Monday 22 April 2024

Stitches, by Hirokatsu Kihara and Junji Ito (VIZ Media) | review by Stephen Theaker

This short, quick read collects nine short horror stories (the "stitches”), prose rather than comics, albeit with a bonus manga story. Originally published in Japan in 2010, the major appeal to English-speaking readers in 2024 is likely to be the ghastly illustrations by Junij Ito, famed for his critically-adored horror comics, such as Uzumaki, adapted into a highly memorable film at the peak of the J-Horror boom. (His cat comics, though possibly of less interest to our readers, are also much adored.) The bonus manga story is "Summer Graduation Trip", a fairly spooky and supposedly true story of two young women who go to a spa and find themselves in a spook-filled sauna.

The stories are written by Hirokatsu Kihara, who had previously co-authored a book of urban legends. After reading that in his author bio, the book made much more sense to me, because the stories are so short, and relatively uneventful and inconsequential, as to feel like little more than anecdotes. Each of them pretty much amounts to someone encountering something supernatural, doing either nothing or something fairly straightforward about it, and the supernatural occurrence coming to an end. For example, in the first stitch, “Face”, a couple moves to their new home on a remote island, and a man's face appears on the wife's neck. It starts talking, she's taken to a priest, the demon is removed, and that’s that.

In the second story, a school library is briefly closed, due to being haunted. In "From the Sea" three bored teenagers see ghosts being exorcised or released by a priest chanting sutras. "Festival of the Dead" is about a girl who sees an old man go into the house next door, even though he died three years ago. In "The Play" a high school drama club finds a Pinocchio script, puppet and stagehand costume, and decide to put them to use – with mildly spooky consequences! And so on. The daftest for me was the last, the ninth stitch, "Lips", in which a supernatural piece of paper appears on a girl's wardrobe. Some lips appear on it, and when she gets too close to them things get weird, so from then on she stays away from them...

Kihara wrote these stories for a new manga magazine, Monthly Shonen Sunday Get the Sun, which had decided to resurrect a tradition of short illustrated fiction appearing in manga magazines. In that context I imagine they would have worked very well – it's easy for a page of prose to feel like a chore when encountered in a comic, but stories this short wouldn't have felt like such an imposition. Getting Junji Ito to illustrate them was obviously a stroke of genius, and his illustrations here are as fear-inducing as ever, even if some of them being used two or three times can feel like padding in what is already a very short book.

The book’s original title was Kai, Sasu, which Google translates as Buy, Point. The book was translated by Jocelyne Allen, also credited with adaptation – my guess is that this would be for having seamlessly added useful explanatory notes like “the traditional Buddhist prayer” or “the blind minstrel from the folktale” to the text for the benefit of non-Japanese readers. One never really knows whether a translation is accurate without reading the original, but the prose here is good, clear and well-chosen, albeit with a childlike quality that may well reflect the original. With that in mind, although the book is most likely to appeal to Junji Ito completists, I think it would also work rather well as a series of bedtime stories for hearty and intrepid children. Stephen Theaker ***

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