Horror in a Broken Circle

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In my last two columns (part 1, part 2), I talked about my introduction to manga and anime, and profiled one of the genres’ greatest artists, Katsuhiro Otomo. In this column, I cover the manga that made an indelible impression on me and, I’m sure, many others: Junji Ito’s Uzumaki.


Horror is a genre that’s pretty identifiable across cultures, despite its many forms. Fear is, after all, a universal human emotion. Yet it has a very elusive quality. What makes something a work of horror, exactly? I wonder about this often, because some of my work has been classified in this genre, though “horror” wasn’t exactly what I set about writing.

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Uzumaki_coverA decent working definition of horror fiction holds that it’s intended to create a feeling of fear and terror in the reader, with or without an element of the supernatural. This compartment is big enough to hold everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to more subtle and psychological horror like the episodic Outer Limits and Twilight Zone (two enduring favorites of mine). Zombie slash-em-ups to mindbenders, in other words. There’s room enough in this box for what I’m trying to do without feeling constrained, so sure, I’ll take the “horror writer” label.

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All this said, Junji Ito‘s Uzumaki both is clearly identifiable as a work of horror, yet also seems somehow outside of any known genre. It has elements of all the typical examples of horror fiction, including aspects that deal with the supernatural, gore, and horrifying inversions of normal life that induce terror, but the premise of the series is so strange that there’s something profoundly unclassifiable about it as well. First published in collected form in Japan in 1998-1999 (it had previously been serialized in a manga anthology), Uzumaki was made into a feature film in 2000.

What’s it about, this weird thing?

Let’s start with the title. My Japanese was never good enough to appreciate the nuances, but a bit of dictionary sleuthing and chats with native speakers gave me some context. The word “uzumaki,” like many words in Japanese, is archaic in origin, and, as such, has many layers of meaning. The word used in the English translation of the series, released by Viz in 2001, is “spiral.” Other possible meanings include “vortex,” “whirlpool,” “eddy,” and “funnel.” Very literally, it could mean “broken circle” or “swirling circle.”

The town of Kurōzu-cho.
The town of Kurōzu-cho.

The idea here is that it’s both an unharmonious shape and a pattern of movement: natural and unnatural. The images invoked are of tornadoes, undertows, and dust devils; but also forms greatly prized in Japanese aesthetics for their unsettling irregularity. Notions of the mystical circle factor centrally into Japanese iconography and Shinto and Zen spirituality. The spiral, as the circle’s theoretical corruption or distortion, instills both intrigue and a vague sort of discomfort and disorder. It’s the inevitable spiraling down of all things, a form that suggests hypnosis and paralysis, a metaphysical puzzle.

These big ideas certainly lurk in the themes of Uzumaki. But, except in the adulation of a couple of characters unnaturally obsessed with the idea of the spiral, they’re never discussed in these terms. The characters in the story are so soaked in the mundane, despite the extraordinary events they encounter, that they seem downright stupid.

The events of the series begin in a seaside town called Kur≈çzu-cho. We see this depressing little place through the eyes of high school student Kirie, the daughter of a widower who makes pottery. Kirie staunchly refuses to fully observe and process the strange things going on around her, shrugging them off even when they reach a grotesque pitch-a definite horror trope, the protagonist who sees less than we, as the audience, do. Kirie’s foil (another horror archetype) is her boyfriend Suichi, who has a brooding sense that something is awfully wrong, but feels powerless to do anything about it.

Mr. Saito goes off the deep end with the spirals.
Mr. Saito goes off the deep end with the spirals.

The first clear indication that strange things are afoot in Kur≈çzu-cho is the odd behavior of Suichi’s father, Mr. Saito. Saito becomes so obsessed with spiral forms that he quits his job and devotes himself completely to collecting anything he can find with a spiral on it: clothing, little objects, even a spiral-shaped sign for a local hair salon.

His son and wife do their best to contain their alarm and disgust as Saito’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre. He films snails crawling along a stone wall for hours; he berates his wife for not adding more spiral-shaped fish cakes to his soup with dinner, frantically stirring the soup so fast that he forms little whirlpools in it; and finally scares his family by rotating his eyes in different directions, claiming that he’s starting to internalize the form of the spiral into his very being. (A gruesome scene later in the story shows how Saito takes this idea to its ultimate conclusion, though the horrors continue well after his funeral.)

A really bad hair day: high schoolers are taken over by their vanity.
A really bad hair day: high schoolers are taken over by their vanity.

The madness about spirals gradually spreads to other residents of the town as a sort of creeping collective insanity. Meanwhile, apparently supernatural events increase in frequency, culminating in a tornado that decimates the town. The surviving residents are herded into emergency shelters. The result is a sort of shanty town that gets twisted into-you guessed it-a spiral shape, distorting the borders of what’s left of the town so that any attempt to actually leave it results in the traveler winding up back where he started.

Well before this happens-and it’s not the end of the tale, ultimately-we see a number of examples of the idea of spirals taking hold of people. A prankster who loves scaring his schoolmates dies in a way reminiscent of his beloved jack-in-the-boxes (a clear homage to a classic Twilight Zone episode). A vain, popular girl in Kirie’s high school finds herself a prisoner to her hair, which grows into outlandish curls and ultimately draws the life out of her. A slovenly, slow-moving boy transforms into a snail. A peeping Tom sprouts growths all over his body, using them first to pierce little holes in walls to spy on his victims, but then finally becomes so stricken with the disfiguring disease that he grows into the wall itself, collapsing with it into the neighboring house. A maternity ward gets taken over by the spiral, as strange fetuses direct their mothers to do unspeakable things with drills.

Seriously, there’s horror, then there’s whatever this is. Ito’s twisted imagination delivers any amount of pure shock, but one has to marvel at its ingenuity and originality. Some of it is so weird that it verges on being funny or ridiculous. But, ultimately, it’s so disturbing that it does that magic that horror does: it instills fright.

Two things that should not mix.
Two things that should not mix.

In Uzumaki, we do see many standard elements of Japanese horror: a disruption of quotidian life into something weird and extreme as people try somehow to carry on and make sense of it; images of the distortion of the body, mutation, or disease; and threatening forces from the natural or supernatural world overpowering our human realities and assumptions. But the underlying premise is all the scarier because, despite some exposition at the very end of the manga series, it’s never fully or plausibly explained.

The film version of Uzumaki doesn’t do a great job of conveying the full strangeness of the manga, and seems rushed to conclusion, particularly at the end. The three volumes that comprise the collected story give the events room to meander and digress, many of the episodes-like the strange business of the town’s lighthouse-having nothing to do with the central story arc other than to reinforce the extent to which Kur≈çzu-cho is being taken over by the spirals.

uzumaki_01To me, ghost stories, hauntings, and the supernatural are inherently scary enough. But there’s something so abstractly frightening about Ito’s idea of a town going spiral-mad, though, that it’s unsettling in a completely different way. Apparently Ito was inspired by H. P. Lovecraft, who wrote at length about weird things beyond our time and space: equations that opened doors to other realms, colors that characters could see but not quite define, and ancient architecture that just seemed geometrically wrong. Lovecraft’s monsters weren’t mere ghosts and goblins, they were extradinsional entities from realms with entirely different physical laws.

Ito’s work clearly aims to create this same sense of profound disturbance beyond yelling “boo” and watching you jump at the cheap thrill. It’s going for that true terror, those moments when your whole sense of reality gets a catastrophic shake-up. Perhaps we wouldn’t respond to such events any more intelligently than the sheep-like citizens of Kur≈çzu-cho–who knows? Let’s hope none of us ever had to find out.

If you’re into horror in any form, do pick this up. It makes more conventional works in the genre (including my own, I’m forced to admit) look amateurish and ordinary, and it will make you wake up at least once in a cold sweat.