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Tomie: A J-horror retrospective

As Spooky Season reaches its peak and we enter the transition into cider and “should I turn the heat on now?” season, allow me now to take you on a nostalgic journey through one of my favorite J-horror franchises, the Tomie series.

Horror genre has a real “grass is greener” mentality, you know. When we’ve exhausted all our supernatural slashers, ghost stories, and revenge thrillers, we start looking for something different. Anything different, even if it’s the Same Ol’ Thing just…new. I watched my first Japanese horror movie in 2000 and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Man, this is on some other mess.” The movie? Audition. And I wasn’t alone. The Asian Horror boom of the early ’00s satisfied US horror fans’ pitiful cries for something else. Of course, this boom came with unique issues like localization and translating folklore for an entirely unintended audience. Then, once all the mainstream-approved movies were exhausted and there were no exploitative sequels or remakes to make, this too became stagnant.

It was during this time I was introduced to the Tomie movies. With every synopsis I read, I grew hungrier to see these cult favorites for myself. This was my something different, a female villain that was equal parts Cronenberg body horror and Camp Crystal Lake slasher, with a dash of societal commentary to boot. I surfed on a lot of shady websites and sat through a lot of iffy fansubs for Tomie.

For the uninitiated, Tomie was originally a manga series by that giant of horror manga Junji Ito, also of Uzumaki fame. Tomie is a beautiful but cruel young woman who seduces men (and sometimes women) into doing her bidding, usually for petty if fatal gain. Something we should all aspire to, I think. Things usually end up going badly for Tomie as her suitors are eventually driven so mad that they end up ripping her to shreds or burning her. It’s okay though, because Tomie is an immortal abomination straight from Lovecraft country that can heal herself from the tiniest molecule or even replicate herself from a chopped off pinky finger.

Ah, Tomie. Never did I think I would ever describe a movie as “Jason crossed with Emmanuelle”. Tomie’s look in the manga stays the same but for the movies, she is portrayed by a different actress each time. And there are eight movies total and a TV show, so there are plenty of interpretations of Tomie out there. I was so drawn to these movies because not only was there a female villain, but it was a given that in each movie Tomie would win. It seems her sole mission in life is to inspire raw fear and madness, and she accomplished just that pretty much that every time. Also, it’s made pretty clear that for whatever reason Tomie won’t die. Is she a force of nature? The personification of the evils of lust? Who knows, but it sure is fun to watch her work.

The movies are adaptations of the standalone stories from the manga, the exception being Tomie: Another Face which is a short anthology of connected stories. Another Face isn’t that good but the middle episode almost makes up for the other two. The first movie, of course, is the best entry in the series and is an adaptation of my favorite Tomie manga story, “Photograph”. “Photograph” is adapted again for Tomie: Unlimited and while the effects are cool and the acting is better, the movie runs too long and still doesn’t add anything new. Sigh. Re-birth and Replay are my personal favorites and Revenge depending on how I feel.

That’s the thing about franchises: consistency. I was running away from bloated properties like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th to something a little new and different, but Tomie also coasts on name recognition after Re-birth. Now, Re-birth and Replay are great entries into the series, but after that things get seedy in a bad way. Forbidden Fruit is an intriguing concept but it becomes clear the lesbian school girl overtones are there for fanservice. There’s a little bit of exploration but it never pushes the mark, and in the end it’s a ploy for Tomie to torture yet another hapless man. Same for Beginning, which also tries to connect to the first movie and start a storyline arc by featuring recurring characters. It doesn’t work too well and the whole storyline is eventually bumped for Tomie: Unlimited, a reboot of the series that came out in…2011. There was a good bit of domestic and overseas hype for that movie but nothing has come to fruition since.

Yes, Tomie ended up throwing gore at the wall to see what sticks and not too much did as it turned out. The series even had its own shark jump moment with an X versus Y movie, 2007’s Tomie vs Tomie, which is silly but fun. By the time Unlimited premiered, the grass on that side had definitely faded and there were better horror movies to compete with. But you know what? My franchise, right or wrong. Is Tomie finally dead for good? 2017 has seen a revival of the horror genre and trends are cyclical after all, so let’s hope not. But Tomie will always hold a special place in my heart, my very soul, probably the actual Tomie herself growing within my chest cavity and getting ready to spring forth in a messy birth.

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E. Young

E. Young is a small town country author of horror and sci-fi works. Strives to cultivate a general sense unease and wholesome pop culture references. Owns a multitude of cats and probably wants to talk to you about a movie or music from a band you’ve never heard of. Can also be found at Bright Nightmares or on the Twitter machine @xenoxands.