There is a deep, powerful vein of weirdness that runs through many excellent works within the mediums of manga and anime, so much so that I really wish more American readers otherwise unfamiliar with these mediums could encounter these stories for themselves. Such is the case with Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, which has recently been published in an omnibus edition by Viz Media. Those readers familiar with the world of manga – especially those that read manga and frequent this site – are no doubt already familiar with Ito’s reputation as a master of horror manga, with Uzumaki often considered his magnum opus. After reading Uzumaki in its entirety, I can assure readers that this status is rightfully deserved.
The story follows what must seem like a bizarre, absurd premise even by the standards of weird fiction. A small Japanese town is “infested by spirals.” This means spiral shapes begin to appear everywhere: blades of grass, clouds, pottery baking in a kiln, whirlpools in creeks. The story quickly becomes unnerving once townspeople begin obsessing over the spirals, such as Mr. Saito, the father of Shuichi Saito, one of the main characters. Mr. Saito commits acts like stopping in the middle of streets to watch snails for hours and stocking a room in his house dedicated to anything with a spiral shape drawn, carved, or otherwise embedded in or on it. This situation becomes even more menacing when Mr. Saito begins to distort his own body to assume spiral shapes, which leads to some truly disturbing images of the horrifying pliability of the human body, culminating in an iconically nightmarish scene that will have a profound effect on how you view personal baths.
This scene might be enough to end a story with for other writers or manga-ka, but Ito is only getting started here. This is the first of nineteen chapters in Uzumaki, each installment seemingly becoming more creepy, unsettling, astonishing, and even darkly beautiful than the last.
That beauty comes in through the art of Ito, which must be seen to be believed. Ito eschews an exaggerated style for the most part, sticking instead to a straightforward anatomical style for his characters and an equally naturalistic style for their environment. In simple, clean black and white, Ito’s art displays impressive precision and craftsmanship. The imagination driving that art, meanwhile, is among the strangest and darkest I’ve encountered in manga, much less anywhere else. People metamorphose into snails, their shells slowly rising through their shirts like mounds upon their backs, or twine their bodies around one another like rope. The style and quality of Ito’s art absolutely sells the events of the story and capably suspends disbelief, instead sucking you into the world of Uzumaki so much so that you cease to think this couldn’t possibly happen and instead wonder how much more horrifying could this possibly get?
The story of Uzumaki itself bears examination as well, for mostly positive reasons. The episodic nature of the story might feel a bit sprawling or loose for some, but it’s crucial to remember that this was originally published in serialized form, as most manga are. The story itself marks Uzumaki as a work worthy of being read by any weird fiction aficionado, and in fact it moves through several notable weird “phases.” I don’t want to spoil the reading experience of the story, but I will say that in its second half Uzumaki begins to slowly and surely reveal its true narrative shape as a cosmic horror story, surprisingly bleak and existential given the obvious focus on more explicitly grotesque horrors elsewhere in its chapters. The world of Uzumaki is an ultimately dark one. This is not a feel-good story by any means, but you will hopefully find yourself reaching a kind of catharsis or reward nevertheless.
Viz Media should be commended for bringing Uzumaki to English language audiences in a fully collected form, especially one as sturdy and presentable as this. Taken as a whole, Uzumaki is at the very least a dark, imaginative trip into a universe both strange and familiar, told via excellent art that awes and repulses in seemingly equal measure. Readers of weird fiction who have yet to sample the world of manga would be well-served in seeking out Uzumaki and experiencing it for themselves. One piece of advice, though: keep any obsession with spirals that you may develop contained to this book. There might be consequences otherwise.