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Tomie – or the uncanny horror of gender norms

I’ve been meaning to read Junji Ito’s work for a while – but never got the chance to – until a month ago. I was visiting a bookshop with a friend and stumbled upon an extensive collection from maybe the most famous Japanese body-horror mangaka. As I struggled to decide which kind of nightmare were going to haunt my nights, my friend came over and said “Buy Tomie. It’s super good.”, with a very serious expression on her face.

Super good had to be worthy of my time, so I walked back home with more than seven hundred pages of illustrated horror. This is my later review of the opera and thought I won’t go into details, keep in mind that the subject at hand can be heavy.

Who or what is Tomie?

Tomie is… an entity, first emerging from Junji Ito's imagination in 1987. If you are familiar with Lovecraft’s works, you might even describe her as an eldritch being in the shape of a woman. In all her various appearances, she retains a few key characteristics. Beautiful, mean, self-interested, manipulative, and with a strong tendency to cause psychosis. People around Tomie fall victim to her will – with a few, non-notable exceptions.

Men claim they love her, as the bags around their eyes deepen and their cheeks sink. They become violent, irrational, weak and dependent. They fight for scraps of Tomie's attention and fall into depression when she scorns them. They all regress, in short, to a pitiful embodiment of toxic masculinity.

On a side, this feels like a take on the role of beauty standards in modern society.

Tomie doesn't struggle to be beautiful – she just is. In a powerful reversal, she is not subjected to the male gaze. Quite the contrary: men who look at her end up destroying themselves.

Tomie is far from being a positive force against the patriarchy. She constantly belittles and humiliates other women – not much of a feminist. Worse still, Tomie's fatal influence affects them as well. They either become subservient or literally turn into her. In both cases, their personality is sacrificed for the sake of beauty.

If this seems like a complicated metaphor to analyze, wait – there’s more. Let’s discuss the other qualities of Tomie: men that fall victim to her influence will always try to kill her. And in many instances, they manage to do so. They also usually try to dispose of her body by cutting it in pieces, which is, so to speak, problematic.

Tomie has supernatural healing abilities. Even a single cell can regenerate to the point of becoming a fully-fledged, independent clone. Those two factors combined give birth to the twenty stories in the collection. Reading start to finish, one gets the idea that a swarm of Tomie's replicas are invading Japan.

This thwarts the “beauty standard” reading I was trying to set up above. Tomie can enact some kind of karmic justice on men, true. She can, at best make fun at their expenses, at worst destroy them; but she never wins. For as manipulative Tomie can be, she will be defeated by someone else’s murderous intent, her agency turned on her in a fatal blow.

Her potential as a supernatural entity is also diminished. In “Gathering” (富江・ある集団) , she manages to become the leader of a cult, just to realize that all the men are starting to fantasize about killing her. Again I’m sorry to disturb Lovecraft twice in the same article, but it’s a little as if Cthulhu had to worry about his own cultists.

It seems, then, that this is a damned if you don’t, damned if you do situation – one surely not unknown to women in our society. For the longest time we’ve asked them, for example, to dress in an appealing way (God forbid if they look unkempt) while also avoid attracting attention on their looks.

It’s an impossible dilemma, lwith no right answer. Tomie is stuck in her own loop of desire, madness and death; and while she keeps coming back to life, it’s not clear if she can be considered the same person/entity. In “Passing Demon” (富江・通り魔) three young clones of Tomie happen to live in the same town. As soon as they discover this, they focus their efforts on killing each other. Tomie’s beauty is so alienating that it does not admit competition.

Alienating seems to be a keyword here. Ito is for sure a master of body horror – his works thrive on distorting, deforming, and desecrating the human body. The stories in this collection are no exception. We are instantly repulsed when we see a malformed Tomie sprouting up from the wall of a cave, like some sort of human algae. We are horrified by the experiments in “Morita Hospital” (富江PART2=森田病院編) and worse still, what lurks in “Mansion” (屋敷). No matter how many times some character remarks on how beautiful Tomie is – after a while the reader learns to associate Tomie’s very facial structure with very bad news. Pushing the association further, Tomie’s perfection might even become a little repulsive.

We need to dig further – maybe this disgust might be aimed to a better target. Let me brink you back to the first story in the collection, named after the titular character: “Tomie” (富江).

It first appears to be your run-of-the-mill ghost tale. During a field trip in the mountainside, high school student Tomie talks to her teacher, Takagi, mentioning she might be pregnant. “Are you going to leave your wife?” She asks him. Her classmates – near enough to see her, without hearing – remark on the fact she’s being “flirtatious”. This in turn angers Tomie’s boyfriend, Yamamoto, who starts arguing and slaps her. Tomie trips and falls of a cliff. Yamamoto first wants to go to the police, but Takagi convinces him and the rest of the class to keep silent – no point going in prison over an accident.

Guided by the professor, her classmates dissect her body and hide the pieces.

However, she comes back at school the following day, seemingly unable to remember what happened. Her classmates suggest she might be a ghost, but this is never confirmed. In any case, she haunts them until the main culprits of her death (Yamamoto and Takagi) succumb to madness and guilt.

There is a lot to unpack even thought I glossed over some details to avoid spoiling the story. The main point here is that Tomie lacks almost completely the cunning, mean, blunt personality that she will exhibit later. She’s just a girl caught up in a relationship with an adult, and possibly coming to terms with a sudden pregnancy. Her only fault is to be perceived as attractive, and thus desirable.

She is not a femme fatale at this point – she is a victim.

“Traditionally in Japanese culture, women who are wronged by men go through a symbolic transformation- beauty into ugliness and cultured into wild. They take revenge upon men, and give a warning to the male-centered culture.” [Dollase, “Shojo Spirits in Horror Manga”, 2010]

This is not true of the first Tomie: when she comes back her ghost is mostly just confused and wonders why all her classmates act horrified by her presence. In later stories, she does fall in this archetype – but we can argue at that point she is no longer Tomie Kawakami the schoolgirl, but Tomie the entity. From this point onward, it makes more sense to think of Tomie as a force, rather than a character.

Tomie becomes a vessel for cosmic horror by no fault of her own – and even when serving as a warning to male-centered culture, she has little in terms of power and independence.

True, she toys with men and women. She subverts a society where physical appearance is considered paramount. She is always at the center of terrible crimes that are either ordained or inspired by her mere presence. She is a monster, and yet, there is something disturbing in seeing her being tied up or getting overpowered by men. In the end, Tomie is unable to escape her own horrific power.

The situation is indeed grim if not even a supernatural entity can survive the gender norms.

Norms – and societal standards – are a way to interpret the fil rouge running through the stories. Tomie is shallow, arrogant, blunt, selfish, and uncaring because she is a foil of the virtues that “regular” women are expected to have in Japanese culture. By being beautiful while refusing to embody any other traditionally feminine values, like empathy, she becomes monstrous. And we can’t quite get rid of her – she keeps coming back because she is embedded in our society. After all, not so long time ago, it was considered normal to say that a woman should be seen, not heard.

What we are left with is a cautionary tale: as long as we keep poisoning the figurative well with this obsession over women’s bodies, horrible things are bound to happen. There's maybe some reason to hope – after all, the world is not the same as it was in 1987. Things are slowly changing. However, change per se is a neutral force – without awareness, we risk being stuck in the same loop, like Tomie going from one incarnation to the next.

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