The Maddening Spirals of Junji Ito's Uzumaki

Written and Drawn by Junji Ito
Published by Viz Media

I never really thought of spirals as a scary thing but after reading Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (now collected in one 600+ page book by Viz Media,) I don’t know if I ever really want to see one again. Ito’s story of a small Japanese town, Kurouzo-cho focuses on the madness that infests it as spirals begin terrorizing the town and its inhabitants. Kirie, our heroine, first notices the madness festering in her boyfriend Shuichi’s father. On a walk to school, she finds Shuichi’s father huddled in an alley, intently studying a snail’s spiral shell. An obsession develops in Shuichi and his father around the spirals that drives this family insane. It’s a meme infection on a familial level that’s insidious enough but it’s only the beginning of Ito’s own maddening horror that infects the reader as much as it does the characters and their village.

Originally produced in 1998 and 1999, Ito’s artwork is incredibly tight and it needs to be for the type of horror story that he’s creating. The gut punch of Ito’s horror lands in the images he draws, characters infected by spirals who undergo horrific transformations. Early on, a whirlpool opens in one girls head, pulling her completely into it. She’s consumed by a spiral and Ito’s representation of that event is an early signifier that something more than just psychological horror is happening here. As Ito twists bodies and nature in this book, the horror becomes so physical through his drawings. The physical malformations that people and the town go through in this book are lead the reader into the more insidious types of horror that Ito is working with here.

To make those physical manifestations of bodily mutations have any kind of impact, Ito has to build up the suspense to those moments, which he does masterfully. Uzamaki is a page turner as Kirie and Schuichi’s investigations into the strange spirals out slowly but continues to get more and more dangerous with each occurrence. As clouds and dust whirl into spirals, as people start going mad, as their bodies begin turning into snails and as the food runs out and the snails are the only meat available, Ito’s madness worms its way into the reader’s mind. It’s the Alfred Hitchcock method of horror where the really scary stuff isn’t in the horrific images but it’s in the moments leading up to those twisted and monstrous bodies that jump out at you. There are many such reveals throughout the book where Ito builds up and teases out the tension and each next one keeps multiplying on top of the last. 

The horror in Uzamaki is ultimately the horror of nature. The expressions of the infecting spirals take on many forms that should be natural; tornados, whirlpools, snails and whirling clouds. As the town gets pulled deeper and deeper into these unnatural forms of common occurrences, it’s the environment around Kurouzo-cho that becomes the truly sinister villain of the book. Sometimes it’s easy to brush off horror if the antagonist is just another person, some mustache twirling villain for our heroes to defeat. But in Ito’s Uzumaki, it’s not a person who’s the enemy; it’s existence itself that turns against Kirie and Schuichi and everyone else. Every moment is lived inside of this fear and horror. It’s not something that can be escaped by running away.

For all of the many ways that Ito builds up the horror and suspense, there’s no big release of all of that pent up anxiety at the end. Instead of a triumphant conclusion, the story of Kirie and Schuichi resigns itself to the forces at work around them. It’s threats aren’t something to be overcome. Instead, this is a story about the inevitable and about defeat. Everything and everyone in this town lose themselves to these destructive forces so why should our “heroes” be any different? Ito spends so much time on these two characters, centering the mystery and the tragedy of this town around them that the ending fizzles as Kirie and Schuichi become just two more inevitable victims of the forces at work here. It ends the way it ends because that was always how it was going to end. It’s cynical and defeatist 

Uzumaki is an insidious book, not because of the fictional horror that Ito plays with but in the way that it spreads the madness into its readers. This isn’t a story of monsters or of killers but of people who are driven into madness. That makes it so much easier and dangerous for the reader as they get infected along with the characters. Uzamaki is a great book to get lost in. Kirie and Schuichi’s struggles and fears become your struggles and fears. It’s magic that Ito is weaving here as he makes you more than just readers; you become a participant in the fear that’s infecting this town. It’s real and palpable so when he races through the ending and just gives into the fear, it’s not exciting and freeing as much as it is retiring and giving up.