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.