Junji Ito‘s horror catalog features a number of recurring characters; the best known might be the titular Tomie, but she’s joined by the likes of nail-chewing occult brat Sōichi, man-eating supermodel Miss Fuchi, and the dimension-hopping Toru Oshikiri. The handsome ghost of Lovesickness joins Ito’s gallery of terrors in a story reminiscent of both Uzumaki and Tomie. While this is the latest Ito release from Viz, I tried to keep in mind that it was originally published in Japan in 1997, and plot beats that seem well-trodden now were less so at the time of its creation.
Lovesickness proves to be familiar territory for Ito’s storytelling both in characterization and twists. It stars Ito’s favorite protagonist archetype: a teenager with a dour disposition, little emotional depth, and a penchant for lashing out when under stress. In this case, that teenager is Ryūsuke, a sullen yet handsome guy that returns to his foggy hometown and reunites with his old friends, including his former crush Midori. Midori is similar to many female sidekicks that appear in Ito’s tales: headstrong and loyal to a fault despite Ryūsuke’s coldness. She’s always ready to pop into frame to help him evade supernatural trouble and tolerates his moody outbursts out of a sense of altruism and, in her mind, love.
The two embark on the seemingly impossible quest of tracking down the handsome ghost that walks through the town’s intersections. Ryūsuke is convinced the ghost is responsible for a string of suicides laying waste to his female classmates. Each girl appears to be a victim of an ill fortune received from the ghost when they asked him to weigh in on their love lives. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the ghost’s words are akin to a curse that compels the listener to do whatever he says or fall into unfathomable despair. Midori and Ryūsuke encounter multiple victims; first a close friend, then the mistress of a married man. Meanwhile the girls of the town form something akin to a serial killer fanclub for the ghost, who they believe to be Ryūsuke, and begin chasing him around town in swarms.
The town’s descent into madness and the supernatural goings-on that plague it originated from one central event eight years ago that causes Ryūsuke to feel a deep sense of guilt. He spends multiple chapters attempting to thwart the Handsome Ghost or pin him down, but the story’s conclusion ultimately feels unsatisfying after hundreds of pages of build-up. The ghost’s origin story and his relationship with Ryūsuke is relayed in a passing fashion and does little to illuminate the ghost’s cynical maleficence. The way Midori is written out of the story also feels arbitrary; as a character that was little more than the wingman for Ryūsuke’s foggy excursions, I kept hoping for a little more nuance, but in the end she has little bearing on the story’s outcome.
I found it equally difficult to hone in on an overall theme beyond the necessity for balance. For a story focused on fortune-telling, romance, and bad luck, there isn’t much to be said beyond ‘be careful what you wish for.’ A more streamlined idea or an overall takeaway beyond ‘ghost terrorizes town’ would have left a more biting impression. Instead, what we have here is some truly great horror artwork in service of a lukewarm story. Several of the female ghosts bear a striking resemblance to Stephen Gammell’s work in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and are just as chilling. Ito makes deft use of facial close-ups to show the oozing, crusting detail of his horrible ghosts.
The latter half of the book includes two new stories featuring the Hikizuri Siblings, a sort of “Addams Family” but even more macabre. Most of the family members have grotesque designs with the exception of 14-year-old Nanami, who instead appears attractive but constantly threatens to commit suicide to get what she wants from others. Their chapters are primarily played as a dark comedy. Speaking of, it’s probably a good idea to keep in mind that suicide is featured prominently in this volume. The Handsome Ghost chapters focus heavily on suicide and include very graphic depictions. The possibility of suicide happens so often that it honestly loses a lot of its impact. You can only show so many boxcutters before it ceases to be a serious threat anymore. There’s also a one-shot chapter towards the end that focuses on dieting and body image in an extreme way.
Having read the entirety of the English-language Junji Ito library to date, I’d like to see original releases where the creator branches out into something beyond surface-level horror and anxiety. The characters themselves need a bit more depth than merely being victims of supernatural phenomenon beyond their control.