CONTENT WARNING: Body horror, misogyny, violence toward women. SPOILERS for several chapters of Tomie.
If you’re a fan of horror manga, you’ve most likely heard of Junji Ito and his memorably skin-crawling work. He’s known for Uzumaki, a story about a town obsessed with spirals; Gyo, about undead deadly fish; and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” about a compelling canyon with human-shaped holes in the rocks.
But his most famous character is arguably Tomie, a supernatural being who compels men into becoming obsessed with her and, often, to eventually kill and mutilate her. Every separated piece of her body, however, grows back as a new Tomie, creating countless copies across Japan. She is the villain in every story, a vain and selfish woman who controls and manipulates others.
Tomie is just one version of a story we’ve heard about women over and over. She is the succubus whose beauty drains men of their life and the siren who compels sailors to throw themselves into the ocean. The cruel, conniving woman who “gets what she deserves” after her manipulation of a man blows up in her face.
For Tomie, though, it happens over and over. This is how the stories justify and disguise their displays of male misogynistic violence: as uncontrollable supernatural urges in response to an unknowable, distinctly female evil.
Tomie: Chapter 1
Tomie is killed in most chapters by the men who claimed to love her in the first place. Though so often a victim of male violence, the narrative still blames Tomie. She makes men “crazy” and violent. And we, the readers, accept this because her personality is unappealing and vile in a way that closely connects to her femininity and beauty. She possesses every trait of a “bad girl.”
Tomie initially seems sympathetic in her first appearance. The story opens with the narrator telling readers Tomie has died. Shortly after, Tomie arrives for class, shocking her classmates. A few pages later, a flashback to how she died reveals the real reason her classmates are shocked by her return.
Readers see her boyfriend slap her across the face because he caught her flirting with her teacher, causing her to fall to her death. Said teacher then leads his male students into cutting her body into pieces, and the female students dispose of the body parts. It’s important to note that right before these events occur, Tomie informs her teacher she might be pregnant with his child.
The story is told in flashback from the perspective of her “best friend.” Before the flashbacks, Tomie appears to be revived from the dead, frightening her classmates and driving her teacher to madness through apparently malicious supernatural means. Then, the flashback happens.
Who are we meant to blame for Tomie’s death? Junji Ito is certainly good at making her unsympathetic. She is flippant when telling her teacher she might be pregnant, implying she might be lying. She is unapologetic when her boyfriend catches her cheating. As soon as he slaps her, he regrets it. Her turning away from him, not the slap itself, causes her to fall.
Her classmates immediately turn against her, taking the boyfriend’s side. According to the English translation, one of them exclaims, “Good riddance anyway. The stuck-up bitch.” At the end of the chapter, when her best friend finds another piece of Tomie regenerating, it’s clear Tomie is not human. Her body is not yet a body but a collection of new flesh. The horror now lies in knowing her classmates never stood a chance of getting rid of her—she will haunt them forever.
While often stories with female ghosts will lead to a reveal about why the woman’s wrath is justified, this chapter goes in the opposite direction: the seemingly sympathetic Tomie is revealed to be a monster who deserved everything that happened to her. At the same time, there is a considerable amount of horror stemming not from Tomie’s ability to come back to life and drive others to insanity, but in the ease in which her classmates and lovers commit her murder—the way Tomie is stripped of agency and her body ruined.
How many women fear the same thing? That the men they love or trust will turn against them and the world will be compliant towards their violence? But while these ideas are part of Tomie’s story, it isn’t what the writing focuses on. Instead, her repeated dehumanization allows readers to continue reading about her multiple gruesome deaths and still understand her as the villain, not the victim.
The Mean Girl and the Female Perspectives
Tomie isn’t the only female character who’s defined by her relationship to men. Most women in the stories are willing to sacrifice their well-being to protect their male love interests, even when they’ve been treated badly. Nearly every story that takes place from the perspective of a girl revolves around their relationship with a man who becomes obsessed with Tomie, or about the girl being exposed to Tomie’s DNA to the point she literally starts becoming Tomie, or both.
We can identify aspects of Tomie’s personality in many, many other girls in media. You know who they are: the cheerleaders, the rich girls, the ones with the hot boyfriends they “don’t deserve.” Other women hate Tomie, and Tomie hates them back. Yet many of the other girls are also treated violently by the men in their lives. The difference between them and Tomie is that they are forgiving and affectionate towards their partners’ behavior, while Tomie gets revenge.
In the chapter “Photo,” Tomie orders multiple boys from her school to kill a girl named Tsukiko because she took a photo of Tomie that revealed her “true ugliness.” One of these boys is Tsukiko’s crush, Yamazaki. Even after Yamazaki attempts to kill Tsukiko, she forgives him in the following chapter (called “Kiss”) and takes care of him after two other classmates attack him.
If there’s anything that would put an end to a crush, you’d think attempted murder would do it. Yamazaki even asks her why she’s helping him. She never gives us an answer, but as the audience, we’re meant to understand it’s because she simply likes him. That’s all.
Her crush on this random boy trumps her self-preservation. Yes, he was being mind-controlled, but it’s part of the stories’ larger themes about what characterizes a good or evil woman—and the ability to forgive men, regardless of what they’ve done, is what makes the difference.
The story doesn’t spend enough time endearing us to Tsukiko’s relationship with Yamazaki, so her willingness to do anything for him makes her character seem illogical and shallow. The men have a supernatural excuse for being obsessed with a woman, but for Tsukiko, it’s simply expected that she’ll risk her life for a high school crush—no magic required.
Other female characters in the story follow similar paths to Tomie and Tsukiko. Some female characters die because they want to look like Tomie. Their pursuit of beauty is their downfall. For characters like Tsukiko, their tragedy lies in losing the men they want.
Despite these obvious parallels, women are never allowed to feel for Tomie or sympathize with her situation. Only men get to express worry over her, and then only because she bewitches them and often while they “accidentally” injure her. This keeps up the narrative of Tomie as a monster, not a girl. Female characters are horrified by the gore of Tomie’s death, but in an abstract sense, and we also disconnect from seeing her pain.
The Male Victims
Tomie wouldn’t be Tomie without her ability to ruin men’s lives. We have Mr. Takagi, the teacher Tomie “seduces,” and her boyfriend, both of whom lose their minds after Tomie is resurrected. We have men who abandon their loved ones, men who go to prison for murder, and men who lose their careers and artistic passions.
We feel bad for them. Maybe they once loved their girlfriends or they were successful, well-recognized, and respected men. In “Painter,” we see a renowned artist throw away his career and relationships, so deep in his obsession with capturing Tomie’s beauty. When he believes he’s achieved his goal (drawing her monstrosity instead), Tomie rejects the painter and he responds by attacking and killing her.
In “Top Model,” a male model becomes involved with Tomie. After they have a falling out in which the model insults Tomie’s beauty, he gets attacked and scarred, with the implication that Tomie manipulated the attack. He asks to meet up with her again and when she’s her typically cruel self, he slashes her face and kidnaps her.
Though Tomie’s power lies in her ability to supernaturally seduce every man she meets, the threat of sexual violence isn’t often present. In this chapter, however, the implication is there. He kisses her against her will and ties her to his bed. Though it never goes further, it’s obvious that he wants control over her body.
Often, men react violently when it’s clear they’ll never have any emotional control over Tomie. She will never want them romantically or reward their obsession, so they punish her.
Sometimes there’s no apparent reason for why they decide to kill her when they do, but more often than not there are certain triggers: she ridiculed them too much or rejected them one too many times. The male characters’ fear of Tomie is rooted in a fear of rejection, ridicule, and lack of control—over themselves, but also over Tomie.
When Tsukiko forgives Yamazaki for trying to kill her, she’s giving him control over her life and safety. She’s excessively kind, seemingly unworried about being attacked again. Tsukiko contrasts Tomie’s selfishness, cruelty, and habit of rejection.
If Tomie’s personality was different, even with the same powers and the same curse, how would readers feel about her? If she was more like Tsukiko, would it be harder to watch the violence inflicted on her?
We’re led to believe men can’t help but confuse their obsession and their need for violence, but there are instances in the manga where rejected men don’t resort to violence or don’t give in to their obsessions in the first place. The very existence of men like this reflects a deeper problem within them than simply Tomie’s control. These men have a predisposition to violence before they meet Tomie.
While Tomie is by no means a good person or a protagonist of any sort, her antagonistic nature is built off stereotypes of “bad” women and based on the violence everyday women experience. The other women in the story are meant to contrast her, yet they suffer violence at the hands of the same men.
The horror trappings of the story make it seem as if women are either saintly or unknowably evil, with men caught helplessly in the crossfire and unable to control themselves. But the true horror is how these attitudes are reflected in countless cases of real-world violence on women who don’t have the power to get justice after death.