Junji Ito is one of my absolute favorite writers at the moment. I first encountered his work via the short “The Enigma of Amigara Faults,” which is still one of my favorite short horror stories. I absolutely love the way he builds dread, how tight his short tales are while still delivering a great kick of terror, and the psychological elements he examines. “Amigara” in particular—perhaps because I don’t love tight spaces—really stuck with me, and over the years I’ve sought out more of his work.
I recently picked up Tombs, a collection of his short work. I blew through that in about a day, just enchanted by the variety of fear he’s capable of conjuring up in just a few pages. Of all the excellent stories included, my favorites were “Tombs,” “The Window Next Door,” “Washed Ashore,” and “The Bloody Story of Shirosuna.”
The following contains spoilers, so I’ve included it below the cutoff, because I wanted to dissect“Tombs” (the story) a bit to see if I could figure out its inner workings:
“Tombs” starts with introducing Kaoru and her brother Tsuyoshi, just after she receives a letter to visit her friend Izumi at her new home in a “strange” town. Right off, of course, the use of “strange” in the friend’s description of the town sets off a mini red-flag that all is not as it seems. Tsuyoshi insists on coming too, because he likes Izumi, and he’s got a new car he wants to drive over. (Character, in a situation.)
It’s a long drive, and Tsuyoshi is getting tired, but he doesn’t want to stop for a break. Suddenly, as they’re getting near to the town, a girl steps out in front of the car, and they hit her. Panicked, they put her in the back of the car, and start driving to town to find the hospital, but she dies in the car. (There’s now a major problem, and no going back.)
There’s a short jump in time, in which they arrive at Izumi’s house. Of course, I’m wondering what happened to the dead girl in the car, but there’s no mention, which stirs up the tension. They nearly hit a tombstone that stands in the middle of the road, and then realize the whole road is cluttered with tombstones. They try to back up, but hit an old stone and the car gets stuck. Passersby come to offer help, and when Tsuyoshi grabs the jack from the car truck, we see that they’ve stuffed the dead girl in the trunk. (Tension increases—They’re compounding the problem by hiding the crime. We’re also now in the midst of the strange, spooky town. Question raised: why are the tombs in the middle of the road?)
The car is freed, and we meet Izumi, who brings them back to her home, where there’s a tombstone in her living room. She explains that wherever someone dies, that’s where their tombstone goes. There’s the assumption from Tsuyoshi and Kaoru that the townspeople place the stone there, but the reader knows that doesn’t feel right. No one specifically says anyone erects the stones. Tsuyoshi does his best to act friendly and normal. Kaoru struggles with the guilt, which makes her more sympathetic.
They go on a tour of the town with Izumi, and they witness a man being carried from the hospital to the parking lot to die, because they don’t want a tomb in the hospital. This seems odd to them, but the reader gets a growing sense that something about the bodies themselves generate the tombs spontaneously in a way the locals can’t control. (Tension increases—the way corpses and tombs are handled in this town is strange and unusual. How will this affect them, given the corpse in their car?)
They also come across a cat that’s been hit by a car, but Izumi tells Tsuyoshi not to touch it—bodies that are touched don’t rest and its tombstone won’t go up. This, to the reader, raises a concern about the dead girl in the trunk of the car, whom they’ve touched and moved. (Question: Will she not be able to rest?) Over and over, Tsuyoshi deliberately equates the tombs with the villagers—that they put the tombs up where even dead cats die—but no one contradicts him, they just don’t clarify. While talking about this, Izumi’s mother asks her if her little sister has come back yet, and Izumi says no. (Tension increase—We now suspect who the dead girl is: it’s Izumi’s sister—now they’re lying directly to Izumi, their friend, and deceiving her, witnessing her distress and sorrow, which makes their deception more personal.)
Of course, now, the reader is certain the dead girl in the trunk is Izumi’s sister. By nightfall, Ayumi (the sister) hasn’t returned, and Kaoru and Tsuyoshi begin to fear that the dead girl is Ayumi. Everyone goes out to search for her, but nothing’s found. They come across the old well by the temple, which is rumored to have no bottom and that if she’d fallen in, no one would ever know. This seems to plant the idea in the reader’s mind that if the body of the girl is dropped down the well, Tsuyoshi and Kaoru might get away with the murder without being discovered. (Glimmer of hope/reprieve: if they can just get the corpse to the well, they’ll be in the clear. They’re still hoping for things to go back to “normal”.)
On the way back to Izumi’s house, they see the man who died at the hospital the day before and realize his corpse is growing the tombstone—you can even see bits of him in the stone (creepy! Also, a nice twist we didn’t notice before about the stones). Tsuyoshi and Kaoru begin wondering if they’re trapped in a nightmare. (Tension increase: the bodies themselves grow the tombs. What happens to corpses that can’t rest?)
When they arrive at Izumi’s, they see her looking in the back seat of their car. She acts nonchalant, and Tsuyoshi asks about Ayumi, if they found anything. She says no, but they did see car skid marks on the road. The reader is certain now that Izumi may know who’s killed her sister. She goes off, but Kaoru realizes there’s blood all over the back seat. (Tension increase: They’re doomed for sure. Izumi saw the blood!)
Izumi continues to treat Kaoru and Tsuyoshi as though they don’t know what’s happened, which gets under their skin. She mentions that she once saw a body that didn’t finish turning into stone, and it rotted and looked horrible and the town eventually threw it down the well. This is the second mention of the well as a good spot to hide bodies. She says it seems pretty clear Ayumi was killed by a car on the road, and she asks Tsuyoshi if he saw anything strange, given that they’d driven there around that time. Kaoru almost confesses, but Tsuyoshi lies again and says no. (Tension increase: the deception gets more blatant.)
Shortly after dark, Kaoru and Tsuyoshi depart from Izumi’s house, and drive to the shine with the well. Opening the trunk, they find Ayumi’s body has half transformed into stone, but is rotting and disgusting and covered all over with sharp stone shards. They haul the body up to the well and toss it in. Tsuyoshi notices he’s cut his hand on the body carrying it, and he’s bleeding. He hears scratching from the well and turns to see Ayumi’s corpse–mutated by all the other bodies who never found peace in the well—rising up to scream at him, accusing him of her murder. He screams back for her to shut up, but Kaoru doesn’t see what he sees, and he realizes it’s just a hallucination. (Tension increase: The body’s attack, but it turns out only Tsuyoshi sees it. Is it because of the wound? What will happen to him?)
They go home, and Izumi keeps writing about how Ayumi’s disappearance is destroying her parents. Kaoru is wracked with guilt. (Tension increase: will Kaoru crack?) Tsuyoshi’s hand keeps getting worse until it’s horribly infected and the infection kills him. The family is devastated. At the funeral, they look in at Tsuyoshi’s corpse, and it explodes into shards and stone chunks, a cursed body that couldn’t find peace or grow into a tomb. (Catharsis: crime is punished, and he receives the same punishment as he inflicted on Ayumi).
Kaoru assumes he’s being punished, and decides to turn herself in. (Moral choice: time to end the deception) She returns to Izumi’s home to confess, but finds three tombs in the living room, where Izumi and her parents have killed themselves in their grief and turned into tombs. (Resolution: her friend has killed herself because of Kaoru’s complicity in the crime, the tombs stand as evidence of her wrong and how things will never go back to the way they were before.—Permanent change.) ((This final bit also echos the opening, in which she was going to go alone to visit Izumi; now, in the end, she does go alone to visit, but finds her friend tragically dead due to the events of the first visit.))
If I was more adept at it, you could probably see a kishotenketsu style of situation/development/twist/resolution plot structure here, though it could also follows the character in a situation-with a problem/that they try to solve/tension rising—until a final climactic moment—followed by brief resolution. The dumping the body feels like the climax, but the catharsis feels like it hits when the brother’s body transforms and Kaoru chooses (moral choice) to turn herself in. The resolution is the dead Izumi and her family, showing it’s too late to make amends.
In a Kishotenketsu plot, however, it might look more like: all of the story is set-up/development until the TEN, where we learn that Ayumi is missing—the twist in which suddenly the dead girl is related to the Izumi visit and the tombs/town and everything else that’s come before, and now we’re racing up in tension to whether or not they’ll successfully dump the body in the well and the vision Tsuyoshi has of the corpse accusing him (highest tension), and then to the conclusion of how this is going to work out, where the brother fails to turn into a proper tomb and Kaoru goes to confess and fails because Izumi and her family are already dead.
Note: this is me thinking out loud and trying to understand structure, so no promises that this is “correct” per say, just how my thoughts are going at the moment and subject to correction and change.
The thing I primarily take away from this is the rising tension—whether in a three act or kishotenketsu style, the tension needs to grow and grow and grow to the final climax or twist, and it’s the tension that keeps readers engaged. The tension in this story, too, often includes new questions raised by new information (i.e. Will the corpse in the trunk fail to become a tomb? Was the dead girl Ayumi? What consequences will the cuts on Tsuyoshi’s hand result in? Will Kaoru be able to bear the guilt?). I’m not sure, as a writer, how much these questions need to be known to the writer during the first draft, or if it’s something primarily to look at later, but the use of questions to raise tension is interesting to me.