As a life long fan of all things horror, it seemed right to come up with a mini-column for the month of October, leading up to Halloween, with some of my personal favorites from the world of horror comics. I want to discuss the works through all of their components – the writing, the art, the ideas and themes; to interrogate what makes this particular comic book series or graphic novel a standout in the horror genre. I really want to delve into titles that maybe haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve, or simply have had some years out of the spotlight. “Uzumaki,” which ran from 1998-1999, is one of the best horror mangas by one of Japan’s greatest horror authors, Junji Ito.
Written & Illustrated by Junji Ito
English Translation Lettered by Susan Daigle-Leach
Kurouzu-cho is a small, fog shrouded, village on the coast of Japan. From the outside everything about this small town seems fairly ordinary, but once it allows you a closer look, it becomes clear that there is nothing ordinary or safe about it. Kurouzu-cho is haunted, but it isn’t haunted by a ghost or a demon, it is haunted by a shape – a pattern: Uzumaki.
The Uzumaki is a spiral, the secret shape that some believe controls many aspects of this world, and others. What seems like an innocuous concept, becomes so much more disturbing as the pages turn. This limited series follows Kirie Goshima, a smart, empathetic, and moderately popular high school student and her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito. Shuichi is well-liked, intelligent, but becoming increasingly withdrawn from others. Shuichi’s secret, that he will eventually share with others, is that he knows that Uzumaki is taking over their quiet little town. Because the original run of the series was released as issues, there is an episodic format at play through most of it, but the excellent through line of Kirie and Shuichi’s story is what really holds the plot together between the truly upsetting horrors in each chapter. We follow these two young heroes through the terrors forced up them and everyone around them.
Ito is a master of horror manga, and “Uzumaki” is both one of his most popular works, and without a doubt one of his best. There are few things like it in the grand scheme of the horror genre and he really lets things rip just a few pages in. The way this evil force continues to ruin lives is different with each chapter, and it is this format that keeps “Uzumaki” outside of the realm of many other supernatural J-Horror books and movies. It isn’t just a house filled with poltergeist activities, it isn’t just absolutely disgusting body horror, and it isn’t just an invisible force driving those in its path mad. It is all those things, and so much more. I am not going to go too far into any specific details because I want you to read this book and I refuse to spoil some of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen in a horror comic, and there are just far too many elements to this book to really get into it.
Ito’s writing is both matter of fact, and theatrical. It is an interesting tone that I have found to be used in a great deal of Asian horror stories. The characters are scared, beyond belief, but they also take the situation they are in with great stride. It is a cultural difference that, in many ways, is shunned in Western culture, especially in the U.S. It comes off as corny, or melodramatic, rather than simply sincere. Whereas the bulk of our horror characters may be terrified and eventually find strength to overcome the evil force, whether supernatural or not, they handle it in a more disconnected way. It’s something they really have to force themselves to both confront and understand in some way. In many Asian horror stories, this one included, the main characters are scared to death, but really come at the whole situation from an analytical point of view. “Uzumaki” does handle its characters in a way that really bridges both cultural norms which is probably why it has become a popular hit around the world.Continued below
His script is so effective and will draw you in right from the first chapter. Because he made Kirie and Shuichi both easy to sympathize with, and likable, it is very easy to get invested in their story and truly care about them. As things continue to get worse, we really are fearing for their safety, and that is the best thing you can ask for with a horror protagonist.
Drawn mostly in black and white, with just a few pages done in full color, the the overall gray tone truly captures the feeling within this cursed town. While Ito does most of his manga in black and white, many could be done in color and either format would be fine. But with “Uzumaki” the black and white is necessary. It allows for the barrier between the story and the reader to stand strong. This barrier is not a disconnect in terms of understanding and appreciation, but rather the horror is so awful, and the fantasy so bizarre, that this barrier is needed to keep us safe from darkest corners of Ito’s imagination.
Ito has an ability of drawing emotions and internal horror in a way that I have never seen done from another comic book artist. Not in this way. His use of lines and fine details to create some of the scariest transformations ever to be put on the page. There is a page turning reveal in this book that is one of the scariest things I have ever experienced in horror literature. I know that sounds like hyperbole, or simply a bad thing to claim since with all art, everyone’s reaction to things differ, but for me it is peak horror.
As the town becomes more infected and haunted, the means in which Uzumaki takes over people’s lives become more insane and outlandish. This causes some of the later chapters to be a bit too bizarre, and definitely not as scary as the majority of the series, but from start to finish, the story hardly ever loses its effectiveness, and is never anything short of bold and original.
If I’ve been Lovecraftian in my descriptions of things, it is only so you can see it and read it without knowing too much about it. Junji Ito’s “Uzumaki” is a horror masterpiece, no question. And it is a horror that must be experienced for yourself.
The best way to collect “Uzumaki” is the recently re-issued hardcover edition. It collects the entire series in one beautiful volume. If you enjoy that, Junji Ito has many other horror masterworks to choose from. There is also a film adaption from from 2000. While quite good, and incredibly faithful to the source material. There is something missing from it. It never quite achieves the level of terror or simply quality of the book. Most likely it is a lapse in translation from page to screen. And of course the movie is in full color and makes some choices in its palette and design that don’t quite work in comparison. In short, read the book, and if you need more in your life, check out the movie. Don’t enter this world doing the reverse.
I hope you enjoy “Uzumaki” as much as I have. Let us know what you think. Is it one of the scariest horror comics ever made or is it a spooky slump?