Japanese horror is different from western horror, in that it focuses on creating a dark and foreboding atmosphere rather than making your heart race. It's capable of disturbing you yes, but horror in manga isn't really your first stop if you want to feel true terror.
At least that's what I thought before I read this bastard.
I certainly had some trouble sleeping the night I read this. This level of fear was something that I hadn't experienced in a long time. This is coming from a guy who read Uzumaki alone in the dark, only to have sweet dreams of Masaaki Yuasa anime afterwards. So...
enter if you dare, or whatever. But that was only due to one of five stories of varying quality in this anthology, and I shall review them all in order of appearance.
1. The Circus is Here
Okay, I know what we're all thinking, "who gave Ito the right to make clowns even more terrifying?" But manga fans suffering from coulrophobia (fear of creepy ass clowns) need not fear. Ito is nothing if not creative, he created a nightmare circus without the use of monster clowns. A kid goes to the circus, and the performances seem a bit... off. It isn't exactly scary, if anything, it's just plain depressing. If you have a dark, twisted sense of humor (most horror fans do), you may even find it funny. Despite the lack of scares, its worth a read for its inventiveness and unique setting.
This one is probably the second best in the collection. A brother and sister visit their old childhood friend, but accidentally run over and kill a little girl on their way, who they then hide in their trunk. When they arrive at their friends new town, they discover that there are countless gravestones in conspicuous places. This story manages to combine all the suspense of hiding a body, with the mystery of the town, into a very satisfying chapter. It even gives the fans what they want: some good old bowel movement inducing, nightmare imagery. If you've read any of Ito's work, you know what I'm talking about. In nearly every story of his, there's always a graphic, disturbing, extremely detailed drawing of its monster(s), hiding behind the pages, daring you to look at it. I like to call this: "the money shot". However, the center stage of this one is certainly the anxiety of the situation. I bet there's probably some symbolism in here too, but that stuff usually goes over my head. Other than the forgettable characters, Gravetown's a great read.
3. The Adjacent Window
I turned on the lights, took off my headphones, double checked behind me and looked at pictures of Corgi puppies to cleanse my soul. And I made sure that every window and curtain was closed. Yep, this one was horrifying, and it's even worse if you're bedroom has a window where you can see the side of your creepy neighbor's house. I won't describe the premise beyond a boy's bedroom window is just across from the one next door. Explaining any more would ruin a story only about twenty pages long. The idea of the story is disturbing already, as readers will find out quickly, but the nightmare fuel really comes from this chapter's money shot. The "monster" here happens to be one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen, and it's not for the squeamish to see. Despite losing hours of sleep, there's a certain euphoria gained through the experience. It stands as one of the most memorable chapters I've read in any manga, horror or not.
4. The Sleuth Kids: The Second Daughter's Lover
In a huge departure from the last two stories, this one and the next drop the serious tone and go for a more comedic approach. While I initially found that disappointing, in hindsight, maybe Ito was just giving us a chance to calm down over the previous story. A suicidal girl moves into a guy's apartment to get away from her abusive siblings (how silly). Eventually, the guy can no longer afford to take care of her, but is afraid to hurt her feelings by asking her to leave. Then the girl's siblings start doing spooky things in retaliation to her running away, such as: being a bunch of dicks. Did it succeed in being darkly comedic? Well... not really, the jokes were kind of lame. But at least it has some good suspense occasionally. The creepy siblings were clearly supposed to take after the Adam's Family, except there's one key difference: the Adam's Family was likable. The creeps in this story are abusive, ugly and often annoying. This chapter wasn't necessarily bad, but it's not what you want to read when you pick up Junji Ito.
5. The Sleuth Kids: The Assembly of Fallen Ghost
Just when we thought we'd never have to read about the god damn Sleuth Kids again, they come again for round two. Except this time the horror is on the level of a Scooby Doo episode, the humor on the level of the live action "Garfield", and all of the suspense is that of reading the instructions on a bottle of shampoo. Okay it wasn't that bad, but its fifty pages long; I could have been helping old people instead of dragging myself through this one. The creepy siblings get into a fight, and then they try to talk to their dead parents. I didn't want them to make up, I wanted them to god damn murder each other, or do something really f----d up, but they never did and it was very disappointing. Unless you really warmed up to the sleuth kids last chapter, don't bother with this one. There are dozens of better stories by Ito you should read instead.
Now as I end this review, I would like to state that horror is completely subjective. There are people who would get nightmares over "The Circus is Here" story, yet there are others who would laugh at "The Adjacent Window", and would proceed to mock me for being scared of it. Also, I'd like to state that even if you didn't find a story at all frightening, that doesn't mean it was bad! Horror is different from a simple scary story. They can be entertaining on different levels, whether its from the plot, characters, setting, or anything else that constitutes a good story. Ito is not only great at delivering scares, he is capable of writing thrilling suspense stories, that keeps the reader on their toes. As long as you remember that, I think anyone can enjoy his work. Just keep the curtains closed while you read this one.