And now we come to the concluding volume of Uzumaki, which closes the series off with a boom and also gives us something remarkable for a horror story. It not only includes the usual generous amounts of terror and aghast incomprehension of the unknown (a staple item in horror from Poe to Lovecraft to Stephen King), but a certain amount of awe and fearsome wonder, too. That makes it at least one to two cuts above the usual horror story — including Junji Ito’s later work, Gyo, which started promisingly but petered out when it became clear Ito didn’t really have an ending in mind. (That didn’t make it any the less amazing to read, though.)
Uzumaki, though, comes to a very definite (if extremely grim) conclusion. In fact, the whole of the third volume almost works as a self-contained story, since much of what happens in it is set up directly in the first few pages. The “spiral curse” of the whole series is still pivotally important, but here it’s given an arena to play out in, one where the real significance of the curse doesn’t become clear — by design — until the last few pages.
At the close of the last volume, heroine Kirie survived a whirlwind that devastated her home along with most of the rest of the town. The only places left to live are a series of wretched-looking row houses, which have been strangely untouched by the ongoing chaos. Seeing no other real option, Kirie and her family move in, and what is uncomfortable at first quickly turns into an unending nightmare. When they stay, they’re afflicted with more forms of the spiral curse, such as hornlike protrusions that grow out of their hands and feet. When they try to flee, they find every possible way out of the town leads right back into it. The few who do arrive alive from the outside soon slide down into madness. (I had to force myself not to type “spiral down.”)
Things grow increasingly desperate. When people devolve into snails (as set up in the first volume), they’re killed and eaten, for lack of anything else edible. Since the row houses are the only safe places left, people pack themselves in until they turn into giant amorphous masses — all hollowed-out eyes and gaping mouths, groping hands, and no actual torsos. Rescue efforts are stopped cold before they can reach the town — there’s one eye-popping sequence where a whole fleet of ships are sucked down into a whirlpool in the ocean, like crumbs disappearing down the drain. Gangs of whirlwind-wielding toughs gleefully kill anyone who defies them. The nightmare only ends when Kirie and her boyfriend Shuichi — by now quite lost to the rest of the world in his madness — go to the dead center of the spiral and discover the true nature of the curse.
I wouldn’t dream of giving away that part of the story, but I will say that as I went into the third volume of Uzumaki, I found myself reminded of Luis Buñuel’s masterwork The Exterminating Angel. In it, the guests at a posh dinner party find themselves simply … unable to leave, and devolve from a civilized veneer into madness, cannibalism and suicide. As Buñuel put it in a title card, “From the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” Uzumaki is the same way: sure, there’s an explanation of sorts, but it’s secondary to the mere fact that all of this is happening. The curse is the curse, and in Ito’s universe trying to escape from it is as bad as succumbing to it.
The three volumes of Uzumaki together may be among the very best horror stories ever told in the manga format. In fact, like all the best horror, it jumps the tracks from simply trying to scare you and attempts instead to evoke an altered state of mind. Which is, after all, far scarier in the long run.