Deserter (2021) by Junji Ito
Hailed as a collection of manga artist Junji Ito’s early work, Deserter consists of twelve stories of the paranormal, macabre, and the strange.
While they may lack the visual prowess and variety of Ito’s other collections such as Shiver or Fragments of Horror, the short illustrated stories here showcase morbidly fascinating storylines with the overarching theme of the collection being commitment and its extremities.
- Deserter (2021) by Junji Ito
Kubota has a dark secret. She likes to feast upon insects and reptiles. When she discovers that her boss shares in this unusual appetite they both decide to have dinner together. After a hearty meal of crickets and lizard, her boss offers Kubota a glass of his own blood to which she tastes and then declines. This outrages her boss and leads Kubota to be attacked by his housemaids who are also vampires obsessed with his blood? She battles her boss in the insect breeding room and gets the jump on him when he’s distracted by a cricket (did I mention this story contains a layer of comedy?). She wins, he’s eaten by the released insects, and she escapes.
This is a quick intro to the bloody and grotesque tone and visual style of the collection. However, the story here is nonsensical and the art comically sloppy. It feels like filler and is a weak starting point compared to the other stories in the collection.
Kamei, a girl with the ability to change her face to anyone that she spends a considerable time around, becomes obsessed with the beautiful Yumi Machida, her new classmate. She follows Yumi relentlessly against her wishes, pestering her as she’s secretly trying to steal her face. When Yumi learns of Kamei’s plan, she hatches her own plot to have everyone in her school wear masks to confuse Kamei’s face-shifting power. The plan ends with Kamei rapidly taking on the appearance of all the different masks to gruesome effect.
Face Thief is a fun read. The tone is light-hearted and the plot is wacky enough to hold interest. There’s also a small cameo from Shigero Mizuki’s Kitaro 🙂
Where the Sandman Lives
Yuji, an aspiring novelist, fears that if he falls asleep, a dream version of himself will claw its way out of his body. He enlists the help of his girlfriend, Mari, to help keep him awake. Thinking he is stressed and imagining things, she allows him to fall asleep when one of his arms retract into his body and claws its way out of his mouth. Desperate and realizing she can’t prevent Yuji from sleeping, Mari accepts the inevitable, duct tapes her hand to his, and is pulled inside out by the dream Yuji.
I found this story a novelty more than anything else. It has some hilariously grotesque art of a man turning inside out and back again. Containing somewhat of a ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ scenario – it ultimately feels too short to really stand out; with a bit more work the concept could have been expanded upon to incorporate more fleshing out (see what I did there) of the characters and plot.
The Devil’s Logic
After his seemingly happy classmate commits suicide by jumping off the school’s roof, Okamori discovers an audio tape in which he learns that she was persuaded to kill herself by the God of Death. Upon listening to the tape, Okamori is himself convinced of the logic of death and jumps off a building in suicide.
A very short and dark tale dealing with influence and suicide. It has a somewhat cultish atmosphere with the God of Death using some sort of logic (the exact reasoning is never shown) to convince others to take their own lives. Much the same as in Where the Sandman Lives, the story here is far too short for its interesting premise and is pretty much devoid of any standout artwork to mention. Although it has a great hook, it feels half-completed and doesn’t add much to the collection.
The Long Hair in the Attic
After her playboy boyfriend breaks up with her, Chiemi falls into a deep depression. She awakes the next morning to find a rat entangled in her long hair; coupled with the fact that the reason she grew it out so long was because her ex suggested it, she decides to cut her hair short. Before she can however, her headless body is found by her sister and murder is suspected. A week later Chiemi’s father and sister go up to the attic to check on rat traps when they discover her mangled head strung up and entangled by the thick strands of its hair. The story ends when Chiemi’s possessed disembodied head hunts down her ex-boyfriend and torments him.
While the plot might not make much sense, this is shock value in visuals skillfully executed. Chiemi is a sympathetic lead which makes the jarring transition between the manic depression of her breakup to visceral body horror all the more effective. It goes a step further by utilizing a chilling page turn, a technique Ito pulls off extremely well. Contains striking visuals not for the faint of heart.
Kaori, an amateur actress, falls for Takahashi, the lead scriptwriter of her acting group. Her friends try to warn her that Takahashi has a reputation for charming the girls of the acting troupe and dumping them, but she doesn’t listen. After Takahashi dumps her for a fan of his work, he gives her a videotape of himself so that she won’t feel lonely without him. In a fit of rage, Kaori grabs a knife from the kitchen and slashes his throat. Kaori watches the videotape to find that it’s a scripted, six-hour conversation with Takahashi. She ends up falling in love with the tape and memorizes all of her responses to the scripted Takahashi’s questions. The real Takahashi, however, is still alive and crawls to the living room, begging Kaori to call an ambulance. She professes her love for the scripted Takahashi saying that he will never betray her. Refusing to call for an ambulance, she finishes off the real Takahashi by beating him to death with a vase.
Scripted Love is one of my favorite, non-paranormal shorts from the collection. With overarching themes of infidelity and obsession, it’s an unusual tale with a cohesive twist that captures the spirit of the collection masterfully.
The Reanimator’s Sword
On the eve of his Grandfather’s death, Keiji and his friend go out into the forest in order to capture a wandering human soul. After a swarm of souls fly by overhead, he abandons his friend in order to give chase, leading him to a shrine where he encounters a sword-wielding spirit that attacks him. He escapes by jumping from a cliff and awakes the next day at home where he is informed by his Mother that his Grandfather had died while he was out. Keiji’s family call in a mysterious stranger who uses a ceremonial sword to perform a ritual of reanimation on his Grandfather’s corpse which revives him, giving him 100 extra years of life. Determined to discover the identity of the stranger, Keiji returns to the shrine and finds him. The stranger informs Keiji that he is a Reanimator of the Dead, collecting the lifeforce of people and animals and giving it to the deceased. He also informs Keiji that they both possess the same eyes, meaning that someday Keiji will come to take his place as Reanimator of the Dead just as the stranger himself once did. In an attempt to break the prophecy, the stranger attacks Keiji but is killed when his sword is used against him. All of the dead that the previous reanimator brought back to life, including Keiji’s Grandfather, dissolve and Keiji takes his place as the new Reanimator of the Dead.
A bit out-of-place, somewhat entertaining supernatural tale.
A Father’s Love
The Todoh family suffers from a curse. A long history of suicide has plagued the father’s side of the family and their three children suffer frequently from intense headaches. The story begins after the eldest of the three Todoh children, rebellious fourteen-year-old Satoru, is found dead, having killed himself presumably over the strict rules imposed by his father. Two years later Eiichi, the middle child, runs away from home after playing a prank on his father. He takes refuge in his friend Tsukasa’s house when his younger sister, Miho, is sent to bring him back. The pair argue and Eiichi is eventually scared into coming home by Miho who gives him a terrifying glare. Back at home he is scolded by his father and sneaks out in the middle of the night to play on his bike. Eiichi, seemingly possessed by an air of giddiness, cycles out onto the motorway, falls and waits until he is run over by a car. At his funeral, a rumor that Eiichi’s death was a suicide catches the attention of Tsukasa, who remembers the argument between him and his sister. Tsukasa questions Miho about the argument that night but she has no recollection of it. Another two years later Miho, the last Todoh child, pushes a potential boyfriend down a flight of stairs after an intense headache. Back at home she discovers that her father has the psychic ability to temporarily control his children and that this is the source of the headaches all of the Todoh children had suffered. She informs Tsukasa of her father’s ability and of his intent to kill her now her mother is pregnant, she also tells him that her father possessed and killed her brothers because they became rebellious to his wishes. At this moment Miho becomes possessed and attempts to murder Tsukasa but fails. Days later, Miho and her mother hatch a plan to run away from her father. Tsukasa arranges for his aunt in Hokkaido to help them but Mr. Todoh gives chase. He manages to hold Mr. Todoh off long enough for Miho and her mother to escape and Mr. Todoh reveals that he’d been taking control of his children in order to live a childhood he himself never had. When his children discovered this they rebelled against him and took their own lives. With his family gone, Mr. Todoh spends the day at the funfair before jumping off a Ferris wheel to his death.
The longest story in the collection is steeped in mystery. From the start it lures the reader in with the bizarre curse of the Todoh family and keeps an engaging pacing throughout. I felt that it ultimately fell short near the end however; possibly some issues in translation contradicts Mr. Todoh’s claim that he never intended to hurt his children by taking possession of them, he clearly puts them in dangerous situations on purpose as a result of their misbehavior or rebellious natures. The final stretch of the story’s ending may be a bit messy and overwhelming, but I still thought it was an enjoyable read nonetheless, not my favorite from the collection but not the worst either.
Two students, Sayako and Noriko, get lost on a mountainside hike and stumble upon a secluded community of Buddhist monks. They stay at the Buddhist temple where they meet Aya, a boy looking for his lost brother. Aya informs them that people who stay at the temple never leave and eventually become believers in the faith. After overhearing the monks speak about a ritual where a hundred of their most devout undergo self-mummification. Sayako, Norika, and Aya follow a group of them to an underground labyrinth filled with hundreds of standing, mummified monks. Aya finds his brother among the deceased while Sayako and Norika get lost further on in the tomb. Eventually the students come across the monks whom they were following; all of which are eerily waiting for the mummification process.
An engaging tale that adds a little variety to the collection. Unendurable Labyrinth’s themes are based around feeling lost and the lengths that people will go to in order to find inner peace. I also enjoyed the indirect foreshadowing in the form of the Head Monk referring to the outside, secular world as a world of confusion and when the group leave the temple they become lost in the labyrinth.
Village of the Siren
All across Japan infants are being kidnapped by a mysterious cult. After receiving the news that his father is ill, Kyoichi returns to his small, countryside village from Tokyo. While on the bus to the village he meets Shoko, a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in years. The pair arrive at the village and notice that things are quite strange, the church has been burnt down and the people seem off, ignoring them as they pass by. Looking for answers, Kyoichi seeks out his friend Yukari; she ignores him when he calls out to her but when he and Shoko grab her they learn that she has deafened herself and she warns them of a siren that rings throughout the village every evening. Kyoichi notices a winged figure flying above and follows it to a twisted, dark spire, on top of which the sirens can be seen. Shoko’s bedridden father tells her that 400 years ago, a magician named Doleman came to the village and used black magic to summon three demons that wreaked havoc among the villagers; eventually a group of missionaries defeated Doleman and two of the demons, sealing the last demon in the church’s basement with a magic seal. He suspects the new mayor of the village, Haiyama, of burning down the church and breaking the seal and tells Shoko she must leave before the siren, which is used by the demon as a mind-control device over anyone who hears it. Meanwhile, Kyoichi watches as the brainwashed villagers sacrifice hundreds of infants to fill a massive hole in front of the spire with their blood. The mayor reveals this is part of a ritual to summon the devil and that he requires a beautiful girl as a sacrifice to complete it, choosing Shoko. Kyoichi manages to hide Shoko, forcing the villagers to use Yukari as the sacrifice instead. The ritual is started and a giant claw reaches out from the blood pool which Yukari, unaffected by the demonic commands, pushes the mayor into and rushes to draw a protective circle in the dirt. The rest of the villagers grow demonic wings as the devil emerges from the pool, including Shoko. Yukari manages to drag Kyoichi into the circle and they watch as Shoko is eaten by the devil and hell is unleashed upon the world.
Village of the Siren started out strong with its premise but its second-half quickly devolves into silliness with magic and demons from nowhere. It’s a shame as it had potential with its cast and cultish atmosphere, but as with a lot of Ito’s stories the change in direction, often right at the end, comes far too abruptly and ends before the reader can fully invest into them.
At the playground Kuriko befriends Nao, a small boy with no friends. Nao quickly becomes attached and visits the playground everyday to play with her. Over time Kuriko grows to resent Nao, feeling that she is forced to hang out with him whenever she goes to the playground to see her childhood crush Yutaro. In an effort to drive the pestering Nao away, Kuriko begins bullying him relentlessly, first screaming in and pulling at his ears then forcing him to drink gutter water. No matter the treatment, he keeps coming back to play with Kuriko, who begins to enjoy bullying him more severely, beating him with a stick and almost convincing him to jump off of the slide. The next day Nao doesn’t come to the playground so she goes to get him; in a final act of bullying she pushes him into a vicious dog, severely injuring and causing him and his mother to move away. Years later Kuriko meets the grown up Nao who forgives her for bullying him as a child and they fall in love and marry. Not too long after the birth of their first boy, Nao disappears without a trace, leaving Kuriko to raise him by herself. Kuriko, overstressed by her clingy, four-year-old son, tells him of how she used to enjoy bullying his father. Remarking how much her son resembles Nao as a child, Kuriko, who has convinced herself that abandoning her was Nao’s act of revenge, changes into her childhood outfit, which is now ill-fitting and deranged, and drags her son off to the park to bully him.
Oh boy, I usually refrain from profanity in my reviews but this story is fucked up. It doesn’t rely on the paranormal or over-the-top gore to make an impact and its serious tone makes it all the more engaging. Cruelty is at the core of this story and it will leave you in a state of palpable repulsion. Personally, I think this is one of the most disturbing, non-supernatural short stories I’ve seen from Ito and perhaps one of his best.
A family harbors Furukawa, a Japanese World War II army deserter, in their farm’s storehouse and convinces him that the war is still ongoing eight years later, gaslighting him as a form of misplaced revenge for the death of their sister who was killed in an American air raid while running away from home after the eldest brother, Adera, forbid her relationship with Furukawa. They deceive him by means of fake war news and by having a friend of the family dress up under the guise of Military Police and search the house for him once a month. In a plan to scare Furukawa the family warn him of a potential upcoming air raid; unknown to Furukawa however, this is merely a nearby fireworks festival. On the night of the fireworks display the family is shocked when they break into the storehouse only to find Furukawa’s decomposed body hanging from the ceiling. From a note the family learns that he hung himself out of guilt two days after the death of their sister, meaning that the person they’ve been misleading for the past eight years is a spirit.
The collection’s namesake tale is its last and provides a chilling sendoff with a tale of deception containing a paranormal twist. Although not my favorite story from the collection, Deserter certainly stands out for its storyline, balancing its focus between the initial repulsion towards the family as they all commit to the lie, the empathy established by their reasoning, and the sense of mystery created by its twist.
Deserter, while one of the weaker of Ito’s collections in terms of visuals, provides thought-provoking, gothic tales of commitment handled in a cleverly indirect manner. It’s only after examining the stories further that this linkage becomes apparent as a whole.
Unfortunately, there is more clutter here than gems to warrant too high a praise; only four or so of the twelve stories will really stick with me. If you’re already a fan of Ito’s short story manga collections then Deserter would be a decent addition. However, as an introduction you could do much better than this collection.
~ Giuseppe Gillespie 2022