Some scary books seem apologetic, as if they’re ashamed of their own existence. But then there are the books that feel no need to explain or rationalise, and no need to elevate horror to a highbrow level. “Yes, I exist. Maybe I strike you as trash, or nonsense. That’s a good thing. You would not want to live in my world.”
Uzumaki is THE Japanese horror manga. This is the bar, right here. It’s intense, imaginative, seethes with horrifying imagery, and oozes dread and revulsion. Nothing made before or since beats this. Junji Ito says that he created Uzumaki because he wanted to write a story set in a small town like where he grew up. Kudos if this is true. I wouldn’t have the courage to track this sort of stuff through my childhood memories.
The manga stars a down-to-earth heroine, Kirie Goshima, whose perpetually nervous boyfriend Shuichi is having premonitions of destruction enveloping their coastal town. We get the sense that 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, it is clear that something is happening to the town of Kurozu. People are dying terrible deaths. As the story progresses, we see that they might be the lucky ones. One thing links everything: spirals.
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”. Elsewhere, “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.
But the best chapter is the third one, “The Scar.” Shuichi is being stalked by a girl with a scar on her head that she believes gives her the power to control boys’ hearts. This story combines all of Junji Ito’s skills into something that seems low key but ends up being truly insane and WTF-inducing. The picture where Kirie’s friend removes her hat is nothing less than astonishing.
Uzumaki shows off Junji Ito’s perfect 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’s happy, because she thinks she’s free of the spiral curse. 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 I legitimately began to believe that Junji Ito is a genius of some kind.
The first two volumes advance the plot in increments, and set the scene for the third volume, which is one slow deathmarch towards the apocalypse. We realise that there can be no salvation for these 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 the conclusion of everything? Surrender, with one hand raising a white flag, the other hand hugging each other.
The final chapter is a little bonus story that seems to take place earlier in the story timeline. 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 very scary. I don’t really consider “Galaxies” to be part of Uzumaki. I think of it as like a bonus track on an album.
Uzumaki really took me by surprise when I first read it. It is shockingly good. 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 hey, look, I think that path is spiral shaped.