Authors We Love: Junji Itō

American horror typically depicts a psycho lurking around in a motel, zombies brought back from the dead, or clowns eating frightened children. Junji Itō has shaped the way viewers define horror forever, bringing stories to life by drawings made from ink and paper. Unlike American horror, he illustrates supernatural events such as mysterious spirals, blood-sucking vampire bats, and much more.

Born on July 31st, 1963 in Nakatsugawa, Gifu, Japan, Junji Itō developed his love for horror at a young age. His older sisters would read him Kazuo Umezu and Shinichi Koga–famous horror manga authors during the 1960s–in Japanese magazines. Other authors such as Hideshi Hino, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Shinichi Koga, H. P. Lovecraft, and Edogawa Ranpo became major influences to his work as well.

Junji Itō’s career as a manga author began around the 1980s, when he won the Kazuo Umezu Prize after entering a short tale to Gekkan Halloween. The submission later turned into a Japanese horror manga series titled Tomie. Afterwards, he quit his previous job and pursued his hobby of writing and drawing as a full career.

Junji Itō’s works were popular in Japan, yet they only gained popularity in the United States late into his career. In 2019, Itō won an Eisner Award for his manga reinterpretation of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Known as the Academy Awards of the comic industry, Itō became one of few foreigners to receive an Eisner Award. This year, he was once again nominated for an Eisner Award under the category of “The Best Writer/Artist” for his horror comic Jigokusei Remina.

Most of Junji Itō’s creations portray a dark, impulsive universe filled with the worst traits in any human, specifically greed, jealousy, and irrationality. There are recurring themes of grotesque horror, inevitable consequences of one’s own actions, seemingly ordinary characters that gradually submit to compulsion, and settings that break down and collapse into a state which reflects our own society. As a result, all of his mangas portray the beauty and underlying horror in every story. Itō’s most popular manga is arguably Uzumaki, a three-volume novel that depicts the journey of a teenager, Kirie Goshima, who witnesses an ordinary town fall under a curse of spirals. Another famous novel is Smashed, consisting of multiple short stories such as addictive honey that flattens those who drink it, a valley of mirrors, and “earthbound” people. These novels may be the most well-known, but Itō has a variety of underrated books, series, and movies to choose from.

As a lover of horror, I’ve grown to admire Junji Itō’s novels for their distinctive illustrations and plots. They truly allow readers to feel more than just fear. The ties between Itō’s fictional and nonfictional factors truly brings out different emotions because it reflects our own world.

Junji Itō is still alive at the age of 57. Although he may not be publishing any novels in the near future, his history of twisted tales that connect our deepest unknown fears to real life truly proves he’s the master of horror.

-Natasha P.

The works of Junji Ito are available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Manga Review: Erased by Kei Sanbe

Many of the popular manga we see nowadays center around action and fantasy. Such famous mangas still have amazing reads and obviously attract readers around the globe for a reason, but they fall short of meaning or depth in their plots. Yes, there’s a lengthy plot, lovable characters, and other factors that appeal to minds of all ages. But do these mangas also talk about the reality of our world? Do they bring heart-throbbing events where the main character can’t gain hope from a 30-minute monologue? I admit, Erased may not be the best book to those looking for a light-hearted novel, but it’s definitely worth reading and allows readers to see both the beauty and cruelty of our real world.

Erased is also referred to as Boku dake ga Inai Machi (僕だけがいない街), which is directly translated as “The Town Where Only I Am Missing.” Written by Kei Sanbe, the series is filled with thriller, mystery, and a bit of science fiction. The story entails of a young man named Satoru. He enables the ability to time-travel before a life-threatening event and prevent it from happening, also known as “Revival.” One night, his mother is murdered by an unknown killer; the pain-staking event sends Satoru eighteen years back into his childhood. After discovering that the murderer is tied to his past, Satoru is now given the opportunity to prevent his mother’s death by discovering who the murderer is, as well as solve the case of three missing children in his home town.

To be honest, there are moments where the plot doesn’t make sense—especially since the author never mentions why Satoru is able to time-travel. Regardless, the plot of the book series remains absolutely phenomenal; the author quickens the plot’s pace when necessary and fills it with extreme twists and events that leaves the audience filled with emotions. The characters themselves are either loved or despised, and every character reaches their fullest potential, regardless of being a hero or villain.

But I digress—what is most enjoyable about this book is its uniqueness and how meaningful the story is. Time-travel itself is quite a cheesy plot factor, but the connection between reality and fantasy is what makes the series interesting. Overall, the plot remains realistic; characters often make mistakes and feel lost, some moments seem hopeless, and a glimpse of light that every reader looks for rarely shines. Sanbe weaves the cruel reality of our world into the plot with regards to child abuse and kidnapping. Yet he still gives signs of faith and hope through time-traveling and fiction, giving Satoru another chance at making things right, and a bittersweet ending. Such factors are simply not found in any typical manga.

Overall, the Erased series is truly underrated. Although it does fit those who prefer the gory over glory, Erased does what any manga rarely does—give hope and faith to the hopelessness of our real world.

– Natisha P.

Erased by Kei Sanbe is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

I discovered this book at an early age, between elementary and middle school, but to put it simply, there has never been a book as eye opening and intriguing in all my years of reading. This was one of those rare books that excited me every time I read it—it was something I couldn’t put down. The sheer brilliance in this book is unimaginable and extremely rare to find. Personally, the book provided nostalgic memories that I could never let go of.

Published in 2007, The Mysterious Benedict Society is actually one of a five-part series about a orphan boy and gifted child named Reynard “Reynie” Muldoon. After reading an ad in the newspaper about an opportunity for gifted children, Reynie decides to take the opportunity and soon faces challenging tests, ones in which he passes. From this, he qualifies to meet Mr. Benedict, the founder of an organization, along with three others who passed the test: George “Sticky” Washington, Kate Wetherall, and Constance Contraire. Mr. Benedict sends the children on a mission to explain the mind-controlling messages displayed on televisions and radio signals by placing them as undercover agents in another organization institute, but there’s so much more than what meets the eye.

One main reason why I choose to praise this book is because of its uniqueness. In mystery and thriller novels, there’s already a sense of uniqueness in the sense that you have to create entirely new and different plots to keep stories fresh and entertaining, but this novel specifically holds the complete opposite of cliché story-telling, as it includes many details that one wouldn’t even know could fit together. To be quite honest, the book is quite long and has some unnecessary fill-ins for the plot, yet the plot in itself is wild, crazy, and so unique to the extent where one can never know what will happen next. Along with the plot are creative puzzles and tests for the reader to figure out on their own—a wonderful way to keep readers engaged! The characters have flaws, which make them realistic, but not to the point where they’re so unlikable and their chemistry doesn’t mix well. In the end, the book acts the way a true mystery novel should, even if the imaginative plot fits young adults.

It reaches the heart and soul of young readers, as it provides such a wild, creative imagination to create a story such as The Mysterious Benedict Society. However, it also extends to any age, young or old, but basically, just anyone who’s creative and simply wants a puzzling challenge.

-Natisha P.

The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Film Review: Grave of the Fireflies

Studio Ghibli is a film franchise globally known for its popular movies, such as Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. Compared to other animation studios like Disney or Pixar, Studio Ghibli creates memorable movies with plots that surpass the typical hero’s journey or romance trope. With a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, Grave of the Fireflies isn’t an average film. It leaves viewers with a long-lasting emotional experience; one cannot even fathom its beauty, especially since its drawn entirely by hand. The movie is terribly sad and ends with a bittersweet ending, albeit its simple story moves viewers to tears and reveals nothing but the tragic, cruel truth of war.

Made in 1988 by film director Isao Takahata, the movie depicts a story of two Japanese siblings, Setsuko (age 4) and Seita (age 14), living in the midst of World War II. After surviving a U.S. bombing in Kobe, Japan, and becoming orphans, they move into their aunt’s house. With a staggering family relationship, the siblings decide to leave the house and find their own place. Unfortunately, living progressively becomes more difficult; as food grows scarce and less people are willing to help them, the struggle for survival grows stronger and their will to live diminishes. The movie is based on the novel titled Grave of the Fireflies by Akiyuki Nosaka, conveying a recollection of the author’s own experiences before, during, and after the firebombing of Kobe in 1945.

To begin with, the art style is extremely detailed; every drawing depicts something new, with different emotions drawn out from each event. Viewers are able to understand the characters’ thoughts and feelings simply through facial features. Each background drawn has clear details that bring life and realism. The plot and method of storytelling is well-thought out, intertwining artistic and literary beauty. To elaborate more would spoil some of the movie, but the plot often shifts between its beginning and conclusion, reaching a midpoint at the movie’s end. Even though the characters don’t explain much and the plot can seem drawn out at times, every small event builds up to one meaningful, heart-throbbing ending.

What I most enjoy about this movie is its message; the perspective of watching two children suffering is difficult enough to bear, but it teaches the audience about war’s negative impacts, of how many innocent lives are harmed by another group’s disagreements. In reality, the movie was not made to entertain–it was made to inform, to warn others about the consequences of violence. As a result, there’s no honor or glory; those who truly suffer are the ones who were never part of the conflict.

The personal impact of this story is often too difficult to put into words. In a mix of both horrid and beautiful scenes, each holding its own meaningful touch to the story, Grave of the Fireflies is a movie that’s been underrated and forgotten for years. And yet, once you watch it, even if it’s just once, it’s difficult to forget.

– Natisha P.

Grave of the Fireflies is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Hiroshima By John Hersey

As a lover of fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels, reading a nonfiction book comprised of a newspaper report doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. However, Hiroshima was surprisingly different compared to other historical novels. Obviously, it’s based on a journal excerpt, but John Hersey managed to create a book from real-life situations of different survivors–all from a story-telling and personalized perspective. To say that the book was eye-opening or underrated would still be an understatement.

Published by The New Yorker, Hiroshima takes place in 1945 during World War II, with intricate descriptions of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and multiple remarks from traumatized survivors. Hersey focuses on six people specifically, recording what happened and how they felt both before and after the explosion. His writing was very smooth for a journal report; he wrote about completely different lifestyles diminished into pure survival to make each more comparable, almost like fictional characters.

As a forewarning, this book can get gruesomely detailed and saddening. Death lurks everywhere as the main character and it can become suffocating to read at times because it’s so overwhelming, especially when you know that this information isn’t fiction. Nonetheless, this novel holds such a big impact on its readers to this today, even when it seems so depressing.

I will admit that there are some parts where the book can drag in change in regards to the plot, albeit this book is genuine, not sugar-coated to make America look like the heroes compared to Japan. It wasn’t made to entertain, it was made to inform. John Hersey, an American journalist, managed to expose America’s wrongdoings and use his own experience of witnessing the aftermath as a lesson for future generations of our society.

Initially, the United States kept the Hiroshima bombing as a secret from the public, so it essentially revealed the horror and consequences of violence as a whole. The idea of innocent people wrongfully suffering from the hands of political views and ideology proves that the truth is much more terrible than fiction, but also much more valuable. This was a mistake in our history that Hersey wrote about to prevent such a thing from happening again–to look towards basic human decency instead of who’s right and who’s wrong.

No matter what genre one may interest in, this book is definitely worth reading. It stems from much more than a plot or pages of information, helping readers understand the heavy reality of our world.

– Natisha P.

Hiroshima by John Hersey is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.

Movie Review: Bad Genius

The film Bad Genius is a 2017 Thai movie filmed by Nattawut Poonpiriya and can be found on Netflix. There wasn’t much media coverage over this film simply because it wasn’t produced in the United States and therefore didn’t gain popularity outside of Thailand; nonetheless, it’s a cinematic masterpiece.

This movie is very unique; it’s difficult to find movies where you enjoy the stress and emotional rollercoasters. Although the movie is considered as a mature film, it’s an extremely underrated movie that holds a lot of meaning and can connect to students regardless of nationality. Every student understands the immense pressure of test-taking, especially for tests that can determine your entire future.

With a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, this thriller-type heist movie is based on a student named Lynn, one of the best in her school, who gets accepted into a private university. Her wealthy friend Grace is struggling with school and persuades Lynn to help her cheat on an exam in exchange for money. Realizing the amount of money necessary to financially support her family and attend university, Lynn begins making money off of helping kids cheat during exams, but another top student named Bank gets suspicious, Lynn and her friends get caught, and Lynn loses her scholarship. The other kids who were caught cheating then take revenge on Bank by leaving him injured in a junkyard, forcing him to miss his exam and lose his scholarship as well. With hope for their academic future low, Lynn and Bank work together in creating a well-thought out plan to help students cheat on the STIC (an SAT exam for international countries).

At first, the plot of this movie may serve as a bad example for students, but the movie includes so much more in-depth meaning. Nattawut Poonpiriya, provides direct references to the social class inequalities and corrupt systems found in schools, specifically Thai schools. Both Lynn and Bank are underprivileged and come from poor financial backgrounds; the only reason they choose to help their rich, privileged friends cheat is because they need the money to afford a good university.

The way they filmed this movie is innovative as well, adding onto the stress and tension during specific scenes. During their exams, viewers can see that the only nervous ones are Lynn and Bank, while their friends are simply at ease; in reality, intelligence and top grades can only get you so far without family connections and wealth.

Although the message is quite negative, the impact of the movie reaches its viewers in a different way. Not only is it an external battle, but also a moral dilemma between dreams and reality.

-Natisha P.

Girl in The Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

I can truly say that there are only some books in this world that simply makes the reader sit in shock once they’ve finished the novel. I can also truly say that Girl in The Blue Coat is one of those books. Written by Monica Hesse, who won the Edgar Award for the best young adult mystery novel, Girl in The Blue Coat takes place during the 1940s, where a Dutch girl named Hanneke manages to survive World War II off of delivering black-market goods to customers. Still recovering from the death of her boyfriend, one of her clients, Mrs. Janssen, begs Hanneke to find a missing Jewish girl the client’s been hiding. Hanneke soon gets pulled into a web of mysteries that slowly unfolds as the novel progresses.

This book is well-crafted down to the finest details, creating a novel that shocks readers in the way every mystery novel should. All of the characters felt so realistic; they had flaws of their own, some aspects that make readers question what they value. Yet that’s what makes them human. The novel revolves mostly about how people often make mistakes in their lives which lead to regret, but also about courage and friendship. These real human values are what largely connects readers to the story. Through these characters actions, both good and bad, many understand and share their own emotions. Hesse beautifully portrays how humans often make mistakes, how they regret those mistakes, and how they learn to let go of those regrets.

As for the book’s plot, it’s honestly rare to find a book as addicting and unique to read. Monica Hesse manages to cleverly put twists and turns throughout the story to keep readers entertained. In the ending, rather than a perfect resolution, the author even leaves some issues unresolved for the readers to analyze themselves. The layers of plots that overlap each other were never overwhelming, and actually turned the novel into an emotional rollercoaster of events. The chaos of the war along with the character’s own problems that intertwine together makes the novel even more worthy for a read.

To be honest, I had a sea of emotions once I finished the book. This remarkable story truly speaks to its readers in the most realistic way possible. For any fans of historical fiction or even mystery novels, Girl in The Blue Coat will never disappoint.

– Natisha P.

Girl in The Blue Coat by Monica Hesse is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.

Film Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

I remember watching Mulan from the floor of my living room, gazing up to the screen, a little girl absolutely fascinated by a princess who looks like me–and yet, doesn’t at the same time. As a first-generation of Southeastern Asian descent, I felt like Mulan didn’t represent my culture. Even as Disney created a female Asian who takes the lead role, I still felt left out. After watching Raya and The Last Dragon, I felt like my culture was now being appreciated.

A heroine who doesn’t undergo typical coming-of-age experiences, but instead carves her own path to save her world and even becomes the villain of her own story–Raya is undoubtedly one of the best Disney princesses for Asian Americans to look up to. In the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons used to live in harmony. With different kingdoms who are separated by hate, Raya finds the last dragon Sisu and embarks on a quest to restore their uninhabitable land.

I have quite a few things to mention about the movie. In regards to animation, the movie is bright and colorful with realistic shots–the perfect setting for a hero’s journey. To be honest, the plot itself was often predictable; it seemed too straight forward, especially as a quest plot. The characters however, were extremely diverse and versatile in personality and never fall short to entertain the audience. There’s never a specific villain, but rather applies to everyone in the movie–a well-thought aspect to include. All of the characters show real human emotions at the right times; negative characteristics such as anger, hatred, and mistrust contributes greatly to the story’s plot and message.

As for the Southeast Asian references, Raya and the Last Dragon does so well in including details from every Southeast Asian culture. From my perspective, I was finally able to see a representative of my culture, regardless of it being a nonfictional movie. Raya is a bold, empowering female figure that I believe many little girls can look up to, no matter the race. Unfortunately, I’ve already grown out of my childhood, yet I’m grateful nonetheless. Disney has finally created a movie that girls of Southeast Asian descent can watch on the floor of their living room, gaze up to the screen, and see a courageous princess who actually looks like them.

– Natisha P.

The Book Thief by Mark Zusak

As a lover of historical fiction books, this novel always caught my eye when I passed by the shelves of the library, but I never looked into it because I assumed the book would be generic and clique. Recent famous novels I’ve read tend to follow the same plot line and character development, so most readers are not surprised by the ending. However, The Book Thief, written by Mark Zusak, an Australian writer who won the Margaret A. Edwards Award in 2014, has created a classic that lives up to its recognition, taking an interesting perspective on such a well known historical event. It dives deeper into the heart of World War 2, pushing the novel further through the contradictory and questionable actions of the human race.

Beginning on a train in the 1940s, the main character, Liesel Meminger witnesses the death of her younger brother on their way to Molching, Germany, where she meets her new foster parents. Throughout the story, Liesel grows as a character, unfolding the cruel reality of Hitler and his treatment of Jews and how it ties to her own story, thus encouraging her to write and steal books as an act of rebellion against the Nazis. The book grows through her normal life in Germany, yet slowly intertwines with history in a compelling manner. The main character witnesses the intimate, loving interactions between friends and family, but also the aggressive actions of others blinded by propaganda.

Compared to other historical fiction novels, Zusak provides readers another viewpoint on a historical event many are aware of, making readers acknowledge the other side of the war. The book makes us question ourselves and the validity of our opinions. For example, most believe all Germans were villainous because a majority were Nazi members, but there’s still a good portion of Germans that value all human life. Generally speaking, all of them are still just the same as we are; some were innocent children, others were working middle class jobs, many still wanted to live. But most importantly, what right do we have to villainize them if we don’t even feel sympathy or compassion in return? Zusak was able to brilliantly create a novel, who’s plots and underlying meanings create a puzzle–readers just have to put it together.

Despite the grand amount of pages, The Book Thief should be read slowly and carefully; every page has their own meaning and the slow pace builds up suspense to make the book a worthy read. Also, all of the characters are lovable and reveal their own flaws as humans. Overall, the author made it extremely unique, including a mixture of metaphors, imagery, and specifically, the humanistic characterization of Death. The context of the book was surprisingly poetic, even as it jumped to different passages of time. Zusak wrote a marvelous, emotional story as an ode to humanity itself, a tale that tugs at readers’ heartstrings in ways words can’t even describe.

-Natisha P.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.