Posted by Holly
Junji Ito, a Japanese manga writer, is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant minds in contemporary horror. This reputation is more than likely well deserved, considering he has created some of the most gruesome and unforgettable images in many people’s memories. Between the beloved Tomie, the repulsive Gyo, or many of his short and strange tales, there’s quite a variety of shocking stories he has to offer. However, Uzumaki may just stand as one of his most brilliant horror masterpieces.
Uzumaki is a series of horror vignettes that follows Kirie Goshima, a high school girl from the town of Kurozu-cho, and the other citizens of this seemingly quiet city. Strange things begin to happen when Kirie notices Shuichi’s, her boyfriend, father acting differently, staring at snails in an alleyway. When confronted about this, Shuichi explains to Kirie that his father’s behavior has become unusual lately, and that he has been cursed by the spiral – that the whole town has. Kirie is disturbed by this admission, but does not see it as urgently as Shuichi does. When Shuichi asks her to run away from the city with him, she rebuffs him; their town is perfectly normal, what is happening to Shuichi’s father is just a solitary incident. But as time passes, the events taking place in the town become harder for even Kirie to ignore.
This book is one of my favorite pieces of horror writing I’ve ever read, it’s just so unflinching and wild. Anything you can think of, horror wise, is covered here: there’s nauseating body horror (in spades), there’s an exploration of the darkness in humanity (especially towards the end when people are looking for food), but most of all, there’s a maintained sense of dread creeping throughout each of the pages. There’s a strong connection, in some ways, to the Lovecraftian themes of being helpless in the face of something much bigger and more powerful than yourself. There is no sense in fighting the spiral, the spiral is everywhere – even inside of you.
One thing that I love about this manga is the pacing; you get a sense of scale of how things are progressing. Each of the chapters is technically a separate story, with its own conclusion, but they are all moving in chronological order, so you can see how the situation in the town seems manageable at first to Kirie – and how it begins to escalate beyond the point of her control by the end of the book. There is a carried over continuity between each of the stories, but the whole picture is created by a collaboration of events created by the linked fiction. The fragmented way that this story is presented really works with the overall tone of the story – especially the sense that you may not see the spiral until you’ve taken a step away from the details to see the full picture.
Kirie is enjoyable as a character, and she creates a very logical perspective for us to see through as a reader. Shuichi is already convinced from the start that the spiral’s curse is taking effect, but Kirie, like the reader, is skeptical and needs some convincing. We are able to follow her through the first few disturbing stories, her logical ability to explain away what is happening fading with each new incident. And even when she does understand that something terrible is happening, she isn’t quite so sure that she should run off with Shuichi – she has a life in this town, a family to consider, and she isn’t so quick to abandon all of these things. There does, of course, reach a point where it seems strange that Kirie doesn’t insist that her family leave with her, but you can at least understand where her hesitation lies.
There are a number of female characters throughout the stories, and there’s a good range of what kinds of characters we see. Even though we do get a more sexualized, Tomie-like character, we get balance to that with Kirie and her kind, compassionate personality. During the curling hair story, we see a friend of Kirie who is so insecure and concerned about what others think that she is willing to destroy herself for the spotlight. We are able to see a terrifying depiction of trauma and PTSD through Shuichi’s mother. The women in this book may not always have a long term presence, but there is a richness in the variety we’re given.
There are two chapters in particular that deserve a closer look, the first one being “Jack in the Box.” This chapter highlights Kirie’s attempts to thwart the unwanted advances of a classmate named Mitsuru. He relentlessly pursues her, despite the many negative responses she gives him. She tells him “no” clearly and directly, she reiterates that she already has a boyfriend; still, Mitsuru does not get the message. Finally, he seeks to “prove” his love to her by getting himself killed in a disturbing way in front of her – and then still pursues her, even after death. The thing about this chapter is that it really preys on an already existing fear within many women, and exemplifies the day to day horrors that some must face. When it comes down to it, there are people like Mitsuru that we’ve already dealt with, suitors who cannot hear the word “no.” The story is horrifying enough on its own; with spirals and reanimation, Junji Ito simply elevates it from horrifying to grotesque.
The other story, “The Scar,” deserves a closer look mainly due to its similarities with another Junji Ito work, Tomie. In this chapter, Kirie befriends a girl named Azami, who is quite pretty and popular and the subject of gossip and distrust among other female classmates. It’s whispered that she has a scar on her forehead that allows her to enthrall any man she chooses. Kirie does not believe this, but inevitably Azami attempts to seduce Shuichi, who rejects her. Certainly, Junji Ito seems to be a fan of the seductress as a character archetype, which has the potential to be problematic, but I think it’s interesting how this character differs from Tomie, more so than how they are similar. Azami seems to be, down inside, still something of a normal girl whose insecurities influence her need to seduce. She does not enthrall the men she meets to destroy her, but rather allows her insecurities to consume her fully – and with the power of the spiral, that is presented more literally than figuratively.
As the story barrels towards its conclusion, it reaches an ending point that is unexpected, but in many ways a foregone conclusion. The final frames of the manga are at once tragic, and yet oddly romantic, and create a perfectly satisfying visual for the ending of such a nightmarish story.
There are a lot of things to admire about the brilliant way Uzumaki is rendered as a story and the way it manages to draw you into its bizarre dreamscape. It is a tale that turns things that we would normally trust in our daily lives upside down, and one that does not allow you to assume that anything is safe. But above all else, it is a story that does not approach its narrative as a straight line, but rather – a spiral.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A horror classic, definitely a must read.
Violence level: 11 out of 10. Bodies twisted into shapes bodies shouldn’t be in, reanimated corpses, and snail people – in short, some pretty extreme body horror.
Scariness level: High! I’ll be surprised if some of these images don’t stick in your mind long after you’ve put the book down, and the feeling of dread doesn’t stick with you for a long while either.
Bechdel test: Passes! Kirie makes a couple of different female friends over the course of the book, one being a girl in her school who discusses the idea of wanting to be adored and watched by crowds with her. Another is a reporter who comes into their city and seeks survival with Kirie and her family.
Mako Mori test: This passes, though technically her story is very intricately wound up with Shuichi’s, and you can argue that her choices at the end of the story are motivated by her feelings for him, more than herself.