Uzumaki / Junji Ito
It took me way too long to realize that as much as I might like the idea of horror I don’t really care for it much in practice. This is largely because many of the people I hung out with in college really liked horror movies. As a result, I watched a lot of horror movies. Even after college I still tried to convince myself that I liked the genre. It took longer than I’d like to admit for me to realize that I didn’t have to force myself to sit through media I didn’t enjoy because I thought that was what I was supposed to like.
I still like the genre in theory. It competes with science fiction for the “genre best suited for social commentary” award. It’s a genre where imagination is allowed to operate more freely than in other genres, where there are deeply entrenched tropes that tend to limit one to either following them or deconstructing them. Not to say that horror doesn’t have its own set of clichés (see the interesting but not exactly thought-provoking Cabin in the woods) but that in many cases there’s more room for experimentation. Theoretically this is also true of science fiction, fantasy, and graphic fiction in general but in practice the Golden Age problem shows up frequently.
I also like horror because on a fundamental basis it tends towards stories about people trying to survive in a universe that is at best wholly indifferent to them. There’s a sense that slasher films are like mystery novels in that they fundamentally serve to uphold social norms as those who are visibly or behaviorally different are murdered in creative ways (once again, see Cabin in the woods, as it serves a useful function as ur-text for the slasher genre). I’m more tempted to read them as an indictment of the way society as a whole punishes difference and enforces conformity and adherence to “appropriate” social norms (where being a visible minority or sexually active gets you killed first).
So in general I don’t really watch many horror movies. Living with someone with a low threshold for terror means I don’t have many opportunities anyways (not that I’d seek out opportunities at this point). I’ll check one out once or twice a year but in general Doctor Who is as scary as things get at home. I’ve also found that the more I’m exposed to real-life horrors the lower my tolerance is for fictional ones.
Which brings me to the actual subject of this post, Uzumaki. Originally published in 1998-1999, Uzumaki is the story of a small town plagued by spirals.
A small town in Japan experiences a series of strange events involving spirals. From snails to hair to smoke, spirals plague the town and its inhabitants. Kirie Goshima* and her boyfriend Shuichi Sato* appear, at least initially, to be the only people in town to realize that something very wrong is happening.
*Yes, purists I’m using the Anglicized name order. The English translation does it that way so I’m just reporting the names as presented in the book itself.
So how is it?
Junji Ito is a genius. I’m not sure if he’s more well known in the US for Tomie or Uzumaki, but Uzumaki is the more accessible work. Regardless, both are excellent and some of the finest horror around.
A huge part of why Uzumaki succeeds is down to Ito’s art. The artwork is remarkably clean, almost like a Japanese adaptation of the ligne claire style of Franco-Belgian BD. It works very well for horror, as it renders the complex supernatural events instantly readable. The general lack of excess linework also enables Ito to make the supernatural clearly identifiable with scratchy, ballpoint-style shading. It emphasizes the contrast between the mundane lives of the characters with the unfathomable menace of the spiral shape. There’s a particularly interesting panel in the second volume whose background features an homage to van Gogh’s Starry night with a sinister twist.
Uzumaki presents frankly bizarre events in a straightforward style that works astoundingly well. Ito uses the exact same art style in the semi-autobiographical Cat diary, a story about moving in with his fiancée and gradually becoming a “cat person” (in the “I like cats” sense, not in the “I am half hue-mon half cat”). The same style that makes Uzumaki so eerie makes the day-to-day struggles of living with cats hilarious.
For the majority of the series Uzumaki is episodic. It’s easy to pick up and read just one chapter. Each story is carefully paced and concludes on a disconcerting note that’s perfect for horror. Uzumaki does share the problem that exists in almost all serialized manga republished as tankobon: the structure of each chapter is fairly similar which may bore some readers. Around the beginning of the third volume the story becomes more cohesive as events come to a head, and the various bizarre occurrences of the earlier episodes converge towards a resolution that is satisfying without relying on explaining away too many of the mysteries. In a sense, the series itself is a spiral as things begin happening faster and faster, getting closer and closer together until everything collapses into a single point.
Uzumaki is horror of the weird fiction style. Manga is a medium wonderfully suited to the style and Ito is a master. Uzumaki is the best horror comic I’ve encountered and one of the best manga I’ve read full stop.
The YA Library Association puts Uzumaki on their top 10 list of graphic novels. If that’s not a sufficiently strong recommendation, the fact that it’s complete in 3 tankobon should also be appealing as it enables libraries to actually have the whole series without devoting absurd amounts of shelfspace to one title. It also makes it easier to recommend as it requires less of an investment.
From a less collection-development oriented perspective, Tomie’s a good recommendation for horror fans looking to branch out and is a decent starting point for those without much familiarity with manga.
Other titles worth checking out are Ito’s Tomie (also complete in 3 volumes) and Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill’s Locke & Key. Novel-wise, Koji Suzuki’s Ring trilogy treads some of the same thematic ground but in a less creative way and the resolution to that story is notably disappointing. I haven’t seen the films so I can’t comment on how well they work.
Those who like Ito’s art style but don’t care for horror should check out Junji Ito’s cat diary : Yon & Mu where Ito writes about moving in with his fiancée and her cat in the style of a horror story.