The Horrific Mechanations of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki

I

When thinking about horror can operate in comics, I think there are certain touchstones in the medium that you simply have to deal with and dissect to really get an understanding of how to express horror within comics.  One of the larger of these touchstones is Junji Ito’s spiral obsessed masterwork Uzumaki–which is probably on some levels ubiquitous both with the notion of a good horror comic, and some of our more simplified notions of Japanese horror tropes.

What makes Uzumaki such a strong work is how precise it is in it’s mechanics.  It is meticulous in the way that a curse might be.  It is performative in it’s digressions and crescendos.  It is a comic that knows how to let the beat build.  It is functionally designed to work upon the reader’s own natural inclinations as a comic book reader–and use those as a mechanism to spread the madness of the book out into the reader.  It is a book that creates a kind of feedback loop that sits in your brain long after you’ve shut the book and gone to bed.  What makes it amazing is that it does all of this without relying on the kind of sublime dedication to the image that other great horror works do.   For instance, when you see a Beksinski or Giger painting–the horror is beyond the image in front of you.  Your mind senses a story it can not fully tell, and darkness fills in through the gaps.

In Al Columbia’s Pim and Francie, one of the most terrifying pages for me is is this one:

It isn’t what is fully on the page–it’s what is allowed to be implied by what is on the page.  Because it is not explained the words “Orlo was scared. Sonnny Blackfire had returned” hit you like a an ice pick.  We have the notion of this Orlo character who is scared.  Why is he scared?  Sonny Blackfire has returned.  The message to you as the reader is “be afraid, terror has returned”.  The times which you have had–the days which you have lived–have been numbered up to this day.

But what makes Ito’s Uzumaki interesting to study by contrast is that it really doesn’t traffic in this kind of implied power.  It is horror as a product of dramatic devices.  It is a mechanical seen horror which almost operates in a classic Hollywood film style.  It allows the strengths of the comic medium to convey large amounts of information to basically tell the reader what is coming long before it actually comes.  It telegraphs every shot it takes and then the horror that is created is instead a sense of dread and inevitability.  The reader sees the train coming, but is powerless to move from the tracks.  You simply can not look away from the mesmerizing power of the spiral.

Within the first 20 pages of the book Ito gives us all of the main elements that he will be dealing with over the course of the series.  We get the row houses, snails, madness, the light house, the evil pond, whirlpools, and twisters.  All of which are sort of subtly highlighted on each page–just enough to give the reader a sense that these things are connected to a greater obsession which will be revealed.  This is Ito in almost essay form beginning with his thesis.  Also notice in each of these pages–the characters are directly looking at these elements–so there is no way as a reader that you can miss these core things which will make up the symbology of Ito’s world.

This is in fact the core function of Ito’s horror.  The introduction of a specific element–and the slow unveiling of it’s final horror.  One of the early and most powerful illustrations of the story of Shuichi’s mother, and her desperate attempts to avoid the curse of the spiral that claimed her husband.  Where her husband pursued every spiral he saw until he eventually found the spiral within his own body and died–Shuichi’s mother flees from every spiral she finds.  And in this way, she comes to be cursed by the spiral.  Whether one goes toward the spiral or away from the spiral–it does not matter, the curse functions the same.  This is an early lesson for the reader that no matter what these characters do in this book, salvation is impossible.

What makes this section so powerful is that first Ito introduces us to the fact that Shuichi’s mother is so terrified of the Spiral that she is willing to mutilate herself to protect herself from it.  And we as readers are also terrified of the Spiral at this point after seeing what happened to Shuichi’s father, which was completely gruesome.  So as a reader we have a built in physical aversion to the spiral–we are with Shuichi’s mother in wanting to flee from the idea.

However, Ito shows that even on the extreme of fleeing from the Spiral–it is inevitable.  And the scene in the doctor’s office where Shuichi spots the spiral that makes up the inner ear–your stomach starts turning as a reader right at that moment.  Because you know what will happen if Shuichi’s mother figures out that there are spirals in her ears.  So the intermittent pages are this insane tension of her slowly figuring out that she has spirals in her ears until the final moment where she grabs the scissors–and by that point you are really just reading the thing through your fingers.  It is a beautifully built segment–which has as it’s denouement the fact that in removing her inner ears Shuichi’s mother has doomed herself to a world of vertigo–she has become the Spiral she destroyed herself to avoid.

We see this pattern of storytelling repeated in wider and wider arcs as Uzumaki unfurls itself–until in the end we arrive at this inescapable hellscape of ruins and madness as the whole town gives itself over to the spiral.  The cumulitive effect of these repeated rhythms and recursions is really quite extraordinary–and it is something that is beholden a lot to the comic medium.  So much of Uzumaki relies on your ability as a reader to have your focus pulled around massive amounts of information per page–to be both cognizant of the foregrounded dramatic elements, and the doom swirling around the characters in the background.  Because of the way we move comics with our minds as readers–the sensation we can get of a particular kind of dread moving in is direct and impactful in a way that no other genre adaption could match.  A film would be too slow, and a book leaves too much visual information to chance.  The directed nature of comics coupled with the slower pace allowing for greater levels of information to be given to the audience–is the foundation upon which Uzumaki works as a horror–and it speaks to the fact that horror CAN be done in comics in a real and visceral way that doesn’t just rely on a steady cavalcade of gore imagery.  At it’s core level, horror is powered by the management of information to the audience–knowing what to tell, what not to tell.  It can be both a heavily structured and planned genre, or it can be a very surreal behind the mind’s eye kind of thing.

II

The notion that Uzumaki is primarily at it’s foundation about the meticulous management of information by Ito, is while true–not the whole truth either.  There is a side of Uzumaki which does get a lot of power out of his stylistic choices, particularly as they pertain to body horror.  On the one hand, Uzumaki would be just as scary if it were done with stick figures–on the other–the punch lines that are delivered–wow do they pack a punch.

Ito’s ability to both conceive and frame the grotesque is one of his real strengths as an artist.  And what’s more, his grotesques are also thematically entrenched.  So while they work on their own as horror images–they still are bound to the rules which he has set for himself in terms of how he uses his images(with Ito, every image has it’s place).

One of the most striking sequences of image making horror meets theme is the snail people in Uzumaki.  The horror in them is that they were once people–well they were treated as people–and then they became grotesquely mutated, and upon losing their human form, are no longer treated as humans.  It’s basically Kafka’s Metamorphosis but with Snails and expanded outward as a disease that could affect anyone.  Obviously, Ito chose Snails because of their shells being like spirals.  But it is his ability to draw their transformation, and slow loss of humanity that makes them so haunting.

The most horrifying turn of this is still to come though.

All throughout the kid’s transformation into a slug he has been bullied by this other kid Tsumura–and there is this interesting debasement that takes place Katayama fully loses his human form, and is now just a thing that is kept at the school to feed like a pet and gawk at.  Tsumura in almost cartoonish cruelty pretty much puts his foot right into the back of this tension.

Which is what makes what happens next seem like justice.

Of course it’s not justice.  It’s just the spiral.  And anyone can be turned into a snail as we learn later.  But a large part of why these snails are so horrifying is how well Ito is able to draw them as human hybrids–we can still see ghosts of their humanity–and then the way he has drawn every postule on their bodies, and the very detailed way he has rendered the shells.  The amount of visual information is almost overloading to your senses.

It is quite interesting because there is a sense that in particularly dramatic punchline moments, the rendering style that Ito uses gets much more complex and specific.  It is the nightmares in Uzumaki which ring the most clear.

Which again, is Ito managing information.  But this is down to even the amount of lines per page.  He is managing the information he wants to convey with his line, with the same precision and choice that he is managing everything else in Uzumaki.

Uzumaki is comic’s horror at it’s most meticulous.  What is interesting I think to think about, is that the skills he uses to render horror in his comics–aren’t of a level that would be beyond a Bernie Wrightson or Richard Corben.  But we’ve rarely seen this kind of horror from either of them–because the precision and management of effect isn’t nearly as keen.  I think that if you are going to be the kind of horror artist that shows everything in a very literal way–which is the space where I would put people like Wrightson, Corben, and Junji Ito–there needs to be precision in your choices across every level of the comic.  Why we see some of Corben and Wrightson’s work fail to induce the same levels of horror that Ito has mastered in Uzumaki–is often times down to a lack of thematic cohesion between the way the story is being told and the elements that are being presented on the page.  I think Corben and Strnad’s collaboration on Ragemoor works because there is a very effective management of information and tone–though I would also say Ragemoor along with some of the other work Corben has done falls also into some of the territory that I mentioned with Giger/Columbia and that group.

III

The main thing I take away from Ito is the effect it has on your psyche as a reader the cumulitive nature of Ito’s vision.  His stories spiral down into their focus point–and that spinning sensation of receiving information for more and more pointed reasons until you are scrambling to escape–it is a kind of hypnosis.  I would like to see it applied almost to an even more excessive degree.  It can be like black metal in that the repetition and dirge like nature of the looping information can allow for moments within the narrative of elevation where you can get away with truly crazy things.  Which probably speaks to my main criticism of Uzumaki.  In some ways it is too beholden to it’s plotwork.  That everything at every moment has a place in the locomotion of the story as a whole I think somewhat limits the places Ito could go as a storyteller.   The sensation I had sometimes reading Uzumaki was that while everything was happening in the page that I was reading–there was nothing else happening elsewhere in the town.  Ito’s planning in Uzumaki is at once it’s strength, and it’s detriment.  I mean when you compare it as a mood piece to something like Tsutomu Nihei’s Blame! –it is actually very lacking in atmosphere for a work that goes to such pains to create foreboding tremors in the readers mind.
I think it stays with you as a matter of function, but not perhaps of merit always.  Whereas something like The Laughing Vampire by Suehiro Maruo has perhaps more merit, but is held back by it’s half-assed function–or maybe more specifically, it’s inability to divorce itself from it’s half-assed function.

Uzumaki is successful as a horror comic, and is arguably one of the best testaments to what the medium can do with the genre.  However, it’s success is also very much hinged upon the things which are responsible for almost all of the bad horror comics that have rained down on the medium over the years–particularly in the west.  It is in some ways the high point of horror as formula.  That if you do X + Y – 73 you get terror.  I think the reason that even though Uzumaki is functionally operating in a formulaic way, it is still a top work of horror is maybe because at the end of the day Junji Ito’s obsession is what comes through.  And the obsession of Junji Ito in this comic is in fact that thing which I talk about with that Al Columbia image.  It is the ineffable thing slightly beyond our ability to properly understand and encompass with our language.  It is the occult-like obsession behind the comic that is what perhaps keeps it afloat.

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