Uzumaki (volume 1) by Junji Ito
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’d heard about Ito’s manga a long time before I saw any of it. But from what I’d read – once you bypass the “hey, Japan is crazy weird, right?” stuff, I knew it was for me. Finally reading has confirmed this: Uzumaki is a small-town world of strange fixations, a la Twin Peaks, except it’s the spirals that aren’t what they seem, not the owls.
As you’d expect from the title, spirals dominate the work. They’re everywhere in the beautifully-inked panels, and never more confrontingly than when they’re used to gory effect.
The gore in this volume is very… Japanese. While there’s obviously some kind of Lovecraftian out-of-space-out-of-time thing going on, there’s also some callbacks to the stylised contortion found in, say, Butoh performance. Bodies distend, are deformed, become spirals. It’s obsessive and seems very alien, even though the town in which the story takes place could really be anywhere.
What makes the work universal is its focus on obsession. Through the stories gathered here, townsfolk fall under the spell of the spiral: it pervades their lives, and can’t be extinguished – even by death. It’s supernatural and natural all at once, with links made to the sort of water spirits referenced in the Ringu series of movies, as well as the sort of obsessive overworking of a theme often associated with the salaryman culture. True, it’s set in a Japanese town, but the obsessiveness, the totemic nature of the titular device is universal. The reader may not be able to relate to the Japanese funerary rites of the work, but the act of being drawn in by something which can’t logically be explained – that’s universal.
Reading through this I’m reminded of Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It could well be that association is purely constructed on the flimsiest of links – adolescents, monochromatic print, body horror and the cloying nature of small towns – but it sticks. There’s a level of terror in both that verges on the silly or hilarious, but that’s precisely why they work so well – they’re inexplicable, moreso because we’re shown the stories through the lenses of young adults, battling to find their place in a strange world.
If there’s a problem with this series it’s with the narrative, not the art. The art is nerve-jangling precise: realistic enough so that when something out of the ordinary comes along, it’s truly shocking. The narrative, on the other hand, relies on the reader suspending disbelief and any inherent tendency to think something’s a bit silly. Because there’s the ability to write this off as a bit of a silly joke… except for that twang deep inside which questions yeah, but is it?
I look forward to the next volumes. I can see that I’m probably being set up for a letdown, but I’m keen to see where it goes from here.