Last week, we learned that Adult Swim would be producing an anime miniseries based on horror manga legend Junji Ito’s Uzumaki. The teaser looked like Ito’s startling drawings come to life which made us very excited for the anime next year. But if you’ve never read—or even heard of—Uzumaki, you may not understand why it’s such an important work. Something of the Watchmen of horror manga, Uzumaki combines Ito’s penchant for disgusting body horror, the perversion of ordinary life, and massive cosmic phenomena. It’s the most perfect epic of its creator’s psyche. And here’s why you should read it.
Uzumaki is Japanese for “spiral,” the crux of the entire piece. Ito originally wrote the story for the serialized publication Big Spirit Comics between 1998 and 1999. The story, as many Ito stories do, concerns a small suburban community facing strange, inexplicable, and ever-growing supernatural forces. This force is simply a spiral. The shape. Spirals are everywhere in nature, but slowly the town’s fixation on them manifests more and more spirals. They infect the town like a plague, one that distorts people’s minds as well as their bodies.
Ito, Viz Media
The beauty of Uzumaki is how Ito starts small and builds. The opening two chapters—known as “The Spiral Obsession”—have a sense of dread throughout but nothing actually happens for a bit. Our lead character Kirie walks home from school one day to find her reclusive boyfriend Shuichi’s father hunched over, staring at a wall. We quickly find out that he’s staring at a snail, its shell in a perfect spiral pattern. Seemingly innocuous. But Shuichi’s father is obsessed with spirals. He talks about them constantly, locks himself in his office drawing them and sculpting them and collecting them. It worries Shuichi, and he wants Kirie to leave town with him. But of course they don’t.
Shuichi’s father has cracked. Everything from the bathtub drain to noodles wrapped around his chop sticks reminds him of spirals. Eventually, Shuichi’s mother throws all of the spirals away and his father loses it entirely. He no longer needs to look at spirals because the spirals are in him. He starts spinning his eyes around independently, later Kirie sees him make a massive spiral out of his own tongue. Finally, Shuichi relays the horrible account of finding his father dead, inside a round box, having spiraled himself to death.
And that’s literally just the first two chapters, folks. The spiral obsession infects everything in this little town. And it’s through the seemingly endless terrifying possibilities of the spiral that Ito enacts some of his most repulsive scenarios. A girl has a scar on her head that slowly grows into a spiral before the spiral, now a vortex, engulfs her whole head; a perpetually late student begins to turn into a human-sized snail, complete with spiral shell; a lighthouse lamp melts and the lens turns into a massive, fiery spiral; you don’t want to know what happens to newborn babies’ umbilical cords.
Ito, Viz Media
Chapter after chapter, Ito employs his trademark ability to create scares on a page turn. Throughout the book, Ito will end a page with a tiny panel of a character seeing something and reacting in horror and disbelief. Then it’s incumbent upon the reader to flip the page. The choice to scare oneself rather than have the scare foisted upon one. And almost every time, the thing the character sees is a full-page, supremely detailed nightmare image that the reader will have a hard time forgetting any time soon.
Ito, Viz Media
As Uzumaki continues, the vignettes get less about body horror and more about the supremely cosmically upsetting implications of this unchecked phenomenon. The sea surrounding the town begins to have constant whirlwinds and typhoons; boats can no longer arrive or leave. Airplanes can’t fly overhead because the sky is full of tiny tornadoes. The town is subsumed by spirals and eventually everyone has to live in bungalows in the center of town; the ground itself overtaken with spirals.
Just my telling you what happens doesn’t do justice to the degree of mind-bending terror Ito conveys through his art and pacing. It’s a horrifying tale of humanity breaking down, but it’s also a supremely sad story. A community falls apart, afraid of each other and the world outside. And like the best cosmic horror, there’s really no explanation. It’s an infection that erodes everything it touches, but we have no idea why it happens.
In Uzumaki, as with all of his works, Junji Ito finds horror in familiar places through the perversion of mundane events. Everyone’s had an earache; not everyone realizes their ear canals are trying to kill them. It’s disturbing, disgusting, but undeniably compelling. Uzumaki is a work completely unlike anything that’s come before and it deserves a look, whether you traditionally enjoy manga or not. And once you read that, read his graphic novel Gyo about a mysterious horde of undead fish with metal legs powered by an odor known as the “death stench.” Now that’s an image that’ll spiral its way into your brain.
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