In 2008, horror manga artist and dog person Junji Ito was met with a curse more daunting than any he had ever inflicted upon his protagonists: owning cats. Two of them. First was Mu—a sweet Norwegian forest cat with big fur and a welcoming face—who was soon followed by his fiancée’s family cat, Yon: the “cursed” cat with “the weird face” and a moaning skull marking on his back.
A horror visionary like Junji Ito with a cat as creepy as Yon was too good of a story to waste, and a year later, he published Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, a gag manga that’s drawn in the usual grotesque, monochrome style he uses for his horror comics, but tells the story of his experience as a new cat owner. It’s technically a horror comedy, but not in the conventional way: rather than parodying his own horror comics, he uses his horrifying comic practices to re-imagine the events of the past year in the form of a horror comic, while still maintaining a humorous and lighthearted narrative. Cat Diary creates horror and humor through two kinds of juxtaposition: first, through Ito’s retelling of a harmless story through his horror lense, and second, through the contrast he creates within this retelling between the images and its text.
Yon’s menacing introduction to the manga serves as a great example of how Ito’s art style and pacing can completely change the mood of any innocent scene. His imagery is never iconic, and in Scott McCloud’s diagram of visual vocabulary, all of his comic art would live in the area surrounding the bottom left corner with their strong resemblance to real objects and living things. When he wants to terrify his readers, he makes his art as unabstract as he can and lets the visual language of his art guide the story, usually with alarming body horror or silent suspense. In this scene in particular, he also uses lighting and high contrast to make Yon’s fur and eyes stand out against the darkness of the room. As Ito anxiously peers through the door, Yon menacingly crawls out of his crate. The nervousness on his sharp, ghost-white face makes him look stiff and threatening, and the contouring shadows around his eyes and mouth give him a ghastly appearance. His piercing eyes examine the dark room before, in the last panel, he turns to stare directly at us while Ito runs from the scene. Yon is depicted this way throughout the comic: even when he does normal cat things, like jump on the table and try to steal food, or try to sneak outside when he’s not allowed, Ito illustrates Yon as a calculated, unnatural force.
Out of context, this could be a scene from one of Ito’s actual horror manga, but this is an autobiographical gag comic, and Ito has to tell the audience somehow that Yon isn’t really a threat. He does this by meeting Yon halfway: he draws himself in the most grotesque and unnerving way, in a near-parody of his own art, and shows himself overreacting to the scene that he’s illustrating. This is the second level of juxtaposition: as the storyteller and protagonist, the narrative Ito creates with his reactions and speech move this comic out of the horror genre and back into comedy territory, transforming it into the weird horror comedy it is. Ito can make his narrative’s Yon as seemingly supernatural as he wants, but as long as we’re able to recognize his own jokingly superstitious perspective as the artist-protagonist, the horror and comedy in the narrative can coexist.
Junji Ito specializes in, as Fangoria calls it, “bringing out the menace in the most innocent of objects”—it’s a tactic he’s used over and over again to transform simple, harmless concepts into looming, inescapable threats. Cat Diary is no exception. It proves that his unabstract, grotesque artwork is a key element in his horror works; likewise, it proves that he knows when and how to twist these techniques to spur humor instead of terror. While it may be shorter and have less literary value than most of his more famous works, it’s a great example of the power of his artistic ability and his talent as a horror manga creator.