Living Dead Girl: A Character Study of Junji Ito’s Tomie
So much of horror mangaka Junji Ito’s body of work is distinctly female-driven, such as in multi-volume series like Uzumaki and Hellstar Remina, but none of his leading ladies are quite as memorable as Tomie. An alluring sociopath whose machinations inevitably drives her lovers to a murderous rage, Tomie and her famous beauty mark made their first appearance in 1987—marking Ito’s own foray into manga. Since then, she’s been a focal character in many of Ito’s shorter fiction and subject to many a death scene: On paper and onscreen, she’s been incinerated, stabbed, hacked to pieces, ground to a pulp, and buried alive.
She’s also lent inspiration to one of the most enduring horror movie series in Japan, with a franchise spanning nine films over 12 years. The movies each have their own take on the immortal girl, with the last Tomie movie released in 2011. But like Tomie herself, there’s no telling if the franchise is done for good, since these don’t share any real continuity and are largely self-contained stories.
To put an interesting twist to her misadventures, Ito says he had written her as an unlikable character. But she is more than that, too. Haughty and perpetually unimpressed, Tomie is a divisive figure: The people around her are either in love with her or despise her; they are eager to kill her or kill for her—there’s not much middle ground. This love-hate relationship that men often have with Tomie is also expressed in how they’ll keep body parts as souvenirs after brutally killing her, as in The Basin of the Waterfall.
That she can inspire such fascination, fanaticism, jealousy, and fits of fury makes her more a force of nature than a conventional villain in Ito’s repertoire. He hasn’t done much to evolve her personality over the years to keep her from becoming a cliché, nor does he really need to: As seen in the manga Hair and Top Model, Tomie serves as a kind of mirror on which people like to project their insecurity or vanity. Even when confronted with Tomie’s true face, as captured only in portraits or photographs, they remain blind to it.
A creature of instinct, Tomie is often malevolent in a petty, non-committal kind of way. There’s no overarching plan to spell the destruction of mankind. She just acts according to her own nature, with no real control over the extent of her sinister influence. In Painter, even she admits that she has no idea why all those who love her inevitably try to kill her. Still, seducing men ranks higher to Tomie than a sense of self-preservation, perhaps because she knows she can never truly die. Their obsession with her is no different than her own obsession with being the object of their adoration. The few times she shifts from the pursued to the pursuer is when she comes across a man immune to her charms. Tomie loves only to be loved.
As shown in Gathering and Orphan Girl, she reciprocates people’s feelings—if at all—strictly as far as they can entertain, flatter, or cater to her expensive tastes. Inherent selfishness and egotism is so baked into her that multiple regenerated Tomies act independently of each other: the ones in Old and Ugly and Murder consider one another rivals, tasking their admirers with assassinating the others like warring tribal lords. The film Tomie Vs. Tomie also plays with this fact by essentially pitting Tomie against herself.
Ito has said that his art strives to make the beautiful every bit as detailed as the grotesque. This explains why there is such a delineation between the two extremes, especially in his later work. Besides Tomie, the closest Ito has come to inverting this self-made trope is probably with Narumi of the Bizarre Hikizuri Siblings—a beautiful, albeit strange girl—but even Narumi isn’t overtly destructive. Tomie remains an outlier: She is as much a beauty as she is a monster. Like something right out of Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan. Acts of violence are carried out in her name, but never by her own hand. Among Ito’s slug girls and blood bubbles, Tomie’s brand of horror hits closer to home: a familiar, flesh-and-blood evil that can bring out the worst lurking in humanity.