So, this week I thought I’d do something a little bit different: instead of looking at a more traditional short story, I figured I’d look at one in comic form. To that end, today we’ll be looking at acclaimed horror manga artist Junji Ito’s “The Hanging Ballons.”
A couple of notes before we start: the version of the story that I have, from the collection Shiver, is called “Hanging Blimp.” I don’t like that particular translation of the title, so I’m just going with “The Hanging Balloons.”
The next note is that this story deals a lot with suicide, and has a lot of that kind of imagery. It also has a nice sprinkling of body horror, but this is Junji Ito we’re talking about so that’s to be expected.
We good to go? Then let’s begin.
The story opens with our protagonist, a teenage girl named Kazuko, sitting in her room in the corner, scared out of her mind. From outside her room, she hears a voice, trying to entice her outside. As she explains, the voice trying to lure her out is her own.
See, something terrible has happened that has forced to stay inside her home for the past week. Which is a very 2020 sentence to write. This is very much a problem because she’s run out of food, and now doesn’t have any way to get more.
So she flashes back to how everything started. About six weeks prior, Kazuko’s best friend Terumi died from an apparent suicide, her body having been found outside her apartment hanging from a telephone wire. This ends up being pretty big news, since Terumi was also a fairly popular singer.
After Terumi’s funeral (which was being mobbed by grieving fans,” Kazuko and her friends are leaving when they run into Shiraishi, a classmate of theirs who was close to Terumi. Very close, in fact, if the members of her fan club waiting to ambush him are to be believed.
See, they blame him for Terumi’s death, and are about to beat the shit out of him when Kazuko intervenes. She and her friends try to comfort him as the other boys leave, but he’s inconsolable.
For some time, there are copycat suicides, which aren’t terribly uncommon when something like this happens. What happens next, though, is far stranger: people start seeing a giant version of Terumi’s head, floating around town like a balloon.
This becomes the main topic of conversation at Kazuko’s school, with most people believing that it’s a hoax. Shiraishi, however, believes the stories. Because he’s seen it himself.
Terumi’s head has been setting down in his yard, staring at him.
Kazuko thinks that Shiraishi is likely suffering hallucinations brought on my grief and exhaustion. Shiraishi angrily tells her that he’ll call her the next time he sees it so she can see it for herself.
Some time passes, and Kazuko is doing homework when her brother, Yosuke, comes to tell her that someone’s on the phone for her. This someone turns out to be Shiraishi, telling her that he’s seen Terumi’s head again and to meet him at a nearby temple.
So she goes to meet him, and see’s Terumi’s giant floating head. Then she sees Shiraishi in a tree, calling out to the head. Then she sees the noose apparently hanging from the tree directly in front of him.
Then the noose grabs him, and a balloon shaped like his head floats out from behind the tree.
Kazuko runs to a nearby police box to try and get help, but the officer in question doesn’t quite believe her story. It really doesn’t help that, when she drags him back to the temple, that both the Shiraishi and Terumi balloons are gone.
The next day, Kazuko is having a conversation with her friends Chiharu, Taeko, and Miyuki, about the events of the night before. They don’t really believe her either, but this doesn’t stop her from positing a new theory about Terumi’s death.
See, she noticed that while the Shiraishi balloon had a noose dangling from it, the Terumi balloon did not. So she thinks that Terumi’s death wasn’t a suicide at all. Rather, that the Terumi balloon had lured her out, snatched her, and then had the noose get wrapped in the telephone wire and get ripped off.
That’s when the four notice something in the distance: more balloons. And, as they get closer, they see that the balloons have their faces.
Taeko and Miyuki are hanged basically immediately, but Kazuko and Chiharu manage to dodge the nooses. Kazuko drags her friend into a nearby alley, where they ask a guy looking out his window for help.
The guy in question happens to have a crossbow for some reason, and manages to shoot the Chiharu balloon. This, however, presents a new problem: Chiharu’s head deflates, exactly like the balloon. It’s actually really, really gruesome, so I’m not going to show it here.
This prompts Kazuko to run off to her home, where she finds balloons resembling her parents and brother. Then she notices a bunch of other balloons, all with a different person’s face. Then her own balloon pops up again, which snaps her out of her reverie and causes her to run into the house.
Later, the family are watching a news report explaining that not only are the balloons showing up in Tokyo, but the rest of Japan as well. That’s not going to stop Kazuko’s dad from going to work, though, since he figures that he can just protect his neck as he dashes to the car.
Yeah, that really, really doesn’t go well for him.
This, of course, causes the rest of the family to freak out, and sometime later Yosuke decides that he needs to leave, citing the fact that they’re going to need food eventually. He has a different plan from his father, though: when the balloon comes to hang him, he manages to throw an open umbrella into the noose. This buys him some time, but Kazuko hasn’t seen him since that happened. That, plus the fact that her mother had run out of the house and was killed three days prior, isn’t doing much for Kazuko’s mental state.
So, she’s just sitting there, when she hears something that gives her a little bit of hope: her brother’s voice, saying that he found food and asking her to open the window. Which she does.
Only to be faced with her brother’s decaying corpse, hanging from the balloon with his face and voice. The final panel of the comic features the Yosuke and Kazuko balloons, floating ominously in front of Kazuko’s window.
So, that was “The Hanging Balloons.” The whole “stay inside or you’ll die” thing kind of hits a little differently in 2020, doesn’t it?
Seriously, though, if I were to say what this story was really about, I’d say it’s about suicide contagion. Suicide contagion is basically a phenomenon where a suicide in one’s family, peer group, or in the media can cause people to start developing suicidal ideation.
The fact that the story begins with an (apparent) suicide, followed up by copycats, then escalates to people being killed by balloons bearing their faces seems, to me at least, to be a metaphor for how these things can spread. And this, it should be noted, is a serious problem in Japan: the country has the sixth highest suicide rate in the world.
The collection I mentioned earlier also has some commentary from Ito himself. Apparently, this was based on a dream he had as a child: “I was somewhere like an airport when a clay figure of a woman’s torso with a rope dangling from it came flying down and hanged me by the neck.” He adds that he thought the idea of balloons with people’s faces coming to intentionally kill them would have been scarier.
I mean, he’s right, but the idea of being killed by a torso balloon is also pretty freaky.
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