Welcome to the IMPACT series where I dissect notable and iconic sequences from games and movies, and how they broadened my mind and left a lasting impression on me, years to come.
Recommended to me by a friend, Uzumaki by Junji Ito was one of the first manga I had read since my days in high school, having fallen out of love with the style and genre (hint: too many goddamn volumes).
To put it bluntly … I was thoroughly under-prepared for what was to come.
A Lovecraftian styled horror, based around the central theme of spirals, which are a common motif in Japanese culture (fishcakes to Zen gardens), Uzukami is a brilliant piece of work by renowned horror mangaka Junji Ito.
The manga deftly balances creative ways to twist the innocent symbol of a spiral with a foreboding atmosphere, to create body horror artwork that showcases Ito’s incredible visual style, blurring the line between horror and beauty.
The story follows Kirie, a young woman trapped in her coastal town, Kurozou-cho, as supernatural spirals begin to take over the denizens and twist them in increasingly bizarre ways.
Uzumaki kept me up for 2 nights, a no small feat. The story gripped me so thoroughly that I almost read all 3 volumes in a single sitting, after my first initial shock.
Like any good book, Uzumaki works best in a written format. Whilst I was unable to track down a physical copy, I was grateful that an online version kept the format relatively the same. What made Uzumaki work so particularly well, as the fact that it actually understands the actual concept of turning a page to properly shock you.
The end of the first initial chapter, ended with such a spectacularly gruesome, creative and bizarre image that I couldn’t actually stomach reading another page.
I had to stop and literally stare, my eyes transfixed by what I was looking at.
In a lot of ways, Junji Ito’s style remind me of H.R. Giger. Both men are capable of creating such twisted and bizarrely beautiful forms that your mind is unable to fully comprehend all the details that are being shown to you.
In Ito though, there is a simplistic beauty to his work, in contrast to Giger’s overly detailed art. Ito grabs you with his incredible eye for the right detail, so that his artistic creations get all the horrific glory they deserve amongst the more traditional beauty of his backgrounds and main leads.
In particular, there is an lovely juxtaposition Ito employs in all of his work, from Tomie to The Enigma at Amigara Fault. In all of his work, people are drawn beautifully, with particular attention paid to the hair, eyes and facial expressions. There is a simplistic faithfulness to the human expression, that is magnified further when people are screaming or reacting in horror to what is happening. It is this ability to craft people with varying details, from glasses, larger noses or different hair that make Junji Ito’s worlds seem realistic, thus magnifying the horror of the supernatural that occurs within them.
I was particularly struck by the accuracy in the way how Ito drew Shuichi‘s slow descent into nihilistic depression, that is only stirred momentarily by his love for Kirie.
Kirie in particular impressed me. I am always in awe at how beautiful the women in Ito’s worlds look. There is a tragic innocence to her beauty that only heighten the horror around her and make you long for her to escape intact, away from the situation she finds herself in.
In a lot of ways, Junji Ito’s artwork reminds me of Japanese aesthetic and style in general. Simplicity and obsessive attention to detail in equal measure, harmony achieved through a marriage of simplicity and complexity.
Beyond the obvious exposure to Japanese Horror which is, like everything concerning the Land of the Rising Sun, solely unique to the Japanese culture, Uzumaki made me appreciate the art of turning a page.
I realise now that there is a conscious decision to turn a page and actually be willing to commit yourself to what surprise is on the next page.
I was so used to what I call the Matthew Reilly effect, where I am so hooked into the pace of the story, that pages almost seem to flip themselves. I call it the Matthew Reilly effect, because his “airplane thrillers”, books you can read in a single sitting on a flight, are so furiously paced that you almost look like a adrenaline junkie reading his novels.
His books are like the ultimate, fast paced thrillers … they hit you so hard and fast, you’re on the floor gasping before you even register what just happened.
With Uzumaki I experienced the opposite. I didn’t want to see what was on the next page. Each page turn was a decision made purely out of morbid curiosity. I was afraid of what I was going to see, my imagination unable to keep pace with the twisted genius of Ito.
In some respects, reading a Junji Ito book is a lot like exploring abandoned buildings. You have absolutely no idea what is around the corner. But it is dark, moody, terrifying and somehow your feet propel you forward despite the dangers.
You approach each corner, expecting the worst, slowly and with a fast-beating heart.
Only in Uzumaki, you actually encounter something way worse than a squatter asleep in a corner of a room.
Another thing I learned to appreciate is the way how body horror works. What I am terrified of the Alien in the film Alien, isn’t the actual creature itself. It is the fact that it inserts its’ bizarre appendage inside of you and creates something inside of you, that burst out of your chest.
Body horror in Uzumaki takes a whole new meaning, with snails, hair, pseudo-cannibalism, pregnancy and drills. Ito even throws in a goddamn Jack-In-The-Box horror gimmick that never made me look at a car the same way again. Each fresh take on the spiral drove me further and further into the story, my initial revulsion now twisted into a bizarre obsession with how Junji would interpret the spiral in new horrific ways.
I completely understand now, why body horror is arguably one of the worst genres. The idea that your body can transform into a nest of thorns or is inextricably linked with thousands of others in a mass of limbs is unsettling in the extreme and I can still picture Ito’s all-too-detailed artwork depicting those situations.
Body horror … that stuff will never make you look at your body in the same way again …The Fly (1986) anyone?
The final element that really helped me become a fan of Junji Ito’s work, was his exploration and mastery of Japanese Horror. Horror in a Japanese setting has always been it’s own creative niche.
It predominantly plays on the aesthetic of Japanese culture, which is full of simple, clean lines that really plays with light in a special way, capable of creating vibrant atmosphere or moody shadows. J-Horror also delves heavily into the lonely, isolated psyche, with suicide and a certain fatalistic acceptance of fate being key themes that influence the narrative.
In Uzumaki, Junji Ito uses the coastal isolation of Kurozou-cho as a prison of sorts, to seal the town to it’s fate. The people are unable to escape the overwhelming power and influence of the spiral, thus touching on the fatalistic themes of J-Horror. This inability to do anything about what is happening, is a signature of Lovecraftian Horror, in which characters are literally powerless to the whims and desires of the supernatural acting on them.
There is actually a bit of a strange link between Kurozou-cho and the H.P. Lovecraft novel, The Shadow Over Innsmouth which features a similar plot and atmosphere to Uzumaki, in that a quiet town on the coastline is experiencing supernatural phenomena, only in Lovecraft’s novel, it is the doing of the Deep Ones.
I particularly despise reading Lovecraftian Horror novels, as they invoke such a strong feeling of fatalism, helplessness and dread. I hate that sensation of powerlessness, that nothing you do can prolong the inevitable. As a rebellious bastard, this is the ultimate form of horror that can be conjured up.
Zombies can be shot, Lycans can be neutralized by silver, Vampyrs by garlic, crucifixes and stakes and Kaijus overwhelmed by firepower.
But the one thing that can never be defeated are the Old Ones and that … is something I find deeply disturbing.
Which is why the atmosphere of dread works so brilliantly well in Uzumaki. Once drawn in, you can only go deeper and deeper into the spiral. There is no way out.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito is a masterpiece of manga writing. It is a tour-de-force of Ito’s creativity and interest in the horror genre and an actual piece of artwork in its’ own right.
It is Ito’s arguably most complete work as well, with a relatively clear overarching narrative and a lot of fun and bizarre ways to interpret the spiral. I must credit him for his ability to keep the theme of the spiral going through each iteration of horror, because I will confess to not really seeing that many spirals in nature itself.
Even now, whenever I see a spiral, I get this strange feeling of dread, something that I associate directly to this manga. What was once an innocent symbol, has now been indelibly linked to Junji Ito’s work.
That … is talent and a clear example of how badly (in a good way) Uzumaki has affected me.
If you have the time, definitely go buy a copy of Uzumaki, as all 3 volumes are now compiled into 1 cohesive book.
I will say, the images in this blog post are just some of the artwork that Junji created. I deliberately avoided some of the best and most shocking parts to ensure you get maximum enjoyment upon your first foray into the world of Uzumaki.
Even as a non-horror fan, I was entranced all the way through and that is why it has left such a strong impression on me.
I hadn’t felt a proper rush in reading something truly original in years when I first started the first page of Uzumaki and to this day, I am thankful my friend recommended me it, despite being thoroughly horrified and potentially scarred by the whole experience.