Art of Darkness

Few anime announcements have made me as excited as Toonami and Production I.G.'s 2019 announcement of an adaptation of Junji Ito's magnum opus Uzumaki. Every part of the announcement thrilled me, especially the fact that Hiroshi Nagahama — director of my all-time favourite, Mushishi — would be helming the project.

But one detail of the announcement sent a shiver down my spine, for all the right reasons: that the anime would be made entirely in black and white.

I have never been particularly brave when it comes to horror. I am the type who closes my eyes during amusement park rides, let alone jump-scare horror films. I've never been a huge fan of the latter, though. It's just a couple hours of discomfort that I'll soon forget all about. To me, truly memorable horror is not about jump-scares. It's all about tension, and atmosphere. And atmosphere, to me, is all about light and darkness.

And light and darkness is where Junji Ito excels, in more sense than one. The superposition of black and white, of the insane and the rational: no one does it quite like Junji Ito.

My introduction to Junji Ito came in the form of one of his more celebrated short stories, The Enigma of Amigara Fault. One of two shorts bundled with the English release of his long-form story Gyo, I'd decided I'd read it before reading the main story. A bunch of holes in a mountainside would hardly sound like a recipe for horror, yet Junji Ito weaves it into an absolutely terrifying spine-chiller that haunted me well after I was done reading it. A bunch of holes? Not scary. Those holes are human-shaped? You have my attention. One of those holes fits you perfectly? Enough, I beg of you!

Turning the mundane into the macabre is something of a theme with Junji Ito's works. He is not one to settle for ordinary ghosts, spiders, and the like. Balloons, fish, spirals, chairs: Junji Ito sees the potential for horror in all of them. It is only fitting that such an unassuming man (a soft-spoken former dental technician who likes cats) is capable of inspiring fear with the most unassuming of things. What does he see in them that we can't? Perhaps these unassuming objects about which we have no preconceived notions (at least not of the scary variety) are precisely the starting material he requires: a sort of formless clay that he can shape into whatever terrible form he can envision.

Of course, one needs to be a skilled craftsman to shape this clay, and there is no doubt that Junji Ito is one of the finest artists of our era. A cold, anatomical precision pervades every panel. The faces of people are immaculately drawn, yet these are not pleasant faces to rest eyes upon, for they have little emotion that sets them apart as human: cold, lifeless, statuesque faces. Conversely, the same anatomical realism makes the grotesque, twisted shapes of fiends and monsters seem more realistic than they are. It's this blurring of borders that makes his manga so masterful. You will find yourself sinking into the page, desperately trying to get out. It's an entrapment I willingly put myself through again and again.

But this art wouldn't have half the impact it does were it not in black and white. The depth and contrast it adds to each piece only enhances the realism I spoke of before. But to me, the most significant effect of this is how much it leaves up to one's imagination; how much is left hidden in shadow. Colour has no place here; even the volume covers use colour sparingly, with a limited, Van Gogh-esque palette.

And that's why the news that even the anime — a medium defined by colour — would be in black and white really thrilled me. It conveyed to me a kind of fearful respect for the art of Junji Ito, a true master of darkness.

A very horrifying birthday to you, sir.

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