This is an old horror manga from the middle of the sixties, and it deals with subjects that are older still: Japanese yokai legends from the Middle Ages. In this case, an evil snake spirit that possesses women and turns them into regressive half human/half reptile monsters. Umezu’s conceit seems based on Nure-onna, a snake-bodied woman. There are three interlinked stories in this book, with the final “Reptilia” clearly being the centerpiece.

Umezu has made better things than this. This is his “Carrie.”, an early work expressed with a limited skillset.

The main thing that stands out is that he doesn’t do any character design. As far as I can tell, Reptilia has three characters, a generic young girl, a generic adult woman, and a generic old lady. This is highlighted during an early scene when two characters are walking side by side…and they’re drawn exactly the same except for their hair. This problem keeps threatening to derail the story, as awful, shocking things happen to…uh, samey-looking girl 1, I guess. Or maybe it’s samey-looking girl 2..

Kazuo’s distinctive art style is featured here in embryonic form. He’s always had a gift for articulating motion and making the pages seem to move (I like the parts that involve the snake women climbing to high places), but there’s little humanity in the staccato explosions of ink of “Reptilia.” The best bits of art, again, are the snake women, who look repulsive. Whenever he draws a “normal” person it’s always in that Tezuka inspired 60s style, which is too cute to evoke much feeling. Another thing that annoys me is how he keeps drawing characters with cartoonish exaggerated reflections in their eyes. This is a 60s light manga touch that makes no sense in a horror context.

As Kazuo’s story pulls you along like a tractor-beam, the manga’s problems do seem to become smaller. The plot is simple enough for children to follow but packs a fair amount of depth and intrigue. The final section is pulverisingly intense, and the final few pages that remind us that sometimes “the end” is another way of saying “the beginning.”

But if there’s one sequence that really struck me as inspired, and that’s the opening scene. A girl is visiting her mother in hospital. She encounters a woman who has been locked behind bars. She seems lucid and sane…until she asks the girl for a frog. The girl does not have a frog. However, she does have a schoolbook with a picture of the frog. The strange woman rips the picture out of the book and stuffs it into her mouth. This scene is bizarre and shocking, and demonstrates Umezu’s gifts for doing a lot with a little (although he also often does a little with a lot).

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Uzumaki is the horror manga: the benchmark, the standard. It’s intense, imaginative, horrifying, and oozes dread and revulsion. Nothing made before or since beats it. Junji Ito says that he created Uzumaki because he wanted to write a story set in a small town like where he grew up. I wouldn’t personally have the courage to track this sort of stuff through my childhood memories.

It’s another canter for horror’s tireless workhorse: the Big Secret in a Small Town. Kirie Goshima’s perpetually nervous boyfriend Shuichi is having premonitions of destruction enveloping their small coastal village. He might not be fully in touch with reality. But what to make of Shuichi’s father, crouched down beside a wall and ignoring anyone who tries to talk to him as he looks into the spiral of a snail shell?

Soon, events began happening (and escalating), leaving it clear that something is happening to the town of Kurozu. People are dying terrible deaths. They might be the lucky ones. Spirals hang over everything.

Uzumaki was serialized in Big Comic Spirits starting in 1998, and there are slight concessions to the format – the way each issue is a self-contained story, with its own challenges and characters. The twenty chapters of Uzumaki fly by at the speed of light, whether it’s spent in the somber reveries of “Twisted Souls”, the slow burning psychological terror of “The Spiral Obsession” pts 1 and 2, or the funny and imaginative “The Snail” and “Medusa”. “Jack in the Box” dispenses with all subtlety and throws gore around like feces in a monkey cage, while “Mosquitoes” and “The Umbilical Cord” find Kirie experiencing a gruesome and unsettling convalescence at the town’s hospital, revealing just how deep the spiral curse has its hold in Kurozu.

The best chapter is the third one, “The Scar.” Shuichi is being stalked by a succubus-like girl with a spiral-shaped scar on her head. This story combines all of Junji Ito’s skills into something that seems low key but ends up being truly insane. Unfortunately, the big reveal has since become Ito’s most famous image, which spoils it a bit.

Uzumaki also demonstrates Ito’s excellent grasp of pacing and momentum, and his awareness of the ticking clock that happens inside the world of comic panels. There’s a powerful scene in Ch.2 where a spiral-phobic woman has removed every spiral from her body (starting with cutting off her curly hair, and then slicing the whorls of skin from her fingertips). She emerges from her self-mutilation happy, because she thinks she’s cut away every spiral from her body. …As she talks, the comic panels keep zooming in on an anatomy chart behind her…and the conspicuous spiral inside the inner ear. This scene is so well done (and unpleasant, because we can see what’s coming) that it shocked me, and convinced me that Ito is a genius of some kind.

The first two volumes advance the plot in increments, and set the stage for the third volume, which is a long plunge into hell. Ito shows off the breadth of his influences here: HP Lovecraft, Sakyo Komatsu, Katsuo Umezu, even Ishirō Honda in places. We soon have an idea that there won’t be a good ending for Ito’s characters. The ending disappointed me at first but now it seems like a mathematical equation that has been invoked and followed to an inevitable end. What can two people do against geometry? The forces are totally incommensurate.

The final chapter is a little story that seems to take place earlier in the timeline (as deduced from Kirie’s long hair). Shuichi has discovered an all-new spiral galaxy in the night sky, and soon afterwards people gain the ability to read each others’ thoughts. A decent story, but kind of unfocused and not as punchy as the others. I think of “Galaxies” as Uzumaki’s bonus track.

Uzumaki really took me by surprise when I first read it. It’s astonishing. No matter how bored you might be with horror, there’s always something capable of short-circuiting your logic and reason defences and taking a path right to your primitive, reptile brain. And maybe that path also follows a spiral.

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People often say that Junji Ito’s skill as an artist sometimes exceeds his skill as a storyteller. His imagery is larger than life. His characters and plots are usually very stock. If that’s the opinion you have of Junji Ito, prepare to have it left utterly intact by this 2002 volume (which I read from scanlations, as it has no official English release), which features scary art and stories that are slightly more substantial than nothing.

The results are kind of scattershot. The opening story “The Woman Next Door” is probably the best thing on here. Our heroine Mimi finds herself sharing an apartment building with a strange and threatening woman, and it evokes a powerful atmosphere even if it doesn’t really have an ending. Straight after that we get the 11 page “The Sound of Grass,” which is as unsatisfying as a 0.5 course meal.

“Graveman” is a waste of paper, featuring one of Junji’s worst premises to date (a bodybuilder flexing his muscles in a graveyard) and far too little payoff at the end. I don’t know what he was thinking here. His filler isn’t usually this bad.

“The Seashore” takes a while to get going, but has a powerful ending and some great art. “Alone with You” is the tale of a dead mother who comes back to haunt her daughter, and it also gets the job done.

The volume ends with a frustrating story called “The Scarlet Circle”. Mimi has found an underground room in an abandoned house with a strange circle on the wall. Soon, she realises it’s a gate to another world. The story is really fascinating and spooky…and it finishes in what is a strong contender for the shittiest and most obnoxious Junji Ito ending to date. This is a slight step up from “She woke up and it was all a dream.” I don’t know if he cut the story off short due to a deadline or whatever, but the alternative is that he genuinely hates his fans.

From what I understand this volume was inspired by various Japanese folk tales. Fair enough. Japanese folk influences have always informed Junji Ito’s work (his story “The Red String” being a particularly obvious example). There’s a nice little afterword done in the style of those gag comics in Uzumaki where he explains his creative process. Too bad he doesn’t tell us where the ending to “The Scarlet Circle” went.

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