‘Uzumaki’ and the Use of Spirals to Evoke Terror
Back in October, publisher VIZ released a hardcover collection of Junji Ito’s 1998-1999 horror manga “Uzumaki,” allowing readers unfamiliar with this twisting tale of terror a chance to see it reproduced (and complete).
The title translates to “Spiral,” the central shape which dominates this story concerned with ever-escalating obsession, fear, murder, and snail people in a seaside Japanese village of Kurôzu-cho over the course of one fateful summer. As his heroine, Ito chooses Kirie, a high school student who finds her life — and the lives of her friends and family — increasingly dominated by the spiral. As the months wear on, Kurôzu-cho becomes increasingly isolated, with no help in sight, as the inhabitants’ sanity begins to dwindle in the eye of the spiral.
Ito — who illustrated the sometimes gruesomely detailed manga — uses the spiral as both the central menace, but as an effective tool to draw the reader in, creating the same kind of anxiety and fear being disseminated throughout the village. Whether it’s the sudden appearance of a vortex in a lovestruck teen’s head or the slowly morphing geography and architecture of the village, Ito’s spiral draws you in. Ito’s choices make “Uzumaki” not just a great piece of horror fiction, but an excellent work of layout and design for telling his particular story.
There’s something hypnotic and unnerving about the spiral, an idea which Ito plays with throughout “Uzumaki.” As Kurôzu-cho progressively becomes a looping prison for its inhabitants, the artist uses the shape to loop ideas of seeing and being observed (spirals constantly become obsessed with the town’s inhabitants and vice versa).
Domestic and common spaces become spirals in unexpected ways, while Ito finds excuses to trap his characters in spiral architecture (an escape down a flight of stairs is one of the more harrowing sequences in the chapter “The Dark Lighthouse”).
It’s the idea of taking something in the background — innocuous and everyday — and making its ubiquity part of its inherent threat. The whorls and circles of your fingerprints to the spiral in the inner ear are just some of the ways Ito turns even the human body against his dwindling cast of characters.
“Uzumaki” would be adapted into a live-action film in 2000 which captured most of what made the manga work on what was a relatively modest budget (while cutting out some of the gorier aspects of the manga). It was curious to discover that one of the lasting images from the comic — the discovery of doomed teen Shuichi’s father in the hamper — has become a meme of sorts, reproduced using other characters in a kind of grotesque gotcha gag.
In any event, it’s worth revisiting the source material to see how an artist is able to take a simple shape and wring so much emotion from it.