Uzumaki: Spiral into Horror
Created by: Junji Ito
Published by: VIZ Media
ISBN: 1569317143 (Amazon)
I’m skeptical of comics’ power to truly horrify using supernatural elements. Because the reader controls entirely the pace of a story’s execution, one of the primary tools of the horror genre is kept from authors in the comics medium. Additionally, revulsion is increasingly difficult to elicit from static imagery—a gross drawing is merely that and draws forth none of that sense of fear or terror that aficionados of the genre tend to relish. Certainly a compelling story about the affects of war on a civilian population can horrify, but only because it is humanity who is the monster and not some lumbering creature of the imagination. There seems little room for the supernatural to scare us from the immobile, two-dimensional page.
When I first approached Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, I hoped for my understanding of comics horror to undergo a dramatic shift. I hoped that his mind-bending work would bring me to see that the comics page could truly deliver terror. Not so much because I like being frightened but simply because I love experiencing the expanding boundaries of what the medium is capable of. And Ito seemed the perfect guide if anyone was.
These images have been reversed from their originals
to prevent confusion for American readers.
Junji Ito is, so I read, considered to be a master of Japanese horror. He’s created several works that have been lauded for their depiction of strange horror. But as inventive as his stories are and as horrifying as I would find these tales had they been committed to film, they come off rather sterile in screentones.
Which is not to say that Ito’s Uzumaki isn’t a good time. It is. What it isn’t, however, is in any way horrifying.
Uzumaki, in Japanese, means “spiral” (hence the helpful English subtitle for the book: Spiral into Horror) and throughout these three volumes we become well acquainted with a town that is becoming possessed by the idea of the spiral. The theme of spirals makes its mark across every chapter and in numerous inventive (and usually gruesome) ways. In one case, a girl’s hair takes on a spiraling, hypnotic life of its own. In another, a boy grows a spiraling shell on his back and gradually becomes a snail. A scar bores into one girl’s mind. Another girl finds herself the love interest of a typhoon.
Uzumaki begins as a collection of interrelated short stories, each exploring one more aspect of the town’s strange connection with spirals, but gradually takes on the form of a longer, more interconnected narrative. There isn’t much in the way of character development because apart from the protagonist and her boyfriend (who wants desperately to get out of Dodge), most characters don’t last much farther beyond the chapter of their introduction. There is a lot of death (and worse) in Uzumaki and so the story soon becomes the question of how this couple will survive the increasingly manic terror being visited upon their town.
Really, by series’ end, the moral becomes clear: Girls, when your high school boyfriend says that the town is possessed and you two should run away together, you’d be crazy not to do as he says. Perhaps Ito is projecting his own childhood’s discreet woes. Really, after even just one of these incidents, it’s not entirely clear why any of the witnesses don’t flee the town immediately. Perhaps they find the spirals too hypnotic.
Uzumaki, though boasting its share of faults (both in art and in storytelling), still stands out as something that may be worth your time. While it probably won’t frighten you or give you any kind of nightmares, you may find Ito’s images, in a certain sense, indelible. In the couple weeks since I finished the book’s last chapter, I have continually found myself reminded of particular story moments or ideas that were rather strikingly composed.
If you’re curious what Ito’s all about, his short story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” is a good starting place. It’s pretty representative of the kind of horror that is found in Uzumaki.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.
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