Kurôzu-cho, a small fogbound town on the coast of Japan, is cursed. According to Shuichi Saito, the withdrawn boyfriend of teenager Kirie Goshima, their town is haunted not by a person or being but by a pattern: uzumaki, the spiral, the hypnotic secret shape of the world. It manifests itself in everything from seashells and whirlpools in water to the spiral marks on people’s bodies, the insane obsessions of Shuichi’s father and the voice from the cochlea in our inner ear. As the madness spreads, the inhabitants of Kurôzu-cho are pulled ever deeper into a whirlpool from which there is no return!
Uzumaki is a horror manga (Japanese comic book) written and illustrated by Junji Ito. It was originally published serially in the weekly manga magazine Big Comic Spirits from 1998 to 1999. The book I am reviewing is a hardcover omnibus edition that was published in 2013. While I read comic books pretty regularly, lately I tend to avoid reviewing them. After completing Uzumaki, however, I knew I was going to make an exception. Most other comic books I read are beholden or connected to storylines that come before them, as well as others happening simultaneously. This book, however, is self-contained, telling a complete story.
Due to the story being originally published serially, the book is divided into chapters that tell individual occurrences within this small town. As a result, a lot of them feel more like short stories with a recurring setting and characters. These characters are Kirie, her family, and her boyfriend Shuichi. While it is Shuichi who first points out their town’s “spiral infestation”, his experiences soon make him reclusive. It is Kirie, also serving as out narrator, that we follow as she witnesses or finds herself the target of each strange incident. While these characters are not especially deep, I admire Kirie for her resilience and commitment to family and friends. Situations get demented in ways that I have never quite seen in art before, but she bears along regardless, refusing to buckle under the horror of it all the way Shuichi does. In a way they both represent opposing kinds of reactions (unlike panic) to impending crisis: depressed resignation and stoic resolve.
The book’s structure did a great job of capturing a sense of escalation and dread. In the beginning, the spiral curse manifests as little more than nature adhering to the pattern more than it ought to, evidenced in the grass, wind, and water. Patient zero for the curse, for lack of a better term, is Shuichi’s father, who at some point prior to the beginning of the story became obsessed with spirals. This incident reaches a crescendo with its own consequences to Shuichi’s family, but the state of the town only gets worse from there as the story continues. Spirals begin to manifest in more elaborate and bizarre ways, mesmerizing and terrorizing the populace. It is only really our main characters who seem clued in to the shape at the centre of each occurrences. Not that knowing what it is will help. Though each incident gets more intense and more permanent, what does knowing a shape is at the centre of it do in helping you stop it?
The drawback to the serial — or episodic — structure of the story, particularly among early chapters, was how formulaic they started to get. A predictable trend was set of introducing a new part of town and characters, learning about the way the spiral was infecting their lives, and the situation reaching a sort of resolution through escape, reprieve, or other means. On their own most of these chapters were actually quite good as individual stories, but reading through continuously made it feel a little too repetitive. Picking things up at a new incident with each chapter also felt a little odd when a certain incident concluded rather open-endedly. There was no evidence of the problem going away on its own, yet it doesn’t appear or get mentioned again. People just returned to their lives despite the danger seemingly not going anywhere. My issues are again particular to the earlier chapters, as there does reach a point in the escalation of events where returning to normal life is no longer possible.
These small gripes aside, I want to get into this book’s real strong suit, which is the art. Ito’s art style is generally more realistic than other manga you may have seen, which is something I appreciated. The setting is rather mundane for the most part, but he has a particular talent for making everyday people and settings look unsettling or foreboding when he wants them to. With the curse itself, you may be thinking that a town cursed by spirals is a silly concept, and I’m inclined to agree if you consider the idea on paper. However, silly things twisted in the right way can be particularly creepy. The amount of disturbed imagination that goes into this book is astounding. The shape factors into many everyday things, some obvious and others not so much, and the ways he distorts them into something horrific are masterful. Many illustrations are harrowing, showing bodies, nature, and structures figuratively and/or literally warped in ways I’d have never imagined myself. His ability to arrange his panels to build suspense is especially strong as well, often exploiting the act of a page-turn to great effect.
Uzumaki is a book a friend has urged me to read for a while, and I’m thrilled that I finally did. It’s a wonderfully eldritch tale of mysterious forces influencing the world in bizarre and horrific ways, the origins of which defy explanation. You do get a peak into the centre of the spiral, as it were, but even that is only a glimpse at the what, not the how or the why. Whether manga/comic books are your thing or not, if you’ve got a taste for grotesque, mind-bending horror, definitely check this book out.