The work of mangaka Junji Ito was recommended to me by Adam Whybray of CageWisdom (a blog almost entirely devoted to Nicholas Cage films) following my review of Charles Burns’ graphic novel Black Hole. After looking up his series Uzumaki online, I instantly became a fan. Aside from the first chapter, I read it all in one sitting and enjoyed every second. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something this fun. Uzumaki isn’t one of those annoyingly self-referential horror stories, and while it does get gory, it’s never nasty. It’s just a well-written manga with gorgeous art that manages to be perfectly engaging without taking itself too seriously.
I am not a fan of small towns. Cities are often seen as more stressful, but I find it to be the exact opposite. Growing up in a rural environment can take a serious toll on your sanity. One of the many things I love about finally being in college is that I get to leave my small town behind, though not yet permanently. I’ll still be spending my summer there, but I don’t go out much anyway, so I can just stay in my room and (try to) pretend I’m somewhere else. I find small towns to be among the ugliest places in the universe, not to mention incredibly unsafe. The thing about them is that they devolve. As a child, you don’t realise how bad they are, but once you get older, they just seem to become worse and worse. Everybody wants to leave, but some never will. Even if they do manage to get out, they’ll still belong there. The violence and/or trite nonsense of a small town will have permanently tainted them. I really hope I don’t end up that way, but even if I don’t it will still have left its mark. When reading or writing about cities, I find it hard to picture those urban landscapes in my head, because this wretched place I was brought up in is trying to sap any traces of creativity I might have. (I didn’t have much to begin with.) It’s like a constant, awful spiral. And I feel like Ito understands this. I’m a fan of applicability, so I’m not trying to say that he intentionally made it about this, but rather than it can be read this way, or at least that it’s possible to find some parallels. (I try to avoid stories that are explicitly about something, because I find stories that could be about many things, or simply have meaning in themselves to be far more interesting.)
Uzumaki begins with one man becoming obsessed with spirals. As this obsession escalates, it ends up affecting the rest of the town, resulting in a slippery (spiral-shaped) slope that ultimately descends into an ordered state of chaos. It really is clever how Ito kept on building up everything, slowly moving from creepy episodes in the style of urban legends to full-scale eldritch horror. With each chapter, I was wondering what he was going to do next, and I was never disappointed. For the first two volumes, the series follows a monster-of-the-week format, with one or two chapters dedicated to some sort of new spiral-themed threat. By the final third, though, the plot starts winding tighter, as everything begins coming and we actually see the consequences of all the weird events that have been occurring. Seeing how it’s all taking place in a small community, often with the same people in the middle, it’s hardly surprising that all of the strangeness begins taking its toll on the town. Not only are spirals haunting the town, they’re physically infecting it too.
Because of this obsession with patterns, Uzumaki reminds me a lot of the short story Details, by China Mieville. Details is also concerned with patterns, though it approaches the concept in a slightly different way. The similarities don’t end there, though. Mieville is part of a movement called the New Weird. While it seems to be dying out a little bit now, the New Weird was all about writing challenging and original Speculative Fiction that was often both literary and pulpy. It took influence from the genre known as Weird Fiction that came before it, which also seems to have inspired Ito. There’s even an article on Uzumaki in Weird Fiction Review. What makes Uzumaki work is that it is entertaining, but at the same time it isn’t some boring escapist piece. Junji Ito clearly had a lot of fun coming up with all the different monsters and supernatural perils, and he’s a talented enough storyteller to throw them at the reader without seeming repetitive.
It helps that Uzumaki has both engaging characters and great art. Kirie is now one of my favourite manga protagonists, mostly because she’s the only sane woman in a town that’s slowly going crazy. Often, she’s an observer, but Kirie does manage to keep some of the madness at bay. She’s not totally immune to the spirals, either (one of my favourite parts is where the patterns start appearing in her own hair), but manages to survive thanks to common sense and some willing suspension of disbelief. I like how she’s been thrown into the middle of all of this, and even though she can’t do anything to stop it, she still tries her best to do something at least. The main reason she does find herself in the middle of it all is thanks to her boyfriend Shuichi, whose father and mother were at the heart of the trouble. At first, I found Shuichi himself kind of annoying since he spends a lot of time moping, but gradually I began to like him almost as much. Shuichi is in constant danger of ending up like his parents, as he too is becoming obsessed. However, he’s trying to turn his obsession into something more positive. While Kirie does most of the work, Shuichi does provide her a lot of support along the way, and their love for each other manages to keep her going.
As for the artwork, it is beautiful. Ito doesn’t juxtapose this beauty with the grotesque, but rather he combines the two, which makes for a beguiling visual style. The amount of research he did for the series is obvious, as he manages to depict spirals in all possible forms and environments. One of my favourite scenes was when two young lovers come across a pair of snakes mating, a rare moment of calm that is at first horrifying but upon closer inspection actually kind of pretty.