Wednesday, 27 May 2009


Imagine that HP Lovecraft, Franz Kafka and David Lynch had been born as conjoined triplets. Imagine that this three-headed abomination somehow survived and grew into an adult. 
Imagine that gradually the three heads merged into one single Japanese head. Now, imagine that the creature started writing and drawing manga. This one super-head packed full of the weirdest, most horrifying ideas for stories ever dreamed up would be called Junji Ito and it would have spewed forth Uzumaki, the remarkable and disturbing horror manga charting the descent of a small coastal town into lunacy. 

I have a bad track record with manga. I just haven't ever got on with it, but with Uzumaki I've finally found a manga book which I love. This three volume series, collecting stories initially published within the pages of the monthly book Big Comic Spirits, is as creepy a comic as I've ever read. The title, Uzumaki means spiral, and its creator Junji Ito has crafted a story which tells the tale of what happens when an entire town becomes obsessed and eventually possessed by spirals. 

Told as a series of short stories, which taken together build into a satisfying whole, the book is a gory, surreal ride through the dark side of human nature, a series of cautionary tales and a masterpiece of sequential storytelling. It begins when high-school students Kirie and Shuichi become aware that Shuichi's father is behaving oddly. He's ignoring his work, getting ratty with his family and spending more and more time with his hastily acquired collection of spirals. Over a short space of time, his obsession with this collection overwhelms him, driving him into a spiral-fuelled descent towards lunacy which only ends when he himself becomes part of that collection. His demise presents the reader with the first and arguably most shocking moment of the entire story, as Shuichi and his mother return home to find Shuichi's father squeezed into a box, his broken body rolled into a horrific spiral. It's a chilling tale which sets the tone for what is to come. 

Shuichi's father is merely the first inhabitant of Kurozo-Chu to fall prey to the spiral. Like him, all those who encounter it will be overwhelmed, transformed and ultimately destroyed by its power. In telling this horrific story, Ito takes the opportunity to provide a series of closely observed commentaries on the weaknesses that we are all prey to. Shuichi's father possession by the spiral is manifested in his obsession with his work to the detriment of his family, later on the vanity of two teenage girls provides the platform for the spiral to wreak havoc through hairstyles at the local school, and the slothfulness of a teenage boy sees him transformed into a snail.

These are cautionary tales in the tradition of Shockheaded Peter, and it's arguable that, (until the last volume, when the story becomes more linear), they work better as stand-alone stories. To take them as a whole, the reader needs to suspend their disbelief somewhat. After Shuichi's mother is also overwhelmed by the spiral for example, we are asked to accept the fact that Shuichi, who is still a child, continues to live by himself in the family home with no intervention from any outside body. Similarly, while their classmates are dying in increasingly horrific and bizarre ways, the children of the local high school continue to attend class as if nothing is happening.

Really though, none of these anomalies matter. As the reader you can either tell yourself that the absence of sensible reaction to the unfolding horror is part of the spiral's hold on the town's collective consciousness, or, you can decide that believability is unimportant when measured against the surreal beauty of Ito's vision. 

And it is an awesome vision. As a writer, he continually hits the beats that good horror comics demand, building the reader up to a series of beautiful pay-offs, speeding the narrative up at points, slowing it down at others, bringing elements from the opening chapters back into play at later points in the story and finishing the whole thing up with a Lovecraftian piece of brilliance.

But none of that would count for anything were it not for his skill as a draughtsman. Much of what turns me off a lot of manga has to do with the art. All those snub noses, wide eyes and gaping shouty mouths seem to work against the artist to me, squashing originality and encouraging a uniformity of style. Again, as someone who knows very little about manga I may be missing the nuances of the artform, but as a layman I would struggle to tell one piece of manga art from another. This is not true of Ito's work. His painstakingly drawn pages display an intricacy of form and emotion that elevate the moments of horror to twisted heights of brilliance. The physical and mental decline of a whole town is written on the increasingly pinched and desperate faces of its inhabitants and the foreboding presence of the spiral in everything from the trees to the sky is drawn subtly and convincingly throughout.

Ultimately, the origin of the spiral which decimates the town is left open to question, but the effect that it has on the characters in the book is clear. Uzumaki does not have a happy ending. The spiral wins. Humanity loses. It makes for a disturbing and fitting  climax to a fine piece of horror. Without a doubt, Uzumaki is one of the best comics I've ever read. A classic which deserves to take its place on any list of comic book greats.


Mr A. P. Salmond, esq. said...

Yeah, he's a bit of a genius.

Have you tried Drifting Classroom yet? Interested to see what you make of it: a lot more of the classic manga-style, but really nuts. And! Everybody! Shouts! All the time!

If you fancy tips on any other accessible manga, give me a yell.

Hurk said...

I dropped in and got kazuo umezu's 'Cat-eyed boy' the other week. I've been feeling that i should give manga a fair go for ages but i've got the same thoughts on the subject as you Dom. I know the stuff is there somewhere but everything i look at is not 'what i'm after'.
Anyway this book(it was the graphic design of the cover that sold it) is good but this Uzumaki looks better!
I'll take some tips, Andrew. As long as the speech bubbles are'nt huge with 2 tiny words in the middle, i'll try it.

Anonymous said...

That was a great review!

Dom Sutton said...

Salmond: No, haven't started it yet. Will do so today probably. I hear that 20th Century Boys is the manga to be reading at the mo. Any good?

Hurk: OK, you might have issues with the story in Uzumaki, but from an ideas and visual standpoint, it's right up your street mate. Give it a go.

Little Kid: That's very kind of you sir. It's always nice to know that someone enjoys my bilge!