December 16, 2020

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Remina by Junji Ito - It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Remina
Written and Illustrated by Junji Ito
Published by Viz Media/Viz Signature

I know that Remina was created by Junji Ito back in 2005, and is just now being released in English. But if someone had told me that they'd created a comic about a horrifying rogue planet heading towards Earth that was going to doom everyone, and was causing chaos and panic and irrational behavior, I'd say the whole thing was a giant metaphor for 2020. In fact, I'm still going to say that. The aforementioned Remina, written and illustrated by the spectacular Junji Ito, is a masterful work of science fiction and horror that should please any fan of Ito's work, and more broadly, is an incredible example of using genre to convey dark, true, existential terror. 
[In order to discuss Remina, I do need to go somewhat into spoiler territory, but I’ll try to keep it general]

I'm a little late to the Ito party. I only *just* read It's most famous work (Uzumaki) for the first time about a month ago. But let me say, Uzumaki is just as (if not more) terrifying than people say it is. That story is essentially about the power of an idea (the idea, in that case, being the power of spirals). And in case you're wondering "are ideas scary?" let me tell you, after having read Uzumaki, they are completely terrifying. I highly recommend Uzumaki, but let me warn you that it has some of the most horrifying body horror imagery I've ever seen. Really, stuff that will just get burned into your brain. 

I wanted to talk about Uzumaki to establish some contrasts and distinctions between Uzumaki and Remina. That book was horror focused on an idea, and manifesting itself in unspeakable body horror all taking place in a small city. By contrast, the horror in Remina is much more vast and epic, on a cosmic scale.  Remina begins with scenes of a teenage girl strung up on a cross, surrounded by a furious, animalistic mob screaming for her death. Quite a way for a story to begin. The story then moves back to the prior year.  We see a press conference where a Professor Oguro is being honored with the Nobel Prize, for his work in astronomy. He's also being asked about the appearance of a planet from a wormhole that he discovered thirty years earlier. As the discoverer of the wormhole, he has naming rights to the planet. He's decided to name the planet Remina, after his teenage daughter (who is also at the press conference, sheepishly answering questions). As an attractive girl who just had a planet named after her, Remina becomes a celebrity in her own right. Everyone is so excited about the teenager after whom this new planet is named. She's approached by lots of talent agencies, and she finally decides to work with one. She's becoming a public celebrity and having her own concert attended by thousands, along with numerous fan clubs. 
 

But astronomers begin to notice something. The planet Remina has an extremely unusual trajectory, as it appears to be moving in one direction, and then another, and appears to be swallowing up whole planets and even stars, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. All of the fervor for Remina (the planet) and Remina (the teenager) turns to panic, as the planet Remina appears to change its direction, and is now on a direct collision course for Earth, moving at impossibly fast speeds. Understandably, people are freaking out. Less understandably, people quickly become convinced that Professor Oguro and his daughter are somehow summoning Remina (the planet) to Earth, and if people just kill Professor Oguro and Remina, then the planet Remina will spare them. This idea spreads like wildfire, and very quickly Remina, Matsamura (her manager), Naoya Goda (the president of her official fan club), and Kunihiro Mineishi (the son of a wealthy businessman whose company has picked up Remina as a spokesperson) go on the run. All of Tokyo descends into a violent mob that's chasing after them, and they’re also after Professor Oguro in the astronomy lab where he has been working to figure out what (if anything) can be done about the planet on its way to Earth.  From there, things go from bad to worse for everyone, in terrifying and occasionally nauseating fashion. 

Perhaps this goes without saying, but Ito is a peerless visual storyteller. As I mentioned with regard to Uzumaki, there are images from that book that will be forever seared into my brain. The same is true for Remina. Ito is a master storyteller, perfectly controlling the pace of the story. He doesn’t waste time and keeps the story moving in a very propulsive way. The first few pages of the story begin with Remina tied to a cross, surrounded by an almost inhuman mob hungry for her death, as the horrifying planet Remina looms overhead, occupying the entire sky. All you see when you look is the planet Remina. There’s first few pages do some incredible scene-setting. We can see that the stakes of the story are nothing less than the entire world. 

So then the story jumps back. I think this is an excellent storytelling choice. We know something truly awful is coming. And now, all we (the reader) can do is watch helplessly as the terror grows and grows in the sky, from a tiny speck only visible from a telescope, to something monstrous and horrific that is enormous and inescapable. This flash-forward helps set that mood of inevitable dread that we feel throughout the story. And this story gets at such a fundamental idea - we think of our world as everything to us, but in the solar system, in our galaxy, in the universe, we’re just a tiny speck. A rock circling a star. Everything we know and love on Earth is absolutely insignificant in comparison to the void of space. 

Ultimately we are kind of helpless if there’s any sort of real threat out there. And in Remina, all the people can do is just watch the threat grow and grow, occupying more and more of their attention and their field of vision and becoming ultimately an all-consuming threat. Really having our helplessness laid bare? It’s terrifying. And it’s terrifying because a threat like this shows us the our infinitesimal existence in the universe, and affirms our lack of importance in the grand scheme of things. And as terrifying as that is, what’s more terrifying is that if there is some sort of primordial terror in this universe, it’s better that we not even merit its attention. Because if we do get it’s attention, the end result is almost always going to be bad.
And make no mistake, whatever Remina ultimately is, it’s at a whole other level from us. We can’t communicate with Remina, or negotiate with it. And when it chooses to interact with Earth, it’s horrifying. I mentioned that Remina isn’t exactly body horror, and that’s true. But the planet Remina has what seem like physical features. It has eyes (as seen above) which are absolutely terrifying. And, when it consumes a planet, Remina uses what can only be described as a giant, serpentine tongue that comes out of what looks sort of like a mouth. Ito is an incredible artist, because I never thought (before reading this story) that I’d be disgusted by a planet, but I am. It’s tongue-thing is just repulsive. And at some point it licks the Earth. Which is as gross as it sounds. And Earth is simply powerless in these moments. I feel like the story is conveying not just our insignificance but also our utter powerlessness. It feels like a commentary on assault and unwanted touching and other behavior that men have been directing at women since pretty much forever. Now maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the moments when the tongue comes out and is licking the Earth feel sexual, in a horrifying way. 

So, Remina (the planet) shows humanity our utter insignificance and powerlessness and the inevitability of death. But Remina (the story) shows us some equally terrifying, ugly truths about ourselves. We quickly embrace celebrities and heroes, and we love them. And because we think that we love them, we feel a sense of ownership over them. Just as quickly, we can turn on them. And if we (as a society) are facing something terrifying, sometimes our instinct is just to look for someone or something to blame. But even more than that, we’re looking for power in a situation where we are powerless. The story in Remina really brings all of this to life in the midst of an apocalyptic situation. Remina (the person) didn’t want any of this attention, but her father wanted to honor and express his love for her. Which is, in its way, sweet. Except that if he really wanted to show her that he loved her, he’d respect her wishes. So even the decision to become a celebrity involves a local of agency on Remina’s part. She’s constantly having things happen to her or being moved from one place to another, whether it’s people who love her or who want to capitalize off of her, or want to kill her. 

All of these emotions are perfectly brought to life in Ito’s remarkable facial acting in his art. Remina (the person) is beautiful but also kind of blank and unknowable. Her face conveys this perfectly, as she never dramatically changes expressions and her face itself feels like some sort of porcelain mask. And as much as she is the *main* character of the story, we honestly don't get a real sense into her own inner life and motivations. We know she cared about her manager, and her father, but she feels like a victim of happenstance. I don't say this as a criticism of Ito at all; rather, I think this is precisely Ito's point.  I think Ito is getting at the way that we regard celebrities as commodities. Even before that, it's clear that she didn't want the planet named after her but her father ignores this. And once she becomes famous, everyone wants a piece of her. And everyone thinks they're entitled to a piece of her.  It's like Remina (the person) is the Earth, and everyone else is Remina (the planet), licking her with their disgusting tongue (and ultimately destroying anything in their path). Not pretty or subtle imagery, but extremely effective.
 
And it's on this point where Ito does some really impressive, expressive work, where he very adeptly uses facial acting (not even the face, just the eyes) to say everything he needs to say about the way that people regard Remina (the person)  If the eyes are a window into the soul, then Ito perfectly conveys the weird, creepiness of Naoya Goda, the president of Remina's official fan club. We meet Goda after Remina has become famous, at a celebration or reception for Remina. In his eyes we see enthusiasm, frankly more enthusiasm than an adult man should have for a teenage girl. But what we can see just in the course of a few panels goes beyond enthusiasm; we see obsession, and something that's just *off* in the way that he looks at Remina, which is confirmed when he meets her for the first time and says "I'll love you forever". She hasn't been a public figure all that long, so that's really just creepy and unsettling. And during the course of the story, we see a number of situations where Goda expresses a strong sense of entitlement simply based upon the fact that he's the president of Remina's official fan club.  Like it's 100% obvious that he is owed love, attention and a special place of honor by her side because he's the president of the fan club. I mean, joining the fan club of a singer or some other public figure is already serious levels of obsessive fandom, and if this guy is the president, that's off-the-charts unhealthy levels of "fandom".
Ito uses the eyes of another character to convey similar (but not identical) feelings from Kunihiro Mineishi, the teenage son of the businessman that has picked up Remina as its sponsor. From the moment we meet Mineishi, we can see the way he regards Remina. His smile is friendly, but his eyes are sinister, even predatory. If Goda's eyes portray unhealthy love and obsession, Mineishi's eyes portray the way a lion looks at a gazelle. This attitude is borne out in the story, as Mineishi  constantly competes with Goda for Remina's attention, he acts like he is due Remina's affection because his father has paid Remina to be a sponsor, and he (in a disturbing scene) attempts to rape Remina. In every respect the story bears out what a terrible person he is, and you can honestly see it from the very first panel when we lay our eyes on his eyes. Taking a step back, it's very clear what Ito thinks of how we treat celebrity. The absurd sense of entitlement, and the believe that because we are a fan of someone and they're famous, they don't get privacy, or at a certain point, free will to make their own choices. I'm reminded of stories I've heard about just how awful it was to be Princess Diana, and to be constantly hounded by paparazzi and fans and everyone in her life, to the point that attempting to flee from the press is what likely killed her. 

But Ito is commenting on more than just the way society treats celebrities. He's also commenting on how fickle people are, and how when something goes bad, we're always looking for someone to blame. So, once it is clear that the planet Remina is on a collision course for Earth, someone somewhere says that "Oguro and Remina" must be to blame. And given the feelings of powerlessness that are inevitable in regards to our place in the universe, if we're doomed, well then someone must be to blame. So all of those feelings for Remina (the person) very quickly switch over from obsessive love to obsessive hate. It's quite pointed how easily the way the crowd is able to make that transition. It's cliche I suppose to talk about the thin line between love and hate, but it seems clear that any form of unhealthy obsession frankly has more in common with other forms of obsession than it does with healthy emotions. Couple this with that sense of impending doom, and of course the ground was very fertile for a ridiculous idea (such as Professor Oguro and Remina being responsible for the impending arrival of the planet) to take root.  
 
And as I've covered recently in my review of The Department of Truth, people will look for ideas that help them make sense of the world. And those ideas, no matter how awful and ridiculous they are, can often just spread like wildfire.  Look at the way that not just the Trump campaign, but seventeen states and over a hundred members of the House of Representatives signed on to an absurd legal "argument" that Trump actually won the election. This idea seems to have spread among Republicans generally. They've already bought into a steady idea of propaganda in their right-wing bubble, and so it's inconceivable that the president (who their news sources say has made this country "great" again) could have lost. And so therefore this must all be a vast fraudulent conspiracy, not withstanding the fact that all 50 states have certified their election results.  So this brings us back to the very beginning of the story (which takes place near the end), where we see again the faces of the angry, murderous mob, which mob looks as vile and monstrous as anything that comes out of the planet Remina. 
 

Remina is a work of horror/sci-fi, and like the best genre fiction, the story holds a mirror up to our own world to point out our absurdities. It's also not exactly a story with a happy ending (but hopefully you weren't expecting that going in). Remina is a gorgeous, skillfully told, horrifying, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a compelling fictional scare (as opposed to the actual ones outside your window).