In 1954, Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent was published, and the US comics industry was never the same again. His angst over the corruption of young minds by comics led fairly directly to all manner of stifling consequences, not the least of which was the near extinction of a previously thriving market for horror comics. (And, perhaps indirectly, the rise to dominance of the smothering comfort blanket that is the superhero genre).
Japan never had a Wertham to contend with. There, a million strange and unsettling flowers have been allowed to blossom unhindered in the comics medium; including, notably, some pretty full-on horror blooms. I can’t imagine what Wertham would make of modern manga. Quite possibly, he’d have a seizure of some sort, the poor chap.
I am consistently caught off guard by manga, in a way that US comics very rarely manage. I regularly have my brain twisted into shapes to which it is unaccustomed. (Wertham would not approve). Witness today’s example, which in the space of just three volumes took me from ‘This is rather silly, but kind of creepy’ to being genuinely startled by its disturbing closing chapters. Plus, it changed the way I look at snails, which is … well, no comic’s ever done that before.
by Junji Ito, published by Viz Media
‘Two hundred pages of complete bloody lunacy … From a simple, almost funny idea, Uzumaki achieves moments that are seriously disturbing.’
What follows may just be a less concise restatement of that, because it’s a pretty flawless summary of my feelings.
Start with that cleverly simple, but faintly ludicrous, idea: a small town is haunted not by ghosts, but by a shape. The spiral, to be precise. An unhealthy preoccupation with the geometric form enters the inhabitants’ minds, just as its physical manifestations begin to proliferate. The first couple of volumes are composed of more or less stand alone chapters that each detail a specific instance of the bizarre, destructive influence of the spiral upon the town’s life. Some of these are more absurd or comedic – often deliberately so – than unsettling: the schoolgirls whose hair grows uncontrollably into huge, active spirals, turning them into dueling Medusae; the social misfit with a habit of jumping out to startle people who turns into a literally spring-loaded jack-in-the-box; the strange affliction that starts transforming slow-movers into spiral-shelled snails.
That last one, though – the snail thing – exemplifies this comic’s ability to combine the absurd with the quite creepy, in a way that’s not common in Western material. There is something in how the transformation is shown, both visually and in the narrative, that becomes oddly affecting in its inevitability, its grotesqueness. It also exemplifies the deceptiveness of the series’ structure, because those snails actually turn out to have a lasting, and distinctly unexpected, role in the story.
Other chapters are flat out creepy – or viscerally, violently horrific – without the tiniest hint of the absurd. I’m a bit of a softie, really, when it comes to skilfully executed horror that combines the psychological with the physical, as Uzumaki proved with the story of a woman who develops an acute phobia of spirals. She realises how many spirals the human body – her own body – contains, in fingertips, in the inner ear. You can probably guess how that plays out; I did, and after peeking over the page to confirm my suspicions, I felt an immediate need to go read something comforting and entirely not upsetting for a little while.
All of these tales are grounded in the day-to-day life of a small Japanese town and its ordinary inhabitants. Most of it is seen through the eyes of, and narrated by, a schoolgirl – Kirie – who remains conveniently unaffected by the spiral for much of the story, but witnesses its increasingly extreme manifestations. There’s not a great deal by way of character development or depth for her or anyone else, really; but that’s fine, since she and they are not the point of the tale. Horror. That’s the point.
By the end of the second volume, I was finding it all cleverly inventive in its invocation of the spiral, sometimes disconcerting in its air of unease and wrongness; but also a bit inconclusively repetitive, a bit uneven in tone and effect. And, as previously noted, occasionally a bit silly. It all felt, in its episodic structure and its vaguely fabulistic tone just a little like those very mid-20th century US horror comics that Wertham so loathed. It takes everyday, relatively minor, traits, habits and flaws and inflates them into specific, supernaturally gruesome tragedies. Entertaining and interesting, but not quite remarkable.
So I purchased the third volume more out of curiosity than expectation. I had no idea what I was getting into. No sir, I surely did not. The structure changes. Now, we’re locked into a single narrative that ties together and expands upon much that has gone before while adding ever more bizarre and disturbing elements to it. It’s a localised apocalypse, embracing the utterly fantastical and bizarre. Cut off and destroyed by the power of the spiral the town becomes a desolate stage for the enactment of delirious, violent, nightmare-like tragedy. At times the story achieves surrealist levels of strangeness. There is, apparently, a movie adaptation of Uzumaki, and … well, honestly, I can’t even begin to imagine how that could possibly work.
The purpose of the snails to the plot is revealed. Gangsters ride whirlwinds. Madness reigns. Town and townsfolk alike are transformed, reborn almost. And then the really strange stuff starts. All of it retains a persistent undercurrent of the absurd, but also – and dominantly – an increasingly claustrophobic, disturbing sense of inescapable doom that I found quite hypnotic and a bit oppressive (in a good way; the way that true horror should be oppressive).
Some of the imagery and ideas are very striking, in both conception and presentation. The way in which the town ultimately makes itself into a spiral – both how it happens and how it connects back to earlier hints – is inspired. The conceit that fast movement and loud voices become dangerous because they trigger whirlwinds is bonkers, yet bears deliciously creepy fruit as fugitives and pursuers walk, rather than run, within threatening sight of one another. I won’t reveal how all of this culminates, except to say that it has one of the diagnostic characteristics of true, committed horror fiction: the ending is not a banal, restorative one. Everything is not reverting to placid normality.
I’ve read comics I’ve enjoyed more, and those that are smarter and more ambitious, but Uzumaki and its odd, captivating vision of a town overwhelmed by some weird Platonic ideal of a geometric shape will, I kid you not, stay with me long after I’ve forgotten every detail from most of the comics I’ve ever read. That’s reason enough to call it remarkable, and a bit special. If you are a seeker after the expertly delivered strange, unusual and unsettling, this here might be just what you are looking for.