Junji Ito’s Uzumaki is the only horror manga I’ve read so far that had me doing double-takes at my surroundings for days after I was done with it. That reflects nicely on its ability to mess with people’s heads — which is, after all, what a good horror story does. Did it scare you? Good! If not, then it’s hardly much of a horror story.
What makes Uzumaki singularly unnerving is that it’s not about some easy bête noir like a killer with a machete, but about a pattern that compels obsession and madness among all those who fall under its spell. That makes it all the more impersonal, and in turn, all the more frightening: you can probably kill a monster, and you can certainly kill a man, but how do you stop something that has no inherent form, that can manifest in the most innocuous of places, and that causes its victims to be the agents of their own destruction?
As anyone who’s read Naruto probably knows by now, uzumaki means spiral — or more precisely, vortex, as in a whirpool or a tornado. For some as-yet-unknown reason the foggy seaside town of Kurôzu-cho has become “cursed by the spiral,” as teenager Shuichi puts it. He’s a reserved young man who’s got good reason to believe the spiral has cursed his town: for one, his father’s become progressively obsessed with the pattern, collecting everything he can find that manifests it. “Conch shells, mosquito-repellent coils, Scotch tape, ammonite fossils,” he rhapsodizes to anyone who’ll listen, and will stare at a snail for hours or swirl his bathwater into a spiral rather than go to work.
Shuichi’s girlfriend, Kirie (the narrator of the story), isn’t sure what to make of all this — at least until Shuichi’s father approaches her dad, a potter, and begs him to craft something that will “manifest the spiral,” as he puts it in his wild-eyed way. Said masterwork comes a little too late — Shuichi’s dad comes completely unglued when his wife throws out his collection of spiral objects, and he commits suicide by mangling himself.
When his corpse is cremated, the ashes create — you guessed it — a massive whirl that hangs over the town and funnels itself into a stagnant pond. His wife is subsequently consumed by a phobia of all things spiral, and mutilates herself horribly when she realizes there’s been a spiral inside her own head all along. (Hint: check a diagram of the inner ear.)
Each chapter explores another bizarre wrinkle in the ever-expanding curse of the spiral — some linked only tenuously to the general concept, while others pick up where the implications of a previous bit of ghastliness left off. Kirie’s father hauls up clay from a pond where the ashes touched down, fires it up in his kiln, and out come a parade of grotesque blobs bearing patterns that look too much like the screaming faces of tortured souls for anyone’s comfort. When Kirie’s hair spontaneously kinks up in spirals and draws everyone’s attention, a jealous classmate inspires her hair to do the same thing, and the two of them duel it out in the schoolyard. Another girl with a tiny scar on her forehead inspires attention as well — the sort of fascination reserved for the spiral, which she soon manifests in her own ghastly way. Through it all, Shuichi himself slides further and further into his own kind of madness, while Kirie simply tries to keep her chin up, maintain a semblance of normalcy and not lose it entirely. (Early on Shuichi begs her to flee with him, but Kirie is not as willing to simply uproot herself from her home and her family, however wretched it may have become.)
It’s hard to make horror work without becoming completely absurd — the more outlandish it is, the more you run the risk of simply making the audience giggle instead of feel dread. Uzumaki avoids that trap by staying fiercely and perversely inventive with each new manifestation of the spiral curse. It’s also not a one-note production: while some chapters are calculatedly terrifying, others (e.g., the hair duel) are cast more as perverse black humor. That’s a big part of what gives the story such staying power — you never know which way this particular whirpool is going to spin next.
Uzumaki’s maddening visuals cry out to be adapted into a film, and in fact they have: a live-action movie was adapted very loosely from the comic back in 2000. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good: it lifted bits and pieces of the original comic, stitched them together in no particular fashion and ended on a wholly haphazard note — probably because it was filmed before the comic had concluded its run. Also, as I read Uzumaki I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s seminal short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, also about a seemingly innocuous thing that drives someone to madness — and right there on the cover of the Dover Thrift Edition of the book, slightly left of center near the bottom, is a spiral pattern that seems to be preparing to suck in everything around it.
In the time since its original publication, Uzumaki has become something of a legend in horror manga, a point of reference for many others to follow suit. The reputation’s entirely deserved, and now you can get sucked into the vortex yourself without having to hunt for a used copy.