Junji Ito, Uzumaki, VIZ Media LLC, 2013.
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Kurôzu-cho, a small fogbound town on the coast of Japan, is cursed. According to Shuichi Saito, the withdrawn boyfriend of teenager Kirie Goshima, their town is haunted not by a person or being but by a pattern: uzumaki, the spiral, the hypnotic secret shape of the world. It manifests itself in everything from seashells and whirlpools in water to the spiral marks on people's bodies, the insane obsessions of Shuichi's father and the voice from the cochlea in our inner ear. As the madness spreads, the inhabitants of Kurôzu-cho are pulled ever deeper into a whirlpool from which there is no return!
The coastal town of Kurouzu-cho is infested with spirals. They manifest in ramen, on pottery wheels, in the fields and sky. The obsession with spirals seizes the town’s residents like a fever, causing intense paranoia, fear, madness and eventually complete transformation. Slow-moving students transform into snail people; others stretch their bodies into spirals just to die. When she notices that human fingerprints are spiral-patterned, one woman cuts off her fingertips with a pair of scissors. A potter becomes obsessed with the grotesque ceramics that emerge from his kiln after the spirals infect the lake where he gathers clay. The teenage lovers of warring families transform into serpents and vanish into the sea, never to be seen again. Hideous and beautiful transformations, death of family, death of community, death of self: this is the world of Uzumaki.
In episodic chapters, the first half of Uzumaki charts the increasingly nightmarish bodily horrors that afflict the residents of Kurouzu-cho. But about halfway through, when a hurricane decimates the town, the story shifts gears from Cronenberg territory into a suspenseful, nightmarish tale of survival. To make the situation worse for the few survivors of the hurricane, the town no longer allows anyone to leave. They’re trapped. A succession of rescue crews also find themselves stuck in Kurouzo-cho, knowing they are only minutes from the edge of town, but unable to get back. The only structures not impacted by the daily onslaught of spiraling whirlwinds are the decaying row houses on the edge of town. With no connection to the outside world and supplies running low, the survivors take desperate measures, forming gangs (including a horde of sinister children who surf the whirlwinds and kill anyone who ventures out of the row houses) and eating whatever they can find, even cannibalizing anyone unlucky enough to transform into a snail person. Then, in the final chapters, Uzumaki shifts gears once again, kicking it up to full-throttle cosmic horror that rivals anything ever written by Lovecraft.
The new hardcover edition from VIZ Media is a welcome upgrade over the paperback volumes. In this larger format book, Junji’s Ito’s starkly beautiful black and white artwork looks better than ever. Although the film adaptation of Uzumaki captured the general strangeness of the work, this is a story that’s best told in black and white. The images are horrific but naturalistic, and there’s a subtlety to the characters in both the art and dialogue that makes them more sympathetic and relatable than the characters in most of the manga I’ve read. Arguably Junji Ito’s crowning achievement, and without a single dull page in the mix, it’s 600+ pages of terror and beauty. My wife and I each keep a shelf of books we’d take with us in the event of a zombie apocalypse. These are the books that mean the most to us, the ones we couldn’t bear to part with. This edition of Uzumaki in hardcover instantly earned a place on my zombie apocalypse shelf.
The universe of Uzumaki is one frighteningly indifferent to humankind. Natural disasters devastate entire populations, prayers go unanswered, patterns of history repeat with the unfeeling resolve of the rising sun. The classic horror stories of Poe and Lovecraft reflect the imaginings of damaged, stunted psyches, but Junji Ito’s horror stories are nascent, intelligent, reflecting the degradation of normal people and normal society. They come from the mind of someone who understands that terrible, impossible shit happens and confronts it with an unflinching, stable eye. That’s why I’ll take Ito’s imaginings over those of almost any other horror writer/artist/filmmaker. That’s why I’d say if you read just one manga in your life, let it be Uzumaki. It’s simply one of the greatest horror stories ever told, in any medium.
- Cameron Pierce
From a distance, the seaside Japanese town of Kurôzu-cho looks peaceful and idyllic. Ferns sway gently on the verdant mountainside, the ocean laps gently at the black lighthouse, and Dragonfly Pond sits serenely at the town's center. But closing in, the reader realizes that something darker lies at the heart of Kurôzu-cho -- something beneath the sudden dust devils, the mysterious whirlpools, the inescapable convergence of the winding streets. A malevolent spiral contaminates Kurôzu-cho, churning dark thoughts within its inhabitants and goading them to the self-destruction that ends in the spiraling smoke from cremation fires. Junji Ito's first two Uzumaki graphic novels draw readers into the disquieting tale of Kurôzu-cho, infecting them with a heightened awareness of spirals and a case of the chills that may last for days.
Narrator Kirie Goshima lives contentedly in Kurôzu-cho, blind to its sinister element. Less of a protagonist than a witness to the horrors that befall those under the spiral's supernatural influence, the quiet teenager realizes something is amiss when she spies her boyfriend's father, Mr. Saito, staring avidly at an empty snail shell. Her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito, attends school in a neighboring town -- a daily escape which affords him the detachment to see how the spiral has infected his hometown and his family.
The first storyline, "The Spiral Obsession," details Mr. Saito's deadly fascination with any spiral -- whether a coil of wire or a special type of fish cake -- and Mrs. Saito's resulting violent spiral-phobia. Kirie listens skeptically to Shuichi's theories about the wrongness of Kurôzu-cho, but withholds judgment until his father declines into a housebound wreck and his mother flees reality into an aversion so strong that she takes scissors to her own body in an effort to rid it of spirals. As Mr. Saito tells Kirie's father, "They're everywhere once you look for them."
Some chapters from each of these two volumes stand alone as separate stories, similar in character to the best of The X-Files's monster-of-the-week episodes. The spiral exploits the characters' flaws in bizarre ways, often altering them physically as well as mentally. "The Firing Effect" and "Twisted Souls" show the heavy toll the spiral's flattery and perversion exact from characters who otherwise might behave perfectly normally. Ito goes particularly hard on feminine vanity in two just-desserts stories: in "The Scar," a vain, cold-hearted beauty's crescent-shaped scar twists itself into a disfiguring spiral, and in "Medusa," an attention-craving girl's hair takes on a life of its own. "The Snail" takes the reader to school with a new slant on the relationship between bully and victim. Despite its often-episodic nature, Uzumaki maintains continuity from tale to tale, building intensity from one to the next.
In the second volume, many stories veer away from the odd comfort of comeuppance stories to show the spiral's increasingly larger-scale, more violent, and less selective seductions. The circle widens to encompass anyone and everyone, and innocents dragged into the vortex suffer deeply. In "The Black Lighthouse," characters guilty of nothing worse than foolishness pay with their lives when they investigate the abandoned beacon's hypnotic light source. Characters trying to save Kirie from the threats of "The Umbilical Cord" and "The Storm" die merely because the spiral ensnares them. These events leave an indelible mark on Kirie; with Shuichi as her only ally, she must resist the evil she sees around her even as others call her a liar. The spiral cannot twist her spirit, but it stalks and menaces her.
None of these stories, however psychological, goes without grotesque images or eerie supernatural twists. In context, a mollusk or a hairstyle can induce shudders as easily as a trickle of blood or a rotting corpse. Ito spares nothing and no one; small children, kindly craftsmen, and glowingly pregnant women stand as much chance of serving as conduits of evil as becoming its victims. Of the twelve chapters in these volumes, a few border on camp, but only the gimmicky (if tragic) "Jack-in-the-Box" falls flat.
Ito's exquisite black-and-white pen work, with its elaborate backgrounds and realistic figures, represents Kurôzu-cho as just south of normal -- until he pulls out the stops with searingly disturbing images of the spiral's influence. Ito employs creative and memorable visions to show the spiral's erosive effects on the landscape, the little details of life, and the human mind and body. In the first volume, he accomplishes this with minimal gore, but the horrific events of the second volume -- particularly "Jack-in-the-Box" and the one-two punch of "Mosquitoes" and "The Umbilical Cord" -- require blood. He chronicles the unsettling sights through Kirie's wide-open eyes -- each lower eyelash lovingly drawn, creating a dewy, innocent effect -- as she watches Shuichi waste into hollow-eyed gauntness. When the events of the second volume chip away at Kirie, it's wrenching to see her trusting eyes bloodshot and to watch her sweet face take on the tension of painful secrets.
For both volumes, Viz takes the welcome step of reproducing the beautifully painted first four pages in full color, setting the tone of uneasiness in dark reds, unhealthy greens, and sinister purples. The second volume raises the bar further with an embossed cover and spine. A lighthearted cartoon featuring Ito poking fun at Uzumaki's concept (and at himself) closes each volume.
Ito lists his influences as "God of Horror Manga" Kazuo Umezu (who lent his name to the award Ito won for Tomie in 1987), Hell Baby manga creator Hideshi Hino, science-fiction/experimental novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui, and American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Uzumaki is that rare work that captures the style of Lovecraft's horror, gradually unveiling the grotesqueries underlying everyday life, without pilfering its distinctive content, or calling everything in sight "Cyclopean" or "squamous."
"Spiral" to some translators and "Vortex" to others, Uzumaki inspired the 2000 live-action Japanese movie of the same name, which spurred positive buzz on the art house circuit, but has not yet been released to home video. The Uzumaki graphic novel, currently serialized in Pulp magazine, will conclude in Volume 3, scheduled for an October 2002 release. The final collection will include one story not published in Pulp.
Lovely despite its moments of looking-glass distortion, Lovecraftian with nary an "eldritch," Uzumaki shows a town in which the inhabitants become wound around the points of their own greatest weakness. The townspeople's all-too-common and all-too-human failings, warped and mutating out of control, at first keep the evil that befalls them from seeming random or gratuitous. But like a piece of fabric with a few tiny holes, Kurôzu-Cho is rent from weak point to weak point, unraveling until it seems it will fall to shreds. Although some of these vivid stories read as cautionary tales, and some read as straight-up horror, Uzumaki infects the reader with nothing worse than a case of the chills and the desire to read more. - Laura Blackwell
I’ve been reading a lot of manga lately. In the past, I’d go through brief fits of reading the stuff, but it always felt temporary, like a fling while my romance with anime hit the buffers. This time, it’s totally different; I’m ready to devour as much as I can find.
By and large, anime is defined by its limitations; it only looks as good as the money spent on it, but manga is typically drawn by one talented artist; someone with a consistent vision, capable of imagining a fantastic landscape without ever needing to worry about budgets and frame-rates. It’s an untainted, purer style of story-telling, burdened only by the singular abilities of its author.
With my above enthusiasm in-tow, the first stopping point on this fresh journey into the black/white country of comics was always clear; Uzumaki by horror maven Junji Ito. Given I’m still reeling in claustrophobia thanks to his deliciously weird short-story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault“, the idea of slipping into his most acclaimed work to date was an ambition I’ve held for many months.
Uzumaki is the Japanese word for “spiral”. If you know your anime, it will immediately conjure up two obvious references; the main character of Naruto is named “Uzumaki Naruto” and, of course, spirals (and anti-spirals) represent living energy, perhaps even the soul itself, in the excellent Gurren Lagann. I’m not sure why this symbol in particular seems so prevalent in Japanese culture, but Ito’s sinister ideas are quite persuasive. Spirals are obsession.
The dread conjured by completing Uzumaki was similar to the fright I felt when reading of Africa’s army ants. These aggressive colonies, which number in the millions, are constantly on the move. They form a “living architecture”, using their own bodies to build bridges and protective walls against the ravages of the African climate. They feed on almost anything by hunting en-mass, crawling over their prey in their millions and stripping it to the bone; even animals as big as horses have fell victim. Just reading about them, I’m disturbed by their unrelenting aggression and ambiguous intelligence. There is no point in trying to understand their intentions, it’s simply a case of running for your dear life, and that’s Uzumaki in a nut-shell too. A town haunted by a faceless, creeping, crawling malevolence, an unfathomable, undiscriminating curse hell-bent on the total destruction of every man, woman and child.
Beginning in a fine fashion then, the first chapter is brilliantly weird. To the utter bemusement of his relatively normal family, a typical Japanese salary-man is suddenly obsessed with spirals; at first he’s satisfied by merely staring into a snail’s shell, but as his mind gradually unhinges, he starts experimenting with his body too. He doesn’t simply admire the spiral, he wants to become one.
The first two volumes (out of three) are fairly episodic, making up a series of bizarre encounters with the spiral obsession, most of which range from the darkly comic to out-right disgusting. When I say the latter, I’m talking about cannibalistic pregnant women and insane doctors feeding their hungry patients umbilical cords and placenta that, for whatever reason, take root and grow when chopped from newly-born babies; and there’s more, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. All of the horror in Uzumaki is, as is Ito’s signature style, sticky and organic; we’re supposed to be sickened, disturbed and freaked by the way he twists and contorts the apparently flexible human body to new extremes.
It would be fair to say that I enjoyed the first two volumes, but they were merely fun for the sake of horror; I felt nothing for the characters, and the thread-bare plot offered little more than an uneven patch-work of horrific adventures. That is to say, I wasn’t heading into the third (and final) volume over-flowing with enthusiasm, yet it’s a quite remarkable end.
The entire town, now well beyond rescue, has been completely smashed by the dreaded curse. The last few survivors are starved and confused, tightly grouped together in small wooden huts, hiding from the many terrors roaming the streets outside, including tribes of cruel children capable of riding giant twisters through the wretched remains of modern civilisation. These last few chapters are post-apocalyptic, bereft of hope and beautiful; the landscape is desolate and open, forcing a real fear of loneliness on this reader that’s far more potent than the cheap thrills of earlier volumes.
Ito’s true strength isn’t necessarily his detailed depictions of gore, but his manipulation of human nature, the way he exploits our physical relationship with life and our worries of the unknown; he knows what’s lurking in the darkest caverns of reality, willing to fathom the moon-lit shadows being cast across our bedroom walls. - www.bateszi.me/