Story and art by Junji Itou
Originally publisher: Shogakukan
Length: One Shot
While horror has been a genre present throughout the history of manga, it was only with the rise of alternative/adult manga that a diverse range of titles aimed to terrify became prevalent in the mainstream. Contemporary authors like Kazuo Umezu (The Drifting Classroom) and Junji Ito (Gyo) have brought with them unique methods to horrify, utilising the predominantly visual medium of manga to play with constructs of reality. The works of the later have become a staple in horror, in particular, Itou’s manifestation of psychological horrors through grotesque imagery has won him universal admiration. And while I’ve read a handful of Ito’s works, none have resonated with this sentiment quite like The Enigma of Amigara Fault.
In this short story, we follow Owaki, a young man who has scaled Amigara Mountain to uncover the mystery behind an unsettling discovery made after an earthquake. Along the side of the mountain, human shaped holes have appeared, and begun “calling” to particular people who share a resemblance to them. Along the way he meets Yoshida, a young lady who has been lured to the mountain by these voices.
The idea behind this story is great, and provides an opportunity for the author to establish a unique horror experience. Ito never overcomplicates his story with ambitious narration, opting to focus on one strand of horror, that of psychological terror, and the internal agony one can experience within. While no monstrous being is present to scare the reader, a sense of helplessness comes from the type of supernatural occurrence our characters are facing. The human shaped holes, are in a sense, the “antagonist” of the story, but they never have a firsthand effect on the characters. The characters are aware of this, and never act mindlessly, but are unable to prevent their inner urges from manifesting into action, often leading to tragic outcomes.
This disturbing and highly symbolic experience manifests in a vintage Itou art style. While the minds of the characters are infrequently verbalised, their facial expressions convey all the unrest needed to produce an incredibly unsettling experience. The fear in their eyes as their bodies overpower their mind is harrowing, and deeply confronting to witness as a spectator.
Unfortunately, the manga still possesses issues. The biggest and most disturbing discovery, displayed on the final page of this manga, is ruined a few pages earlier, when Owaki has a nightmare. Itou uses this sequence to shed light on the origin of the human shaped holes, but not only does he spoil the ending, the “truth” Itou intends to reveal about the fault is incredibly underwhelming. If anything, it ruined the mystery behind these psychological compulsions, trying to attach some ancient lore in a story primarily focused on the mental states of individual characters. I’ve read quite a bit of Itou, and his short stories sometimes struggle to balance showing and telling, but it was disappointing for such a high quality idea to be stifled by an easily avoidable addition (i.e. not characterising something that has no business being characterised).
Alongside storytelling, the token romance between the two characters seemed completely misplaced. I can understand that it was an attempt to add some hopefulness to the story, temporarily distracting the reader from the horrors ahead, but it was such a rushed subplot that the reader isn’t even given time to comprehend it before it’s destroyed. While Itou is very focused in terms of the frightful experience he wants to deliver, the details in-between are undeveloped. A short story will always struggle to be both concise and dense, but if you’re rolling with the former, don’t add in clichés that are so jarring they take away from your main idea.
Owaki’s nightmare did have some symbolic significance, however. As the dream’s setting was placed during the “caveman period”, the anxiety produced by the fault becomes linked to primordial fears – isolation, darkness, claustrophobia and more generally, the unknown. These fears are then embodied by highly distressing images, twisted and completely inhuman (yet, human enough to be unnerving). Interestingly, the sound effects are also effective in producing unrest. Again, it is not through monstrous screams and destructive sounds that we are subjected to anxiety, but through small groans and helpless squeals.
The Enigma of Amigara Fault is, in my opinion, Itou’s strongest short story. His ability to construct terrifying scenarios that don’t require any ghoul or ghost to lift a finger is a testament to his craft. While short stories can struggle with depth, Itou’s conscious choice to include too much stifled the most important aspect of his piece; not just the relationship between the holes and their human counterparts, but the fearful consequence of the unknown. It’s still an essential piece to read for an enthusiast of the disturbed, particularly those curious about the medium’s ability to convey horror.