Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, originally released in Japan between 1998 and 1999, is one of the most well-known horror manga series to have been translated into English. Viz Media has actually published three different English-language editions of Uzumaki, not counting its initial serialization in the monthly manga magazine Pulp. The first edition, published as three individual volumes, was released between 2001 and 2002. These volumes were reissued in a second edition between 2007 and 2008. And then, in 2013, Uzumaki was released by Viz in a deluxe, single-volume hardcover omnibus complete with color pages and gorgeous production values and design. (Though I had previously read and enjoyed the series, it was the spectacular omnibus edition that finally convinced me that Uzumaki was a manga that I needed to own.) An emphasis should be placed on the “gore” of gorgeous–Uzumaki, while it has deservedly been called a masterpiece of horror, is most definitely not a work intended for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.
Kurouzu-cho is a small, quiet seaside village under a curse. It’s manifestation starts with the Saito family. First, Mr. Saito begins acting strangely, developing an unhealthy obsession with spirals. This leads to his demise and in turn his wife understandably becomes terrified of spirals as well, her complex becoming just as severe as her husband’s. In the end, their son Shuichi is the only one left in the family and his girlfriend Kirie Goshima is his only ally. Already uncomfortable with Kurouzu-cho, the fate of his parents convinces Shuichi that the town is contaminated with spirals, though most people believe this to be his own form of insanity. But stranger and stranger things begin to happen in Kurouzu-cho. Kirie becomes witness to so many bizarre occurrences and horrifying deaths that she can’t deny that something is very, very wrong with the town. Tragedy after tragedy befalls Kurouzu-cho, its inhabitants, and anyone unfortunate enough to enter the immediate area as events both figuratively and literally spiral out of control.
At first, Uzumaki seems as though it’s a series that is mostly episodic. Each chapter is largely told and seen from Kirie’s perspective and explores an individual incident involving spirals in some way. But as the manga continues, the stories become more and more closely tied to one another, eventually forming a single, coherent narrative. As previously mentioned, Uzumaki is very graphic, the images that Ito creates, while mesmerizing, can be extraordinarily disturbing and gruesome. But there is more going on in the manga than gore and body horror; there is also a very strong, and very dark, psychological element to Uzumaki which makes the entire series especially effective in its terror. Uzumaki is bizarre and surreal but at the same time is completely convincing in its unnatural horror. It’s hard to believe that something so benign as a simple shape–a spiral–could be so terrifying, but Ito accomplishes the seemingly impossible with Uzumaki. It’s an exceptionally disconcerting work.
Although the imagery in Uzumaki is frequently disturbing, grotesque, and even nauseating, almost as frightening are the characters’ reactions–or, in many cases, their non-reactions–to the terrible events surrounding them. Shuichi is one of the very few people who seem to be completely aware of what is happening in Kurouzu-cho, but he is barely able to maintain his own sanity and becomes increasingly haunted and withdrawn. Surprisingly, hidden within the nightmare that is Uzumaki, there is actually a love story of sorts, granted a tragic one considering the nature of the manga. Despite everything, Kirie is always there to support and look out for Shuichi and his well-being. And even when Shuichi is nearly catatonic and barely able to function within society, he repeatedly risks his life to save hers. But in the end, Uzumaki is ultimately an incredible work of horror. There are things that I’ve seen in the manga that I will never be able to unsee. And I will never be able to look at spirals in quite the same way again.