Uzumaki: the strange horror of Junji Ito

by Louis Calvert

Uzumaki: the strange horror of Junji Ito
July 6, 2020 Louis Calvert

This month, we introduce you to a masterclass in horror manga. Contains mild spoilers.

 

Manga artist Junji Ito’s work has been favourably compared to H. P. Lovecraft by some reviewers, and although the styles and subject matter differ greatly, both are renowned for works of original horror that seem to have a unique (and disturbing) flavour that stands them apart from their contemporaries. 

Ito has created many works of horror manga. Most well known here in the west are The Enigma of Amigara Fault, Tomie, Gyo, and Uzumaki. According to director Guillermo del Toro, Junji Ito was originally working with both del Toro and game designer Hideo Kojima on the much-anticipated horror video game Silent Hills. Unfortunately only the critically-acclaimed teaser game P.T. was actually made, and was downloaded over a million times before the project was cancelled when Kojima split with Konami. Both Ito and del Toro have cameos in Kojima’s 2019 game Death Stranding, which shows how respected Ito is amongst his peers.

Uzumaki (literally meaning ‘spiral’ or ‘swirl’) was originally published in parts in manga magazine Big Comic Spirits from 1998 to 1999. As such, each chapter of the complete Uzumaki book can be read, to varying degrees, as a standalone short that also follows the continuity of the overall narrative. Uzumaki takes place in the town of Kurōzu-cho, which is a picturesque, isolated, fictional Japanese town. Generally speaking, each chapter is a unique manifestation of the spiral curse of Kurōzu-cho; however, as the story progresses it incorporates many elements from earlier parts into later chapters, as the events unfold and build towards the climax.

As much as there can be considered protagonists in Uzumaki, Kirie Goshima and her boyfriend Shuichi Saito are our windows into the events as they transpire. When the story begins Shuichi already seems to understand what’s happening, and it’s through him we learn that the town has become ‘contaminated with spirals’.

Like much good horror, Uzumaki’s core is a very simple — albeit preposterous — concept, which Ito leans heavily into: feeling out the extremes of what an ‘obsession with spirals’ might actually mean when taken to its ultimate conclusion. A lot of Japanese horror has a spiritual or supernatural element to it, and Uzumaki makes no apologies for the general idea that there is some type of non-specific ‘curse’ causing all the strange events. It quickly becomes apparent that even the fabric of reality itself seems obsessed with spirals, and even natural phenomena like winds and water begin to take on spiral forms. In an extra chapter at the end of the book, Ito presents a fictionalised account of how he ‘researched’ Uzumaki: “I… attempted to find an answer to the secrets of this enigmatic shape”. He goes on to study spirals, eat spiral food, read books on spirals, and finally goes to visit a ‘mad hermit’ who offers to reveal the secret of the spiral if Ito presents him with more spiral-food to eat!

Unlike many western horror stories as well as much of the rest of Ito’s work, Uzumaki doesn’t really follow a protagonist as they battle, escape, or defeat the horror. Instead, the focus is on the spectacle of the horror itself. The protagonists exist mainly to give us eyes on events as they transpire, and it’s notable that neither Kirie or Shuichi actually try to really do anything about the curse. In fact, pretty much all the characters we encounter in Uzumaki just accept what’s happening and try to survive it — which is tricky, as the curse itself seems to strike somewhat randomly (although sometimes it also seems to bestow some very specific ‘punishments’ and even some ‘blessings’ on certain characters). Overall there’s a sense that the curse isn’t entirely without some unknowable motivation, and this is perhaps where the similarity to Lovecraft’s cosmicism comes through the most. There’s an underlying feeling that there are vast forces at work beyond the comprehension of any mere mortal.

The lack of any specific rules to the spiral curse actually really adds to the feeling that there’s no way to ‘beat’ it. In most horror, at some stage someone (usually a wise, elderly foreigner) is able to give the main characters some neat exposition on exactly what’s going on, which often lays out a series of conditions by which the protagonist can at least make it to the end of the story. Not so with Uzumaki — everyone seems to be pretty clued in, at least after the first few chapters, that the town is cursed by spirals, yet they can’t seem to figure out what to do about it. It’s remarkable how long the townsfolk actually just go about their normal business despite all the strange things happening. 

The capricious nature of the curse means that some characters seem to become infected in a very directed way, which almost feels like a punishment for moral transgressions. Those affected to lesser degrees tend to be able to survive or make it though; both Kirie and Shuichi show some mild signs of spiral infection at various stages but seem to be able to overcome it, as though it was a virus that their immune systems defeat, leaving them resistant. Similarly, Kirie’s father is one of the earlier ‘infected’ — he manages to survive, though seems susceptible to that particular type of spiral subversion for the rest of the story. Suichi’s family is not so fortunate…

Very occasionally, however, the curse actually seems to work as something of a boon to the victims, in a twisted sort of way (pun intended). The first chapter revolves around Shuichi’s father, who has become increasingly obsessed with spirals. That obsession goes so far that he actually starts to distort bodily. He doesn’t seem to be distressed by this, though; there’s an almost religious rapture in each new disturbing development. Similarly, two young people facing a Shakespearean tragedy in a later chapter (lovers separated by warring families) find themselves literally becoming inseparable as they twist together. 

Other characters, though, definitely don’t get any kind of benefit from the curse. One girl seems to accept the spiral into herself somehow, and initially benefits from the effects — but is physically consumed by it as it grows. Another character mutates into a human-snail hybrid, for some reason; and yet another mutilates herself attempting to remove all the spirals from her body, fingerprints and all. All this happens in just the first few chapters as the curse begins to spread through the town.

One difference between Lovecraft and Ito is how they approach telling stories. Manga is all about storytelling primarily through images, and the visuals carry a large part of the horror. As you read Uzumaki you’ll be feasting your eyes on all manner of disturbing art for as long as you can stand to turn the pages. Ito has a particular style that adds to the disturbing nature of whatever he’s drawing; somewhere between sketch-realism and suggestive mark-making, the classic manga black and white prints add to the bleak feeling evoked by the story. You’ll be left in no doubt as to what he’s showing you at a glance, but there’s a level of detail to each panel that forces you to study these horrific images in order to extract the full meaning from them.

Manga is very rooted in Japanese culture, and therefore there will be some things we Western readers sadly miss out on due to cultural differences. Much of Ito’s work relates to Japanese cultural ideas, in the same way that Stephen King’s stories are heavily grounded in Americana. “Usually spiral patterns mark character’s cheeks in Japanese comedy cartoons, representing an effect of warmth,” explains Ito. “However, I thought it could be used in horror if I drew it a different way.” Those with more understanding of Japanese culture will undoubtedly notice all kinds of subversions like this, that amp up the horror; for the rest of us, there’s still plenty of less subtle horror in there. 

There’s a scene fairly early in Uzumaki where the crematorium becomes unusable (because of terrible, terrible things happening to the ashes), so the townsfolk decide to stop cremating bodies and, instead, bury them. Kirie and many other characters find this idea in itself disturbing, since cremation is mandatory in Japan; however to us, burying the dead is quite normal, and even a cornerstone of some of our most enduring horror. Ito also heavily references a type of old-fashioned Japanese housing known as a ‘row house’ which the townsfolk are forced to fall back on later in the story. While it’s easy to understand what he means, for a western reader there’s no cultural underpinning — it’s just a crappy old house. But Ito doesn’t use them lightly and some of his intended meaning is obviously lost in translation. 

Throughout Uzumaki Junji Ito delivers horror from two angles: psychological, and the more gory sort. The psychological aspect comes in right from the start, as the first manifestations of the curse we’re introduced to take the form of obsession. In this regard Uzumaki really is comparable to some of the best of Lovecraft’s works, as characters become unhinged. It’s Ito’s ability to visually represent this that really stands out. With each page you’re shown a progression of subtle changes that slide from psychological horror into body horror, and the subversion and distortion of the human form. For this writer personally one of the early stories that makes me shudder even now is the poor woman that becomes phobic of spirals. Wonderfully (and terrifyingly) Ito foreshadows what is to come when she’s first admitted to hospital: we see a wall chart in the doctor’s office showing a cutaway of the human head, revealing that the cochlea in the inner ear is a spiral shape… 

This is how Ito plays with both the characters in Uzumaki as well as the reader. We as the reader know what’s likely to happen, at least in a vague sense, many pages before it comes — just like the residents of Kurōzu-cho know they’re falling victim to the spiral curse. The magic is that, when it does happen, Ito still finds a way to make it more viscerally disturbing that you might have imagined. Being introduced to a character that is obsessed with spirals enough to have trained his freakishly elongated tongue to curl back on itself should give us a hint as to what his eventual fate will be. When you reach the end of that chapter, though, the full horror of what he’s done to himself is revealed in a glorious full-page illustration. 

There have been a couple of adaptations of Uzumaki to other formats. Most notably, the 2000 live-action film directed by Akihiro Higuchi, which by all accounts is ‘ok’. As with many live-action versions of printed works, it doesn’t quite capture the feel of the original, and should be viewed as its own entity. Generally though, manga makes the jump to anime very effectively; One Punch Man, Naruto, Attack on Titan, (covered in Issue 7) and many other popular anime titles started life as manga. This year the anime version of Uzumaki will be released to the world — so if you’re interested in the story but don’t enjoy manga, it’s likely to be a faithful and excellent adaptation.

For a horror fan used to reading novels or watching films it can be difficult to grasp the idea of a horror manga. It’s very easy to think of them simply as comic books, which (while technically accurate) gives potential readers misleading impressions as to their capacity to portray true horror, and not just gore and violence. When I started reading manga I found I was mostly reading the captions and speech bubbles, and only glancing at the associated images — and therefore moving through the books very quickly, as there’s not much actual text. After a while, a knowledgeable friend advised me to study the pictures more, take my time with each page, see how the artist tells the story with the illustrations. For me, that was enough to make Uzumaki a really unique experience — one whose particular impact could only really be achieved through manga.

Uzumaki is weird, horrifying, unsettling, and original. It plays with fear on several levels, in a way that only manga seems able to achieve. To those who haven’t come across it: it might be time to seek it out.