Uzumaki – Katherine ventures into the endless labyrinth of mysterious spirals
All horror stories, whether told in films, comics, books, or around a campfire after sunset, have in common the aim of making their audiences afraid. But there are many different ways to make people afraid. For a quick hit of instant fear, you can jump up behind them and shout “BOO!”, the way slasher flicks do. For something a bit more lasting, you can draw on well-established symbols of the things that frighten us – ghosts and vampires and rampaging monsters. But to really work your way under your audience’s skins and make them feel, not just fear, but a creeping unease that lingers for days after they’ve heard the story, you need something more fundamental. You need to start with the world we know and then gradually erase the rules and patterns that make life predictable, and therefore bearable. You need to turn your readers back into children who don’t know how the world works, cowering under the blankets because the folds of the curtains make a shape that looks like a face.
Enter Junji Ito, and Uzumaki.
Uzumaki is a horror manga about spirals. You might well ask me what’s scary about spirals, and that’s just it: there’s nothing scary about spirals. Spirals are everywhere: snail shells, watch-springs, whirlpools in draining bathwater, the whorls on the pads of your fingers, the cochlea in the inner ear, the coils of your DNA. My tai chi teacher used to say that the chi or life-force that flows through the universe moves in spirals, which may or may not be true; even so, it may be everywhere, and it may be pretty, but the spiral is just a shape. It can’t hurt you.
But what if it could? What if the spiral wasn’t just a shape, but a malevolent, corrupting force that sought to consume and distort everything into its own likeness? What if the spiral had a will of its own and you could never escape it?
That is the premise of Uzumaki, and the end result is a manga that is not just scary, but profoundly unsettling. The town of Kurozu-cho is gradually consumed by spirals: mesmerising, mystical spirals that warp space and matter and drive the town’s inhabitants deeper and deeper into obsession. Both those who love the spirals and those who fear them are unable to resist their power – the spirals spread and spread without ceasing, while the people of Kurozu-cho carry on their lives, pretending that everything is just fine.
Usually when I write a review of a comic, I like to talk about what makes it work the way it works – the specifics of the artist’s style, or the particular influences the writing displays; but with Uzumaki I don’t want to delve too deeply. The things that scare us often scare us for entirely irrational reasons, and exposing the fear to the light of day makes it evaporate – and I don’t want this fear to go away; I’m enjoying it too much. I don’t want to analyse Uzumaki, lest I should rob it of its power over me.
To give you a sense of how insidious Ito’s concept is: as I type this, I have just finished reading the first volume of Uzumaki, and I’m trying not to turn my hands palm-up, because I don’t want to see the spirals in my fingerprints. On a conscious level, I know the spirals can’t hurt me, but the uncanny nature of Ito’s ideas and the relentless nightmare logic of his stories has seeped under my skin. I’ll be seeing spirals in my dreams tonight.
Katherine Farmar, when not hiding from geometric patterns, writes regularly on comics and culture from around the world, you can read more on her comics blog Whereof One Can Speak.