I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of horror stories; they’re often derivative and/or dumb teen-orientated efforts so it takes a real classic of the genre to get my attention. I much prefer something more psychological than supernatural anyway because the nature of what’s frightening is more convincing – generally speaking the closer it is to reality, the scarier I find it to be. I’ve covered this before but my stance is pretty much the same now.
Junji Ito’s graphic novels really fall into the former category: that of horror that goes for the gut rather than the brain. His two-parter Gyo was a freaky, sickening exercise in graphic shocks that were inventive, disgusting and quite a fun read. In terms of sophistication though, it didn’t score as highly: the concept was original, bizarre but not something to be taken altogether seriously (“Fish with legs! Fish with legs! Fish with leeegs!”). His slightly longer effort Uzamaki is a more clever and ultimately more satisfying affair that is more effective in scaring the living crap out of the reader.
The concept is one of those “Why didn’t anyone think of this before?” types in that a simple idea makes for a string of whacked-out and repulsive tales that build into a terrifying finale that is unpredictable and surprisingly effective. Basically Ito makes spirals scary. Scary as in, you see spirals everywhere after you’ve finished reading and they bring back memories of what you’ve just read. After finishing the final volume I made myself a cup of coffee and after stirring the milk in I looked absentmindedly into the mug and thought “Whoah, a spiral!” Never before has a horror story worked its way into my subconscious like this one did.
Spirals are indeed everywhere but Ito deserves kudos for noticing a fact that’s so obvious that many of us, ironically, probably don’t even notice. The premise involves taking something innocuous and widespread – like Daphne de Maurier did with The Birds and Ring did with television sets and VCRs – and making it threatening and creepy. As ubiquitous as the spiral shape is in the natural and man-made world it is unique, hypnotic and fascinating; something that Uzumaki plays up to the full.
Each stand-alone story focuses on the town of Kurôzu-cho and how various inhabitants are becoming obsessed with spirals in a variety of ways; it’s obvious that something is fundamentally amiss with the place and this nameless, faceless something is screwing with people’s minds in a very literal sense. Kire Goshima and her boyfriend Shuichi Saito are especially worried about how this spiral obsession is affecting the behaviour of their families and friends, as the spirals that are found in so many aspects of everyday life begin to reach out and take away their sanity.
The separate story arcs appear to be unrelated but all offer a facet of the town’s spiral obsession and offer some genuine shocks of their own. Ito’s art style is of the detailed seinen school like Inio Asano in that both the backgrounds and character designs are lifelike and not stylised in the classic saucer-eyed manga style. It goes without saying that this greatly enhances the “urgh!” factor when things get messy since the people involved and the world they live in look so real, increasing the juxtaposition between normal and horrific even further.
That is to say that the disfigurements and transformations (the phrase “I want to be a spiral!” is even more chilling when you see Ito’s depictions of it) are thoroughly disgusting yet believable. I found the snail-people in particular to be especially repulsive, although the concept of the spiral allows for minds and bodies alike to be literally twisted and distorted in a variety of ways whose extent is only evident after reading through to the end.
I must admit that some of the stories were a bit on the daft side – with subject matter like this Ito treads a fine line between terrifying and ridiculous so it’s inevitable that some work better than others. Nevertheless the final arc does have what it takes to deliver on the finale and explain things, if only in a vague way; it eventually becomes clear that the stand-alone stories were building up the tension and suspense for the final revelation – a slow wind-up is itself like a spiral actually.
In terms of gross-out shocks Uzumaki is a rival for Gyo but it wins out in terms of delivering slightly more than visceral instances of shock and disgust. Almost all of the arcs revolve (sic) around the concept of spirals but human traits such as pride, obsession, vanity and prejudice feel like catalysts for the Spiral Into Horror; the underlying cause of the chaos, be it supernatural, metaphysical or what have you, is in the shadows but the manifestations are partly due to human nature. This makes it more frightening than a simple horror tale for me, in the same way that the unnatural origins of Gyo‘s Fish With Legs did. There’s a bit of social commentary and character study at work here, which make it a more well-rounded story.
Horror manga isn’t for everyone and some people’s tolerance levels for outrageous premises might be a bit stretched by seeing people going insane over a geometric shape. More so than the idea of Fish With Legs however, Uzumaki and its spirals worked better for me than I expected; if nothing else every plot development took me by surprise, which is no mean feat in a genre that often seems to have already been exhausted long ago. It goes without saying that this not for the squeamish, right?