I’ve been pretty obsessed with Junji Ito lately. I started out by purchasing two of his classics, Uzumaki and Gyo, and since then have been gobbling up various volumes and collections, even though every time I buy a new one I say “this is the last.” Ito’s manga is bizarre, graphic, imaginative, and at its best leaves you with stuff to ponder.
Today, I thought I’d talk a little bit about two of his volumes, which were published very far apart in time but have some interesting thematic relations. The two volumes are Tomie (1987-2000) and Remina (2004-2005).
The stories are very different, but both of them feature (and are named after) a woman who people become lethally obsessed over! By the end of this post, I’ll talk about how one of these stories has a very real-life scientific lesson, too.
Tomie is considered one of Ito’s masterpieces, and launched his career as a manga horror artist. The first story of Tomie was also Ito’s first published story, which appeared in Monthly Halloween in 1987, and he continued to write episodes for it until 2000.
The titular character, Tomie, is a beautiful young woman with dark secrets. She has the power to make pretty much any man fall madly in love with her, and can also drive women to insanity, and she has no compunctions about doing so either to achieve practical goals or simply for her own amusement. However, men’s obsession with her eventually lead to them murdering her, usually quite violently. This is only a minor setback to Tomie, however, who has the ability to regenerate her whole body from even the smallest surviving portion. These regenerations are often incredibly grotesque, and can include hideous mutations as well.
The complete Tomie volume includes twenty tales of Tomie, and one of the remarkable things of the collection is how many imaginative and unexpected twists Junji Ito can create based on the basic idea of Tomie given above. To give just a few hints: doctors would be fascinated by, and want to experiment on, a human being who can regenerate endlessly, and: what happens when Tomie is hacked into multiple bits? Which bit becomes the new Tomie?
Occasionally there are characters who are almost heroes, opposing Tomie and her machinations, but most of the time the protagonists of the stories are willing or unwilling victims of her powers. I found the entire volume pretty much impossible to put down once I began reading it.
My impression is that Tomie is a musing on the human obsession with superficial beauty, and the corruption that can come with it. Everyone notes that Tomie is almost supernaturally attractive, and though Tomie knows it herself, she can break down — in a literal, body sense — if someone calls her “ugly.” The different stories give different takes on that obsession.
Remina is also a story about obsession, but of a very different nature. The book begins with an observation of a new rogue celestial body that has appeared via a wormhole in space. This wormhole was previously predicted by Professor Oguro, who has now won a Nobel Prize for his discovery and instant worldwide fame. The naming rights for the new planet are given to Oguro, who names it after his daughter, Remina. This catapults Remina into worldwide stardom herself, and she is pushed into a career as a pop star, which leads her to great success.
While Remina grows in fame, however, her namesake planet begins to head towards Earth. It moves faster than the speed of light at times, and more troubling, it appears to be destroying — or eating — every star that lies in its path. Soon the public learns of this fact, and mass panic ensues. It appears that the end of the world is coming, but it is even worse for Remina. Because her father discovered the planet, and it was named after her, the public becomes convinced that Remina is the cause of the apocalypse, and that only through her death can it be averted.
From there, the story gets only weirder, as Remina the girl struggles to survive both the murderous hysteria of humanity and the actions of Remina the planet.
As a story, Remina isn’t quite as powerful as Tomie, but it is delightfully weird and I couldn’t stop reading because I wanted to know how it all was going to end! It is another story of obsession with a woman, but a very different sort of obsession.
While reading the story, I was reminded of a principle introduced, appropriately, in a UFO book that I read as a kid. Jacques Vallée was a famed UFO researcher when I was growing up, notably inspiring the character Claude Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Vallée’s early books were very credulous about the existence of aliens, but he took a surprisingly different tone in his 1991 book Revelations, in which he speculated that many supposed UFO encounters may not only have been hoaxes but hoaxes orchestrated by government organizations!
The thing that has always stuck with me about Revelations was Vallée’s description of flaws in human reasoning that lead us to be very susceptible to paranormal cons. The relevant one to this post is what he called the “transitivity of strangeness.”
To paraphrase: Suppose one day you meet someone who tells you that they have met aliens from another world. You are justifiably skeptical, and demand proof, so the person tells you that the aliens have given him the power to bend spoons with his mind. You hand him a spoon, and he quickly turns it into a twisted lump of metal. Many people, at this point, would walk away thinking that they have met someone who has talked to aliens.
But, Vallée points out, the only thing the person proved is that they can bend a spoon. Even if they have legitimately bent the spoon with their mind, they have provided no proof that they talked to aliens! The human mind is nevertheless perfectly happy to associate two closely-spaced strange events together and assume that they are connected. Vallée warns against making such a leap.
In Remina, we in essence see the transitivity of strangeness in action! There is no evidence given that the girl Remina has anything to do with the apocalyptic planet Remina, but because they share the same name, and are both connected to her father, people in the story assume that they are related.
This association illustrates a darker and more tragic aspect of the human condition. As humans, we want to be able to control everything that happens around us, and it is difficult to accept that we cannot defend ourselves against every bad thing that can possibly happen to us — after all, we are not omniscient or omnipotent. But our desperate desire for control can often make us see connections that are not really there, or at least are not proven.
While I was reading Remina, I started thinking about the “lab leak” hypothesis for the origin of COVID — the idea that the virus was created in laboratory experiments and accidentally released upon the world. From what I’ve seen, there is no compelling evidence that leads us to believe in a lab leak, and it is certainly not unusual for a natural pandemic to hit the world. We’ve seen this before in history, from the 1918 flu pandemic to the 1957 influenza pandemic to the 2003 SARS outbreak. And it is certain that the earliest of these could not have originated in a biolab.
Why are so many people convinced that COVID is an artificial lab leak? Some probably sincerely feel that there’s enough circumstantial evidence to support it (and it cannot be ruled out; the absence of evidence does not mean it can’t be true). Certainly there are many who push it for political reasons: blaming China for COVID is a way to distract from any response failures at home. But I think a big appeal of the lab leak theory is that it is much more comforting to be able to assign blame to humans than recognize that pandemics are an inherent and uncontrollable part of our planet. If COVID came from a lab leak, we can punish the leakers and implement new laws and safety procedures to prevent something like it from happening again. If COVID is just another natural pandemic, we have to accept that there are some things that we can’t control.
This seems to be the lesson of Remina, too: faced with destruction, humanity opts to blame a single woman for their woes, simply because they have nothing else to hold onto. As I said, it is a very different sort of obsession than presented in Tomie. Though I think Tomie is the stronger work, Remina stuck with me for a long time after reading it.
Both of them are excellent, though, and like most of Ito’s work, well-worth tracking down to read.