California. Here are some of the influences that have informed his ever-popular manga nightmares.

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws

He named the Beach Boys as one of the musical artists he listens to while drawing.

In Gyo, Japan is invaded by the putrid Death Stenches, parasitic robots that latch onto fish and other forms of marine life as hosts, turning them into undead terrors. One of the first to come ashore and go on the rampage is a Great White Shark.

In a 2019 interview with Crunchyroll, Ito admitted that the original inspiration for Gyo was his fear of sharks, which he’d had “ever since [he] saw the Spielberg film Jaws.”

The manga has swimmers spot a shark fin and flee the water, much like the residents of Amity Island in Jaws, but they soon realize in horror that Ito’s zombified Great White can follow them right onto dry land. It’s the kind of story where the protagonist looks out the window to see a walking shark, which subsequently breaks down the doors and carries out a full-on home invasion on robotic legs.

Gyo was influenced by Spielberg’s Jaws.

For Ito, who also spoke of his fear of death, bringing the shark from Jaws on land like this was a way of challenging the false sense of security he felt by not going into the ocean.

H.P. Lovecraft and Guillermo del Toro

Lovecraftian cosmic horror, the sheer hopelessness in the face of monstrosities that surpass all human understanding, is a hallmark of Ito’s work, as seen in stories like “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” (collected in the English edition of Gyo). Similar to Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, characters in this story embark on a mountain expedition. Here, they encounter inexplicable human-shaped holes that stretch a person’s body the deeper one goes into the mountainside.

Ito and Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro (who is also influenced by Lovecraft and has an At the Mountains of Madness adaptation stuck in development hell in Hollywood) have developed a mutual admiration society, artistically.

When VIZ Media asked Ito in 2020 who was making the best horror content across all mediums, he cited del Toro for “how he creates his own unique world” in his films.

This is something we see Ito doing in his manga work as well. Del Toro has tweeted about Ito’s work, calling him an “undisputed master of horror in Japan,” and he furthermore discussed it in an interview with IGN, noting how Ito takes “taboos of the Japanese society” and “articulates them through pure horror.” Ito and del Toro have even sung karaoke together, and they collaborated on Konami’s Silent Hills video game before the project was canceled.

The Winchester Mystery House

The Winchester Mystery House influenced Uzumaki.

On a video tour of the world-famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, Ito said he was inspired to write about people living in a “strange and bizarre building” like a Japanese rowhouse (nagaya). He then had an epiphany, realizing the Winchester Mystery House had influenced Uzumaki.

This house belonged to Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who became convinced that the ghosts of people killed by the gun were haunting her. She had builders working round the clock to confuse the ghosts with a never-ending, maze-like design.

In Uzumaki, after a typhoon reduces most of the town of Kurouzu-cho to rubble, people crowd into a long rowhouse for shelter. Eventually, so many people are crammed inside that their tangled limbs fuse in knots.

The survivors keep expanding the rowhouses, building them out both ways until they’re all connected in one big spiral. As characters make their way through the rowhouse labyrinth, they hit dead-ends and eventually discover an ancient spiral staircase from the bottom of a dried-up lake to a subterranean city of spirals. It’s an image that is pure Ito and partially inspired by his many Western influences.

Have you read Junji Ito’s work? What other notable influences do you see? Share your own insights in the comments.

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