A small town in Japan is beset by spirals. What starts as strange vortexes in the clouds and wood soon evolves into something much more sinister, as the townspeople become obsessed with the shape, transforming their society and even their bodies in worship of the spiral. Flesh and soul is twisted in horrific ways as the spiral ingratiates itself in all aspects of village life. People are transformed, mutilated, and driven insane by the shape. In the end, the town is completely destroyed, the populace is monstrous, and nothing remains beyond a promise that the spiral will endure. Such is the plot of Uzumaki, a comic series penned by Junji Ito.
I was already familiar with Uzumaki by way of the film adaptation I saw in high school. I recall the film being something of a joke between me and my friends—a campy, subtitled fever dream that was more silly than scary, and served a better purpose as ammunition in the endless You think that’s weird, have you seen X? one-upmanship games that are the purview of geeky teenage boys. I had no knowledge of the source material until a friend from Stonecoast demanded that I read it.
I’m not a reader of graphic novels (although Charles Burns’s Black Hole remains one of my favorite books), but I had seen some of Ito’s work online, and being familiar with the film, I was prepared for something unsettling yet goofily strange, the kind of thing that provides perfect fodder for “Strangest Of” lists.
Uzumaki is terrifying and grotesque in ways that I wasn’t prepared for. The plot is threadbare—the narrative is episodic, showing various incarnations of the spiral curse as the town is slowly destroyed from within. The loose nature of the story really allows for the horror setpieces, as the spiral disrupts the life of the town in ways that are as horrific as they are strange.
Everything in the film is also in the comic, of course, but in a manner that’s infinitely more distressing. Reviewing it, I’m reminded of Roger Ebert’s thoughts on the creature effects in the original King Kong.
In “Jurassic Park” you are looking, more or less, at a real dinosaur. In “King Kong,” you are looking at an idea of a dinosaur, created by hand by technicians who are working with their imaginations. When Kong battles the large flesh-eating dinosaur in his first big battle scene, there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.
What keeps the terror in the novel from tiptoeing into the ludicrous is the conviction with which Ito illustrates his nightmare—we are looking at the idea of spirals. The illustrations are raw, immediate, a window into Ito’s mind, forcing the reader to fill in the gaps between panels with terrors inconceivable. The shock, the savagery of the still image is used to maximum effect. There is body horror, there is paranoia, and there is, pardon the expression, civilization spiraling out of control. The imagery is inventive and sick in equal measure as the spiral wreaks unheard-of carnage upon the town.
The film on the other hand, is…well, here’s the trailer:
Ito is a master of imagery, graphically rendering the most horrific consequences of the town’s spiral obsession into grotesque black-and-white tableaus. This is lost in the slick CGI of the film, losing the grip of the original, and tipping the narrative over into camp. The illustration gives the horror an immediacy that eludes the film—the effect that had such a profound impact on Ebert’s view of King Kong. The limitations of the medium are its advantages.
One vignette follows the main character as her hair begins to curl mysteriously, eventually turning into a spiraling Medusa-perm that is the talk of the school—until another girl becomes jealous and urges her own hair to spiral, as well.
It should be absurd. It is absurd to type out. But Ito’s rendition is nonetheless affecting, delightfully creepy while staying just beyond the point of ludicrous. As the hair battles for supremacy, we see the physical toll it takes on the two young women, draining their energy and their bodies. The final result, as depicted in the comic, is this:
Forget the film. Uzumaki is a must for any horror fan. Gory, intense, and bizarre, it is the stuff of pure nightmare, a glimpse into a dreamscape that goes far beyond the reader’s expectations, reflective of a sinister and prodigious imagination run wild. This is what horror should strive to be–a glimpse into pure nightmare (really, the idea of a nightmare). It is a masterful example of the craft of illustration, daring to go places that few writers would dare dream, and brings horror to something so basic as geometry, a feat that, on its own, makes the novel worth discovering.