The Human Chair (Ningen Isu)
Originally story by Edogawa Rampo, Art and adaptation by Junji Itou
Publisher: Shogakukan (2007)
Length: Oneshot (One Chapter)
Despite my turbulent relationship with the works of Junji Itou, Human Chair indicates that the mangaka can induce fear in compelling and innovative ways, when he puts his mind to it. With a narrative more on the side of creepy than frightening, it takes a lot of skill to re-work an already established classic in a new, disturbing direction. But through Itou’s trademark macabre imagery, and a lot of it, we sit in a story which felt destined for a manga adaptation.
Human Chair is based on Edogawa Rampo’s short story of the same name, originally published in October of 1925. Rampo, a literary critic amongst other things, was known for his obsession with horror stories. Even his name was constructed from this world, supposedly the sound made when trying to say “Edgar Allen Poe” with an accent. His story focuses on Hayama Yazuho, a writer who enters a furniture shop one day to kill some time. While there, a decrepit carpenter introduces her to an old armchair, once belonging to the famous author Togawa Toshiro. She’s told about Togawa’s strange happenstance regarding the chair, and its tragic ending.
Whenever talking about Itou, the first thing that must be discussed is his art. If there was one statement I could make with certainty, it’s that a scary series relies on effective artwork. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the conventional “good” artwork that plagues mainstream manga. As long as it compliments the story, it doesn’t really matter which direction or form the art takes. Itou tends to focus on realism with his art, but uses darker inking to create a sense of disconnect between our world. Scenes that are relatively normal tend to have white, or at least lighter backgrounds. When supernatural events are occurring, it’s only darkness that surrounds the characters in the forefront of the panel. While there are no supernatural occurrences in this manga, it still relies heavily on dark sketches to convey uncertainty within readers.
Itou takes the theme of obsession, inherent to humanity, and attaches it to physical objects. We begin to ascribe human traits to our couches and wardrobes, but not in the sense you might believe. The mangaka masterfully combines obsession with another dangerous feeling, paranoia. It isn’t a magical tale where spirits inhabit objects and go on adventures with human characters; it’s the fear of other people, and the lengths the will go to in order to satisfy their own desires. The creepiness from this manga wasn’t based on supernatural entities; all events are possible by a human with enough drive, or a better phrase would be a human driven by obsession. It’s unrealistic enough to roll your eyes after your first read, but possible enough that you may start questioning whether you are truly alone after reading. It takes a simple idea, couples it with bizarre imagery and is able to instil even the most logical reader with a sense of doubt about their reality.
The main issue I have with this manga is the title, namely that it spoils the entire story! As I was writing this review, I was mindful about keeping the climax hidden, but realised that it’s hard to do when a potential reader has to search the biggest spook of this piece in order to locate it in the first place. The characters were also essentially cardboard, only vessels for story progression, but they were drawn so well they almost felt human. Itou’s ability to frame faces, particularly with fear and terror added the only semblance of humanity to these beings.
Due to its brevity, anyone even remotely interested in Human Chair should give it a try. The subtle paranoia instilled in Itou’s writing alongside his brash, disturbing artistry leads to a unique combination of horror techniques, which, for the most part, pairs well. The narrative, recounted by the carpenter, is told far more than it’s shown, ironic for a medium constructed from images. But my enjoyment of Itou’s work merits this adaptation’s existence.