You will always know schoolgirl Tomie Kawakami by her preternatural beauty, the mole under her left eye, and her smiling cruelty. The changeless villainess of Junji Ito’s shoujo manga series Tomie, and the film and TV series based on same, cannot be killed, although she will be butchered, over and over and over again. Hers is the kind of fate usually doled out by Greek gods in a fit of pique. Typically, her beauty (and cruelty) will run men mad until they start breaking out in homicides. The death toll may be impressive, but Tomie herself will always be somewhere in the number, usually in many pieces. But from all those pieces, or even just a quantity of her blood, new Tomies will be born. The cycle repeats, with Tomie(s) regenerating as lovely and sadistic as before, even with the same memories. (One manga story concludes with a parade of identical naked Tomies marching through the center of a rural village like some sort of bizarre folk procession.) With several volumes of manga, eight films, and a TV series in Japan, Tomie still has not enjoyed the kind of success outside of her home country as vengeful ghost ladies Sadako or Kayako from Ringu and Ju-On, but she’s just as much an implacable force, and her curse translates even more seamlessly than theirs, because at heart, even though she spends the souls of countless men to make her evil happen, Tomie talks about the tacit ways that women learn to hate and fight other women.
The Tomie manga series is basically an anthology, but the first story is the template of all Tomie stories. It begins with schoolgirl Reiko mourning her friend Tomie, who was recently murdered. Not just murdered, but chopped-into-pieces murdered. Then her dead friend shows up at school, apparently whole and alive; wild rumors circulate about her being undead. Tomie is unconcerned. Her attention is fixed on seducing her teacher and breaking hearts in the process. It eventually culminates with Tomie’s accidental fall on a field trip, after which one of the girls in the class declares that “such a person should die,” and the scandalized teacher wastes no time convincing his students to cover up Tomie’s death and dispose of the body. The breeziness and joviality of the class chopping up their classmate is horrifying, far more horrifying than a mean schoolgirl could ever be, even if she is a demon, and it’s even worse when they realize she’s still alive but keep going. The deed done, Reiko, self-professed as Tomie’s only female friend, is given her heart to dispose of. Reiko dumps it into the river, only to later discover Tomie’s body regenerating, like pulpy, fleshy lichen. Reiko realizes Tomie will rise again, and she doesn’t seem surprised.
The first film version, Ataru Oikawa’s Tomie (1999), is still my favorite. A lot of the appeal of the first movie for me rests with its heroine Tsukiko Izumisawa, an art student with a sunny disposition and a dark past she can’t quite remember. Tsukiko and a chunk of backstory originally belonged to the manga story “Photograph,” in which schoolgirl Tsukiko accidentally captures Tomie’s demonic nature on film, and Tomie sends her crazed devotees to kill her, including Tsukiko’s crush Yamazaki. It must be heartbreaking to realize your one true love would rather make out with a demon girl half reconstituted from her blood on a carpet than you.
In the movie, Tsukiko is university-aged and living with her boyfriend Yuuichi, who supports his rock band by working as a chef in an Italian restaurant. Yuuichi seems to quietly resent Tsukiko for reasons that are unclear, and he’s also cheating on her with one of her friends. Tsukiko’s blithely unaware, possibly because she’s more worried about recovering memories she lost surrounding a bad car accident when she was in school. That accident ended a relationship and caused her mother to move her to another school district. Now Tsukiko has enlisted the help of a psychiatrist using hypnotherapy to recover those memories, even though it’s driven a wedge between her and her mother, and her psychiatrist – spurred by learning some of the Tomie backstory from a detective — advises her to stop.
Of course, there was never a car accident. Tsukiko’s story from “Photograph” is conflated with Reiko’s, with Tsukiko as Tomie’s friend who watches Tomie get slaughtered. Meanwhile, Tsukiko’s downstairs neighbor is feeding a head in a bag Yoplait, until that head grows into a beautiful, vicious woman.
Blind spots and the sins hidden in them are big themes in Tomie. The director gets this across visually with consistently weird choices. The camera shies away from showing faces in intense dialogue scenes that seem to cry for it. Important conversations happen with characters deliberately facing away from each other. There’s one dialogue scene between Tomie and her landlord where the camera is downstairs and across the street from them, cutting off their heads. (But keeping the downstairs apartment, with its secret prize inside, in the center of the screen, too.) Tomie herself is hidden for most of the movie – literally, in a bag, in a wicker basket – and then filmed only from the back. We first see her face when she begins seducing Yuuichi at his restaurant, but she’s still cloaked in shadow. We actually don’t see the demon girl in a good light until her confrontation of Tsukiko – at which point everything will be revealed. Plot-wise, you’ve got Yuuichi’s infidelity and the betrayal by Tsukiko’s friend. There’s the psychiatrist keeping her new knowledge of Tomie’s bizarre supernatural history from Tsukiko for her own good. Even the detective hunting down the Tomie Kawakami case is secretly just looking for Tomie. He confesses he knows this whole deal is beyond the realm of law and order, but he really just…wants to see her, which is chilling and sad. And of course, Tsukiko’s hypnotherapy peeling back her amnesia is a leitmotif that runs right through Tomie tormenting Tsukiko in her psychiatrist’s office and a big old flashback sequence. (I also like that the lamp the doctor uses to induce Tsukiko’s trance states looks a lot like Tomie’s golden demon eye. )
When Tomie does finally corner Tsukiko, it’s not clear initially what she wants. She taunts Tsukiko with how she’s now stolen two of her boyfriends. She brings up the “demon girl” picture harvested from the “Photograph” backstory and does seem irritated by that still. Then she muses on how Tsukiko will marry a useless man, have stupid children, and become a wrinkled, old grandma. “That is happiness for a woman, isn’t it?” Meanwhile Tomie will always be young and pretty. Tomie says she’s jealous, but she just seems spiteful. It’s not until the final final confrontation that it becomes clearer. Horrified that Tomie yet lives, Tsukiko finally rebukes her –
TSUKIKO: I know. I was happy when I saw you killed. You aren’t my friend. I hated you all the time. I am not your friend!
Tomie, naturally enough for a demon, seems delighted by this. That is what she wanted. She draws close, kisses Tsukiko and embraces her with an expression of possessiveness, and then tells her, “You are me. Tsukiko, you don’t remember that either?” At which point, they both laugh heartily until Tsukiko immolates Tomie with a flare, like you do. But in the epilogue, successful photographer Tsukiko will discover she has a telltale mole.
It’s a bit of a “say, what?” ending, I will concede. For one thing, Tsukiko does not look like Tomie, has an individuality, a family, a history, is obviously not a copy that grew from Tomie’s severed anything. It’s not explored in this film, but the manga established Tomie can regenerate from her blood, even an injection of her blood taking over a human host, so maybe you could imagine Tsukiko picked up a few too many Tomie cells while splattered in gore in flashback. I prefer to think that hating Tomie corrupted Tsukiko’s heart and made her vulnerable to Tomieness. Or maybe the hatred itself — murderous jealousy, anger, bitterness, and thwarted possessiveness — is Tomieness. It is possible I am being too fancy and metaphorical, but what seems important to me is this: Tsukiko spends the entire movie trying to remember and accept her past with Tomie. Once Tomie forces her to remember, Tsukiko finally admits the hatred she had for her friend and that Tomie was never really her friend, re-murders Tomie, and from that point on, she is a demon girl walking.
Tomie has the magnetic allure of a siren, the eternal youth of a vampire without the inconvenient bloodlust, and she can make more of herself with infinite virgin regenerations. (Unless maybe you consider the act of being chopped up by a deranged lover a weird simulacrum of the violence of heterosexual sex. I would prefer not to.) Taken all together, she’s a perfect nightmare of classic feminine attributes combined with invincible parthenogenesis, a package that would have made the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum mad with terror. But whatever potential she might have, her purposes remain firmly anchored in the traditionally feminine sphere of relationships, and those purely for power’s sake. Tomie generally has no love for the guys that come under her spell. She’s much more interested in hurting the girls who lose the guys, or at least achieving the conquest of another heart/soul. It’s important to note that Tomie doesn’t kill on her own. She may not even compel killings directly. She works through influence, which is a very traditionally feminine approach to power, especially in a world where institutions might not admit them license. Often, as with Tsukiko in “Photograph” and the first Tomie film, it can be enough for her to take away someone beloved from her victim or to corrupt them; she’s a very misogynist vision of a female villain in that way, but misogyny the way women learn to do it — fighting over influence in a (purported) man’s world.
So the monstrous feminine proposed by Tomie combines a lot of ideas about what makes a woman scary, but the really unique thing about her is the way she sows her own destruction. Tomie influences, but is not actually in control of the effect she has on the men she drives mad, and if you’re Tomie, that’s a pretty big drawback. At least, I don’t think she ever evinces the masochism of a Cenobite. The ability to be eviscerated and tell the story is a pretty good party trick, but it also makes Tomie’s terror naturally self-limiting, like meteorological conditions that would never allow a tsunami to rage unfettered in perpetuity. Tomie must eventually be her own undoing, and I think that’s significant, too, as a subliminal patriarchal moral to the story. Tomie is deathless, life-wrecking evil, but she has her place in the (super)natural order and she stays in it.
Tomie’s many, many horrible deaths would make her sympathetic probably, except Junji Ito keeps her so meticulously bitchy. I think particularly of the manga story “Revenge,” where Tomie is discovered by a mountaineering search party, naked and hanging from a cleft in a frozen cliff wall. She immediately turns imperious, selfish demands on her rescuers, straining credulity more than finding a naked girl alive in subzero weather, all meant to hasten their doom. Ito actually advised actress Miho Kanno in Tomie, and I think she really nails the vicious purity of the character. When Tomie does talk about being jealous of Tsukiko’s mundane mortality, it’s very plain she’s not jealous. She’s a circuit of wickedness in the shape of a woman who would say anything to manipulate someone else and cause them pain. You don’t ever feel called to idealize or romanticize Tomie, which is also interesting when you think about how feminine she is, how well the hate and the (exploitation of, perversion of) her femininity go together. Especially if you’re a woman and you’ve lived through bullying by mean girls in your own life. The manga, after all, is a girls’ comic.
All of this gets muddier, of course, with more film sequels, and I’ve never actually seen the TV series. And it must be allowed that while Tomie typically stays in her lane with the seducing/being killed deal, sometimes experiments happen, things go wrong, and the pretty girl is regenerated as a monstrous abomination or a cannibal ghoul, and those results are a different kind of horrible. I do think it’s still arguable the boyfriend-stealing, boyfriend-sending-to-murder-you mean girl is worse.
A collection of the manga was just reissued, Tomie: Complete Deluxe Edition, and the Tomie films can be challenging to find streaming, but most are available wherever you get your weird, cult horror physical media.
Angela has a mole, but it’s on her cheek, so pretty sure she’s mortal.