Writer/Artist: Junji Ito
(this article originally appeared in Rue Morgue #35, Sept./Oct. 2003)
There is no manga quite like Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (three volumes, from Japan) available in English and possibly in any language. Some critics have gone so far as to proclaim Uzumaki the greatest horror comic ever. Surveying the roster of contender available in English, that may well be true.
Uzumaki is not an easy comic to explain. In the broadest thematic terms, it’s about humanity’s essential ignorance and helplessness in a world both threatening and lacking reason. When described in terms of story, the series is simply about a town infected by spirals. That’s right: a town overrun by a shape that asserts itself, for no clear reason, over and over through the lives of the townsfolk.
As more spirals appear in increasingly creative ways – think people turning into gooey, human-sized snails, spirals eating away faces from the insider, and bodies growing contorted to fill round baskets – obsessions grow that lead to shocking conclusions. Unlike many horror comics whose “shocks? and “surprises? are undercut by industry standards, Uzumaki forces readers to pic their jaws up off the ground at the end of each story.
Most of the stories in the first two volumes of Uzumaki are self-contained. Though a larger narrative emerges in the third volume, the stand-alone stories are scarier. After all, what’s scarier than something that happens without logic or warning, with no sign as to how to stop it and no word on whether it will happen again? Uzumaki becomes even more chilling when one realizes how frequent the spiral shape is in nature and, in turn, how vulnerable that makes the characters: suddenly spirals are found in lighthouses, pottery, tornadoes, and in the very shape of our galaxy become threats.
Ito’s reticence to offer an easily-digestible explanation for the infestation is to the series’ credit. Too many horror offerings give readers all the information they need to fully understand, and dismiss, whatever they’ve just seen. Uzumaki never quite explains itself, making the series all the more frightening.