Sometimes it seems that the horror genre is out of completely original ideas, especially in the world of comics. While there are still lots of great twists on ghost stories, urban legends and classic monsters, such as Frankenstein’s Monster and vampires, it is rare to get a horror that is completely new and different. But in Uzumaki, creator Junji Ito creates a unique horror series unlike anything else in comics. The threat in this three-volume series is not personified in a single entity, but rather in a shape, the spiral, which seems to alter the nature of reality itself. Though the story itself is clearly influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Junji Ito creates an innovative and bizarre horror series that has thus far proved to be his most creatively successful series to date.
Uzumaki focuses on a small fishing town Kurozu-cho, where a young girl named Kirie notices that her boyfriend Shuichi is beginning to look despondent and weary. It seems that he is worried about his father, who has begun an unnatural obsession with spirals: he collects anything that is spiral shaped, he refuses to eat food without spirals in it and he constantly raves about the simple elegant beauty of the spiral. Shuichi’s father even claims that spirals can be manifested within the human body, and plans on proving it. Days later, Shuichi’s father dies (supposedly from falling down the stairs and breaking his neck) and during the funeral Shuichi tells Kirie the truth about his father’s death: he had crushed all of his bones by somehow twisting his body into a spiral. Things get stranger when the smoke from the crematorium rises into the air above the town, taking the form of a black spiraling cloud.
Following this, Kirie begins to find her life invaded by all sorts of other strange phenomena revolving around spirals: a friend with a scar that seems to turn into a vortex, her own father’s growing obsession with spiraled pottery and even her own hair curling into strange hypnotic patterns. Shuichi sees that the town is actually infected with spirals and begins to sense where spirals are and understanding how they manifest themselves. As the series continue the threat escalates as the spiral phenomenon gets more outlandish and deadly with people turning into snails, a lighthouse that dizzies and confuses all that it shines on and the town being struck by multiple hurricanes. As the series continues to its conclusion, we see the people of the city being driven mad by both the horror of the situation and the almost irresistible pull of the strange spiral force that grips the town.
What makes Uzumaki really intriguing is that it takes a very simple concept, spirals, and turns it into a strange and unsettling threat. It is a threat that is completely unavoidable, which is proven later when Shuichi realizes that there is an obvious spiral in the human body: the cochlea, a sensor for sound in the inner ear. We also see that the spirals aren’t just manipulating matter, but also people, as we see that many of the people who encounter the spiral begin to go mad. The madness involves a character’s desire for attention, such as a young girl with a growing scar that attracts boys, a boy called “Jack-in-the-Box” trying to get Kirie’s attention by scaring her and a girl who discovers that spiraled hair can mesmerize people. As the threat grows over the course of the series, it becomes apparent that characters are beginning to accept the spiral, often without realizing it. At one point a man is desperately trying to find a way to leave town, but when next we see him, he’s happily building houses for the town. Somehow, even with each new revelation of the spirals’ capabilities, the nature of the shape remains mysterious throughout the course of the series. Is it malicious, or simply a mindless cancer? Is it sentient (which is implied when it seems a hurricane is fixated on Kirie, almost as if it where in love with her) or a thoughtless reflection of human madness?
The art in Uzumaki is a real tour de force for creator Junji Ito, and may be one of the most visually impressive horror comics ever made. This is in no small part due to the fact that the threat in the story is a geometric one, and although the spiral is the threat throughout the series, each chapter allows Ito to do something completely new and different with his visual style. Highlights include the shocking scene in the first chapter where Shuichi’s father is found as a spiral, a scene in which a girl’s spiral is devouring her body, two young lovers entwining their bodies like rope, and a boy turning into a snail. While each phenomenon is connected to the same threat, no two chapters feel alike for the first two thirds of the book (after which point the chapters become less episodic). In fact, I personally have noticed that after reading all three books in a row that I had felt dizzy and confused, as though I too was affected by the malicious geometric entity.
“The devil is in the details” always struck me as an odd expression and like many expression it didn’t really work for me until I read this book. Sometimes things are intriguing when all of the small details of a work force you to focus intensely on the piece itself. This work, however, makes you focus on the details outside of the book. Look around right now. How many spirals do you see? How many spirals are invisible, but you know are there? Compared to all the other shapes in the room, why does the use of the spiral seem so different than the use of any other shape? Themes of obsession and madness are common in Junji Ito’s previous work (such as Tomie, about a beautiful girl men are compelled to kill), but this is probably his strongest book released to date (although his latest work remains untranslated).
This might be the first comic book that not only scared me, but also gave me nightmares. I find that many reviewers complain that because of the limitations of the medium, one can’t make a really scary comic, but they clearly haven’t read this series. Frankly, it’s hard to deny that this book is genuinely unnerving and brings back to both comics and the horror genre something that it has been missing for a while: something completely new.