(Episode Four: In which our explorations lead us to a much-lauded work of horror manga.)
Mention that you’re curious about manga, and one of the first names manga-philes will likely offer is Junji Ito. The young writer/artist has staked a place for himself in the realm of horror comics, primarily on the basis of two limited series: Tomie and Uzumaki. I went looking for both at my local comic shop and chain bookstores – of the two, Uzumaki (Viz) was easier to find. I was able to buy all three volumes in the series over two weeks’ time.
Unlike the other GN paperbacks I’ve been reading, Uzumaki isn’t printed in the back-to-front format of “100% manga;” instead, it’s been reconfigured for Western readers. For a moment, the mango dabbler in me rebeled against this concession – hey, I’ve invested time and energy in training my eyes to read backwards . . . what’ the deal? – but that momentary hubris abated once I delved into Ito’s beautifully textured artwork.
Hard to imagine an idea less promising than the one put forth in Uzumaki, a trilogy about a Japanese town named Kurozc-cho that’s haunted and ultimately destroyed by spirals. Spirals! Memories of cheesy B-pictures with villainous hypnotists immediately pop into play. (Cue the theremin.) Quick! Hide the Spiro-graph! It’s ee-vil!
Once I started reading the series, it became obvious that Ito has anticipated my initial smart-assed reaction. Not only is he aware of the essential absurdist nature of his conceit, he also strives to stretch it as far as he can. Much has been written about the fine line between horror and comedy: Uzumaki swirls around that line like one of its own mad dust devils. There are scenes in all three books that make the reader go aw, c’mon! – only to veer into ghastly seriousness. If Ito isn’t always fully successful in maintaining control of his tone, you have to admire his audacity.
The series is narrated by a teenaged girl, Kirie Goshima, who winds up at the literal center of most of the events that hit her town. Her best friend, a bespectacled boy named Shiuchi, is the one who serves as harbinger of doom, in part because his father is the first to come under sway of dark forces. As Kirie walks to the train station to meet her friend, she happens upon Shuichi’s father, crouched in an alley staring at an empty snail shell. When she describes this scene to Shuichi, the young boy goes off, stating that the town is making him and his family crazy. “This town is contaminated by spirals!” he says, and we quickly learn his father has grown so obsessed by the shape that he’s quit his job and has taken to collecting samples of it: sea-shells, springs, children’s toys, dress patterns. He goes to Kirie’s father, a potter, and asks him to create a ceramic spiral, and in so doing sparks the potter’s own self-destructive fixation with this ubiquitous geometric form.
The town’s spiral possession starts manifesting itself in increasingly grotesque ways. When Shiuchi’s mother throws away her husband’s spiral collection, he begins to emulate spirals, culminating in a death that’s both cartoonish and disturbing. When his body is cremated, the ashes emanating from the crematorium spiral into the sky and then descend into a pond located in the center of town. Driven mad by the death of her husband, Shiuchi’s mother attempts to remove all the spirals off her body – which leads to volume one’s most unnerving vertiginous conceit (without giving any plot away, let’s just note that it revolves around the woman’s last days in hospital).
After Ito has established his basic premise through Shuichi’s family, the story loses some of its straightforward momentum. We get individual chapters focusing on other townspeople – a schoolgirl with a tiny scar on her forehead, two young lovers caught in a Montague/Capulet conflict in the town’s poverty-struck row houses, a second schoolgirl with a burning desire to be noticed – plus an effectively ghostly chapter involving Kirie’s father and his kiln. By volume two, the physical transformation motif becomes even stronger, as some of the slower townsfolk start to transform into snails – an idea that owes as much to Ionesco than it does Weird Tales until the third volume when some of the other townspeople start to eat these once-human snails, again yanking an absurd conceit into the realm of horror. Some nicely horrific chapters set in the town’s hospital (where Kirie winds up after a near fatal adventure in a lighthouse) comprise the largest part of the middle book. By the final volume, the entire town is ravaged by this all-consuming geometry: repeatedly assaulted by hurricanes and sudden whirlwinds, its own roads twisted into paths that turn in on themselves.
In short, we’ve entered H.P. Lovecraft territory – the land of horrifying mathematics and eldritch forces imposing themselves on modern unfortunates. Even some of Uzumaki‘s minor ideas take a page from old Howard Phillips: the row housing which assumes a major role in the series’ final chapters, for instance, recalls Lovecraft’s obsessive fear of poverty’s trappings (without the racist underpinnings). When we’re taken to the source of Kurozc-cho’s demolition – an ancient city hidden beneath the town – we can’t help thinking of the New England writer’s Elder Gods.
Ito’s art is rendered in a detailed style that is exceedingly friendly to Western readers: only occasionally does he appear to utilize tricks that look odd to manga newcomers. In one chapter, for instance, Shiuchi is shown thoughtfully examining his friend Kirie – an act that is pointlessly emphasized by the words “glance glance” placed in the space between the two characters. But more often, the artist’s tight control of doom-laden atmosphere pleasantly reminds me of American horror artists like Reed Crandall in his Warren period, with a nod to Edvard Munch tossed in for good measure. There’s even a winking allusion to “The Scream” placed in the background of one panel. But unlike Hollywood’s jokey attempts at decontextualizing that image, Ito recalls Munch’s late-night angst and recurrent themes of body loathing. Somehow I suspect that the Norwegian artist’d really identify with the hospital chapters, with their devouring women and infants.
In the end, Uzumaki succeeds as a creepy graphic exercise. In contemporary terms, the only American comic book writer/artist to successfully work this turf is arguably Charles Burns, who also brings a tone of camp detachment to the proceedings that I don’t detect in Junji Ito. I can see why manga boosters have put Ito in the top of introductory list: his art’s accessible, while his plots – though occasionally opaque on the background details – work a realm of dread most older readers will recognize. Me, I’ve headed from finishing the spiral books straight into Ito’s earlier series, Tomie. The work’s measurably rougher, but it’s still nicely (this last was inevitable, gang!) twisted.
(Originally posted in Pop Culture Gadabout.)