Spiralling into insanity, looking at Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki

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I’ve been reading a lot of manga lately. In the past, I’d go through brief fits of reading the stuff, but it always felt temporary, like a fling while my romance with anime hit the buffers. This time, it’s totally different; I’m ready to devour as much as I can find.
By and large, anime is defined by its limitations; it only looks as good as the money spent on it, but manga is typically drawn by one talented artist; someone with a consistent vision, capable of imagining a fantastic landscape without ever needing to worry about budgets and frame-rates. It’s an untainted, purer style of story-telling, burdened only by the singular abilities of its author.

With my above enthusiasm in-tow, the first stopping point on this fresh journey into the black/white country of comics was always clear; Uzumaki by horror maven Junji Ito. Given I’m still reeling in claustrophobia thanks to his deliciously weird short-story “The Enigma of Amigara Fault“, the idea of slipping into his most acclaimed work to date was an ambition I’ve held for many months.

Uzumaki is the Japanese word for “spiral”. If you know your anime, it will immediately conjure up two obvious references; the main character of Naruto is named “Uzumaki Naruto” and, of course, spirals (and anti-spirals) represent living energy, perhaps even the soul itself, in the excellent Gurren Lagann. I’m not sure why this symbol in particular seems so prevalent in Japanese culture, but Ito’s sinister ideas are quite persuasive. Spirals are obsession.

The dread conjured by completing Uzumaki was similar to the fright I felt when reading of Africa’s army ants. These aggressive colonies, which number in the millions, are constantly on the move. They form a “living architecture”, using their own bodies to build bridges and protective walls against the ravages of the African climate. They feed on almost anything by hunting en-mass, crawling over their prey in their millions and stripping it to the bone; even animals as big as horses have fell victim. Just reading about them, I’m disturbed by their unrelenting aggression and ambiguous intelligence. There is no point in trying to understand their intentions, it’s simply a case of running for your dear life, and that’s Uzumaki in a nut-shell too. A town haunted by a faceless, creeping, crawling malevolence, an unfathomable, undiscriminating curse hell-bent on the total destruction of every man, woman and child.

Beginning in a fine fashion then, the first chapter is brilliantly weird. To the utter bemusement of his relatively normal family, a typical Japanese salary-man is suddenly obsessed with spirals; at first he’s satisfied by merely staring into a snail’s shell, but as his mind gradually unhinges, he starts experimenting with his body too. He doesn’t simply admire the spiral, he wants to become one.

The first two volumes (out of three) are fairly episodic, making up a series of bizarre encounters with the spiral obsession, most of which range from the darkly comic to out-right disgusting. When I say the latter, I’m talking about cannibalistic pregnant women and insane doctors feeding their hungry patients umbilical cords and placenta that, for whatever reason, take root and grow when chopped from newly-born babies; and there’s more, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. All of the horror in Uzumaki is, as is Ito’s signature style, sticky and organic; we’re supposed to be sickened, disturbed and freaked by the way he twists and contorts the apparently flexible human body to new extremes.

uzumaki_350.jpgIt would be fair to say that I enjoyed the first two volumes, but they were merely fun for the sake of horror; I felt nothing for the characters, and the thread-bare plot offered little more than an uneven patch-work of horrific adventures. That is to say, I wasn’t heading into the third (and final) volume over-flowing with enthusiasm, yet it’s a quite remarkable end.

The entire town, now well beyond rescue, has been completely smashed by the dreaded curse. The last few survivors are starved and confused, tightly grouped together in small wooden huts, hiding from the many terrors roaming the streets outside, including tribes of cruel children capable of riding giant twisters through the wretched remains of modern civilisation. These last few chapters are post-apocalyptic, bereft of hope and beautiful; the landscape is desolate and open, forcing a real fear of loneliness on this reader that’s far more potent than the cheap thrills of earlier volumes.

Ito’s true strength isn’t necessarily his detailed depictions of gore, but his manipulation of human nature, the way he exploits our physical relationship with life and our worries of the unknown; he knows what’s lurking in the darkest caverns of reality, willing to fathom the moon-lit shadows being cast across our bedroom walls.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

13 thoughts on “Spiralling into insanity, looking at Junji Ito’s horror manga Uzumaki”

  1. I’ll have to give this a read sometime soon, since I found Gyo and its two bonus stories so enjoyable. Although ‘psychological’ horror is more my thing, Ito is proof that there’s still potential in ‘visceral’ fare, even alongside that more intellectual stuff.

    I love his detailed art style of course – the character designs have a lifelike appearance and the eyes in particular are very well drawn – but from what I’ve read of his work, he seems to have nailed what unnerves people at a much more primeval level. Unlike Hitchcock, Lynch and Cronenberg, who go for the mind-trip thriller route, Ito seems to draw terror from more irrational and almost animalistic emotions of fear and revulsion…even when the subject matter is bizarre to the point of being cheesy (the B-movie premise of Gyo is a case in point…I really need to get around to blogging the second volume).

    I can’t say I’m a big manga reader either, but after finishing Death Note and Gyo I’ve spurred myself into resuming Monster and Kare Kano…there’s something about good ol’ fashioned reading I guess, whether it’s written prose of a graphic novel.

  2. Yeah, I try to make an effort to read, if just to maintain my own eye for writing and language. Now that I’ve finished Uzumaki, I’ve moved onto 20th Century Boys; the latest masterpiece from the author of Monster. It’s been really good so far, and very reminiscent of the way he’d suddenly twist a seemingly “nice bloke” into a murderous psychopath. 22 volumes, so it looks rather epic :)

    Also, I’ve bought a bunch of (4 or 5) “serious business” anime books containing various scholarly articles and critiques. I’m interested in reading such high concept ideas that are riffing off of anime.

  3. I don’t think I’ll be reading this (horror tends to leave me, well, horrified) but the use of the spiral is interesting. It obviously offers the artist a lot of scope (with the intestines, snail shells etc.) while also symbolising obsession, madness (and addiction – newspapers talk of celebrities ‘spiralling downward’?). Sounds like the horror of the inhuman as opposed to the horror of the almost-human.

    As an aside, did you know that ‘terrorist’ used to mean ‘an author of gothic horror novels’?

  4. “he knows what’s lurking in the darkest caverns of reality, willing to fathom the moon-lit shadows being cast across our bedroom walls.”

    LOL. Such a cliche and overused sentence. I think I’ve seen it used on most horror-based reviews.

  5. There’s a movie based on this manga…although probably very loosely because I don’t remember the umbilical cords that grow XD It’s pretty cheaply made and sometimes just plain hilarious because of the bad effects, but certain parts are very creepy and almost make me want to barf…

    ask for Uzumaki at blockbuster and they should have it hidden away somewhere.

  6. Actually, I’ve already picked up the movie, but I’m yet to see it. Also, I’m not surprised they’ve changed a few of the more “bizarre” elements that would be expensive/hard to film with little or no money (take note, Japanese live action Death Note). I had a quick skip through it earlier and it seems to involve the first family story line, probably including the mother stabbing her own ear-drums due to its spiral shape. Icky! :)

  7. i’m so corious about uzumaki movie. i have seen a lot of uzumaki movie picture in the internet. but i can’t find it in the DVD store in my country in indonesia. if you all know about the store that sells an uzumaki spiral movie in indonesia or in singapore and malaysia please tell me about it. i really want to watch this movie. i had read the comics. and i.m still courios…….
    so please tell me if you know about the store….

    thank you very much
    (sorry, my english is not very good)

  8. Actually, the entire thing is available on youtube. ALthough I loved the manga, the movie was quite disappointing. I don’t recommend anyone bothers watching it. Read the manga though! Absolutely mindboggling.

  9. I have read the manga!!1 I can’t stop reading it!

    I finished it in a total of 1 day ahahaha

    now im downloading the movie

    i am also reading his other mangas

  10. Uzumaki is the truest and most inventive use of form in horror ever. The symbolism is not overwraught, and is yet deeply disturbing. What is more terrifying than the end? Junji Ito answers this: the only thing more terrifying than the end is an infinite reduction into something inhuman. And yet Junji Ito manages to capture something beautiful about the human condition in the climax of his tale. Though the protagonists must give themselves up to the inevitable, they are shown entertwined with one another. In a way they retained themselves from the spiral by creating their own spiral. If you liked Uzumaki, find a copy of Vol 1 and 2 of Gyo where Ito presents an entirely different but equally poignant view. It is much horror to get through to the end of this tale, and to the people in it just for the gore or action it may seem anti-climactic and leave you scratching your head. Now the much lauded Tomie tales I could give or take. I’m guessing it has a deeper root in Japanese culture that I do not understand, but for me they fail emotionally and on a horror level. Read Gyo though! It is revolting on many levels, but you will realise at the end, that all the gore and revoltishness was nescesary to frame meaning to the final subtlely tender scene on the cliff-top.

  11. I picked this series up a year or so ago, and I’m glad to see that someone else enjoyed it so thouroughly. This story takes a while to settle. When I first finished it, I thought the series was fun and enchanting and certainly disturbing, but not likely to be anything I would remember for a long time. Now, I’m so intrigued by the idea that I’m attempting my own spiral-inspired horror story. We’ll see if it manages to live up to Ito’s terrifying impression; for now, I’m just glad that there is still some truly horrifying horror in the world.

  12. THIS MOVIE IS REALLY GOOD: IT CHANGED MY VISION OF LIFE: VERY THOUGHTFUL I ENJOYED THE ANCIENT REFERENCES AND THE TREATMENT THEY GAVE TO THEM, THE ENDING IS MYSTERIOUS JUST ENOUGH FOR ME. MOVIE FULL IS ON YOUTUBE PLEASE WATCH SORRY FOR MY ENGLISH I AM FROM MOLDOVA THANKS

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