With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it fitting to recommend a specially deranged horror story. Dissolving Classroom by master of horror Junji Ito serves up an appropriately unsettling tale of devil worship and the strange horrors that accompany public apologies. As you’ll see, it goes very well with the season.
The book is set up as a series of interconnected stories about a pair of siblings, a young man called Azawa, who is obsessed with apologizing to every single person that crosses his path, and Chizumi, a demonic entity that acts as the reason why her brother apologizes so much. Tragedy befalls each and every town the siblings visit as the endless repetition of apologies are revealed to be a preemptive measure in advance of Chizumi’s brief reign of terror over the unsuspecting residents of each stop.
Each story follows a similar structure. They focus on a single main character that slowly unravels part of the mystery behind the siblings’ behavior. Azawa blames his obsession on his sister for being possessed by a snake demon that needs to consume melted people to survive. Chizumi, on the other hand, claims her brother’s apologies are a form of devil worship. Apologizing is part of a masochistic ritual that gives Azawa “exquisite pleasure,” as Chizumi puts it, just by asking the devil for forgiveness. Azawa’s behavior is the most secretive of the two and acts as the foundation for the horror that ensues as Chizumi gets hungrier in each story.
The first story, titled “Dissolving Classroom,” showcases all of the aforementioned narrative elements in a school setting. Azawa is a new student that introduces himself to his classmates by repeatedly screaming “I’m sorry” as a form of self-shaming. His insistence on apologizing quickly renders the act null. He cancels the sentiment behind the phrase in as absolute a way as possible, turning it into an empty expression that might’ve meant something once. Chizumi follows Azawa’s first act with a showing of mass violence that sets the tone and the pattern for the coming stories.
Junji Ito, in a one-page story found on the final pages of the book, offers a hint as to the reason behind Azawa’s addiction to apologies. He frames them as overused social expressions that carry but a faint trace of their intended meaning. Ito says that public apologies have become a form of entertainment, especially when they happen in press conferences. They generate great anticipation by promising an intoxicating showing of ritualized embarrassment. They’ve become soulless transactions, uttered automatically as hollow gestures that easily excuse aberrant behavior rather than allow for genuine expressions of lament or regret. This turns each story into a satire of human interaction that also reveals just how addicting being on the receiving end of an apology can be. And how eager we are to indulge in them.
Ito found a unique source of horror with this concept and its mix of black magic with body horror makes for a perfect, and very unusual, Halloween read. It comes highly recommended.
You can find Dissolving Classroom in your comic book store of choice or by visiting your local library. Libraries have started to grow their Junji Ito collections and are making larger horror comics selections available to the public. Remember to support your local comic book stores and your local libraries, and to trust them with netting you a frightening read or two.