I review one of Junji Ito’s stranger horror stories, finding a horrifying real-life meaning in a story about a town whose streets grow all on their own.
I thought The Town Without Streets was a pretty lame Junji Ito story the first time I read it. The plot meanders, dragging in different supernatural phenomena without making much effort to explain them or even relate them to each other. Ito’s works usually take one strange supernatural force and foist it upon a person or group of people, and then let the whole thing play out. In Uzumaki, a town is tormented by the concept of a spiral; in Tomie, individual people are driven to madness or despair by the eponymous beautiful girl. The Town Without Streets is really too short to get away with introducing a whole lot of monstrous concepts, but I believe that that the important part of the story is not the supernatural phenomena, but how they relate to Saiko, the protagonist. It is a shift in focus from the supernatural thing affecting people, to the people who are affected, which is small but significant in understanding this work. I will summarise the story below for anyone who has not read it.
The story begins with the first strange happening: a boy in Saiko’s class, Kishimoto, break into her house to subconsciously influence her while she sleeps into falling in love with him. He is subsequently killed by a serial killer known as Jack the Ripper, and Saiko sees this happen in her dreams. The next strange event is that Saiko’s family begins to spy on her, drilling holes in her wall and peering through the crack in her door, but denying it even when she blatantly captures them in the act. Saiko is forced to stay with a classmate in order to feel safe for short periods of time. She breaks her brother’s finger and stabs her father’s eye and they both claim the injuries happened innocently, in a different time and place. Her life is under assault by many external forces. (Read panels in this essay from right to left).
The thing that strikes me about the above page is that without context you could guess it was about almost any kind of abuse from her family. Saiko needs to flee her family because she is afraid of how they act, and she worries her life is in danger. In this case it’s because they’re spying on her and lying about it, but you could easily interpret it to be about physical or sexual abuse, or about gaslighting. She is lucky in that she is confident enough in her worldview to realise she needs to escape, and heads out in search of her aunt Tamae, who lives in the town of Kosato.
When Saiko gets there, she finds that Kosato has been overtaken by ever-encroaching and self-constructing shanty buildings that cover the roads and rivers and link the houses together. In order to travel the town, one must walk through the homes of others, and not opening your doors for people to pass through is considered a crime against the city. In response to this loss of privacy, the townspeople wear masks. Saiko dons a mask and finds her aunt with the help of a mysterious man.
The city has even managed to build itself over cars and fences. When Saiko reaches her destination, Tamae lounges naked in her house, imploring her niece to do the same. People climb through her house day and night, and peepholes have been drilled in her walls, just like in Saiko’s home. Tamae, realising that she had no choice, embraced the eyes of the town and gave up on wearing clothes, viewing it as pointless. She threatens to cut off Saiko’s clothes and Saiko flees, catching a glimpse of the things looking through the peepholes.
Running through the streets of Kosato, she runs back into the arms of the mysterious man, and he offers to help her escape the town. She accepts, and he starts to help her out, but she recognises him as Jack the Ripper from her dreams. He says that murdering Kishimoto saved her life, because he wanted to kill her, claiming it is the only thing that helps him calm down. Saiko is saved by Tamae, who stabs Jack the Ripper to death. Saiko begs Tamae to escape Kosato with her, but Tamae walks numbly back into the town, leaving Saiko to escape alone.
And that’s the story. It has a definite beginning, middle, and end, but like I said, there are lots of different supernatural phenomena that the story doesn’t make much effort to link together. For example, is the phenomenon that causes voyeurism actually related to the self-building walls of Kosato? Tamae’s house may have been the epicentre of the building, in that case, because hers is one of the only houses we see with endless peepholes. We see that voyeurism either turns people into many-eyed monsters, or that the peepholes attract these monsters from somewhere. Kishimoto begins the story and introduces Jack the Ripper, but is he otherwise inconsequential? And why bother having Jack the Ripper in there at all, considering that the plot could easily progress without him? Like I said, on my first read-through I was unimpressed, because there are so many different elements of the story that don’t work together.
So, the normal format of Ito’s stories, where we explore how the phenomenon affects a person or group of people, doesn’t work here because we have multiple unrelated phenomena. We can’t even say that they’re thematically similar because they don’t share much other than being creepy and intrusive. I want to argue that the common thread between them is Saiko. She is a young woman, around high school age, and the events that occur are a series of violations on her personhood and privacy in one way or another. Saiko’s experience of this world can be read as an allegory for growing up in a misogynistic society, and that is the argument I will make here today.
Firstly, Kishimoto’s method of action is breaking into Saiko’s room at night and whispering about himself into her ear while she sleeps. His intention is to make her dream of him, causing her mind to linger on him and find him attractive, and it’s working until her family comments that they can hear a boy in her room at night. In her next dream, she asks him to desist, and he is murdered by Jack the Ripper. Kishimoto chose to break into her room rather than speak to her in purpose on account of his shyness. He was so certain of his right to have her fall in love with him that he was willing to invade her privacy and force himself onto her subconscious rather than form a genuine relationship with her conscious mind. It is no great exaggeration or extrapolation to compare this to other men wanting to skip the hard parts of beginning a relationship and move straight to being in love. Women like Saiko, no matter their social status, end up rebuffing many, many of these attempts, starting from an uncomfortably young age. Since this element of the story is directly related to Saiko being a young woman, it’s not a big jump to make.
Next up, the voyeurism of her family. Without explanation, they insist in drilling holes in her walls and ceiling to watch her, and when confronted they lie endlessly. I’ll jump straight past comparing it to the male gaze and instead talk about how girls grow up constantly feeling watched. Boys will be boys, but the behaviour and appearance of girls is something to be constantly watched, checked, and moderated to make sure the little girl will grow up into an acceptable woman. It still occurs now, but people lie about it, claiming to be empowering women and supporting feminism. This is the link I want to make here. Saiko’s family take it to an extreme, but other families do this in the real world, from constantly correcting the behaviour of girls to abusive behaviours like removing their bedroom doors, going through their phones, and demanding to know the goings-on of their daughter at all times. Saiko feels gaslit because, like so many other girls her age, her personhood and sense of independence is constantly under assault. Saiko must flee her family and don a mask in Kosato to keep eyes from her.
Tamae is also affected by this voyeurism. As an adult woman in her own home, she has been subjected to the same voyeurism as Saiko, but by complete strangers. The same holes adorn her walls, but instead of family, strange many-eyed monsters watch her instead. Tamae has submitted to this feeling. If she has no way to protect herself from it, she may as well embrace it. It’s a slightly tenuous connection, but I would compare her acceptance of her nudity to an individual doing paid sex work because they know they will be exploited anyway. People are going to take naked picture of you regardless, so why not profit? Seeing Saiko fully clothed is a harsh reminder that Saiko has yet to go through the agony of giving up on privacy, and so Tamae decides to cut her clothes off her to get it over with. When Saiko has the chance to flee, Tamae kills Jack the Ripper and helps her go. Even if Tamae claims she is happy in her nudity, she knows she needs to save Saiko from this feeling.
Even the self-building walls of Kosato relate to this theme, of womanhood under assault. These walls serve to transform the domestic into the public. There is no longer a barrier between public space and the privacy of the home, and attempts to keep privacy are viewed as criminal. Private spaces are where people can remove the persona they use to navigate society and behave freely. They are one of the few places in our society that women are free from societal pressure to conform to ideals of appearance and behaviour. In the new Kosato, women never have a chance to escape these pressures, and so the walls create a world where women are disproportionately affected. In our real world, this is also an issue, from services such as Airbnb promoting opening your home to strangers, to social media encouraging people to keep their private lives as public as possible and therefore force them to live in conformist spaces more than ever. The encroaching walls of Kosato could then be likened to ever-increasing standards of conformity being required from women as privacy dies out in our society.
Jack the Ripper is an important part of this story in that he helps Saiko move around Kosato, and his death at Tamae’s hands allows Saiko to flee Kosato. However, he is not a necessary part of this story. His murder of Kishimoto at the start could be replaced with Saiko confronting Kishimoto, and other people could have helped Saiko move around Kosato. The sight of the multi-eyed monsters would be enough to get her to flee. So what is he doing in this story? Using the lens I have already been using to analyse this story, I can say that the gendered nature of serial killers is what makes him relevant. He admits that he was intending to kill Saiko the night he killed Kishimoto, and he attempts to kill her again at the end of the story. Serial killers are disproportionately male and their victims are disproportionally female, and other explanations for this trend ignore the fact that we are seeing victims that are primarily from an oppressed group (women) being murdered by their oppressors. Most Japanese serial killers have exclusively targeted women, and interviews with many serial killers show that they are violent misogynists. Jack the Ripper can therefore be said to represent the rarest and most extreme form of gendered violence; a male killer obsessed with the death of women.
The events that occur to Saiko throughout The Town Without Streets are events that could only occur to a woman. Eyes are on her constantly, from Kishimoto to her family to the masked people of Kosato, bringing to mind the artwork by Yuko Shimizu above. Her desires are constantly being manipulated and she is being gaslit by the people around her into believing that she is simply crazy. For me, the story served as a fascinating narrative about how Saiko is experiencing the world at her age. Whether this was Ito’s intention in writing the story is unclear, but the confusing nature of the plot adds to this feeling, as the threat level of each supernatural event is hard to gauge, and Saiko never quite knows when she is free from their influence. The plot doesn’t quite make sense as a typical horror short story or Ito tale, but it makes sense as a pastiche of terrifying experiences affecting a young Japanese woman. My later readthroughs of this story, choosing to read the story as a commentary on Saiko’s fears and threats, cemented The Town Without Streets as one of my favourite Ito stories for how the evils in the story translate to evils found in everyday life.