Uzumaki By Junji Ito
Writer(s) AND Artist(s): Junji Ito
Publisher: VIZ Media LLC; 1 edition (October 2001)
The townspeople of Kurozu-cho are being haunted by a strange infection of spirals. When corpses are cremated, the smoke forms a black spiral in the sky, and slowly things get worse: a lighthouse throws out spiral beams at dusk; babies are born, only to sprout spiral-capped mushroom-shaped appendages from their stomachs. It will be up to Shuichi Saito, the withdrawn boyfriend of teenager Kirie Goshima, to figure out why uzumaki, the spiral is haunting their town.
Although during the holiday I was pretty busy with my Facebook site and posting that rather lengthy commentary on European Comic compared to US Comic, I came across the disturbing news that an artist that I admire immensely (Junji Ito, of course) is slowing down his production because he is suffering from hand cramps.
Can you imagine that? Like a football quarterback, loosing his throwing shoulder, or a basketball player having knee problems and not being able to jump!!
So I quickly rummaged through my archives and managed to polish this review, and in the process re-read Uzumaki (all three volumes) and I have to say… It is still one heck of a thrilling ride.
I wanted to bring up this review later, after I had done some more reviews on European comics, and of course, some home-grown stuff, but I think the occasion warrants to push the schedule up.Iwanted to write a first a primer on the diferent styles of manga available to you, in the same vein as the promise I made of writing a primer regarding the differences between European comic and American, but I will leave that for another entry.
Also, being this my first entry on the Manga Genre I’m really glad I picked a particularly brilliant book, to keep on pace with most of the American works I’ve been reviewing.
The title Uzumaki translates roughly from Japanese into Spiral, and the title, as much as everything in the book is part of the subtext with many meanings.
But allow me to explain first that in japanase the iconography used in the visual narrative (comics) varies a lot from what we are accustomed in Western perception. By “Iconagraphy in the visual narrative” I mean those simple images that convey a meaning or invoke a feeling.
For example, in western culture we see a picture of a darkened alley with a solitary streetlamp and we may experience a sense of dread (humans are scared of the dark) but some people may evoke melancholy, while for other may carry other sad-romantic connotations.
That’s regulated by the quantity of cumulative experiences our culture has surrounded us with.
In Japanese culture, the same picture may incline more viewers more towards feelings of terror and desolation than in western cultures, and almost none will identify with melancholy or romantic settings. Why? Japan is a very dense country and seldom do you get to see empty streets. Also there is the collective memory of Hiroshima, and a bunch of other things that I don’t even have a clue about, that make the act of viewing that same icon completely different experience for them.
That’s why it is such a refreshing experience to read some mangas: They regale us with a wide range of iconography and visual-storytelling techniques that we are not accustomed to that it may feel completely new and innovative.
While the American horror-comic book scene is completely filled with vampires, zombies, the occasional werewolf, and some warlocks, the Japanese horror scene has different vampires and different set of ghosts altogether. When they are properly represented you get amazing and terrifying movies like RINGU (The Ring), and THE EYE, that more than peddling to the horror/gore sensitivities, they cater to the eerie and the make-the-hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck-stand-up kinda crowd.
Manga is also more oriented towards having one artist write and illustrate the book, and here, Junji Ito is amazing at wearing both hats. He maintains the pace of a man who has scripted the whole thing as a novel, introducing us to the characters firsts, then moving onto some horrific encounters with the possession of the town, and finally bringing us to the crescendo of its opera with a descent into darkness and visiting the heart of evil.
In the US the whole story has been published spanning three volumes in black and white (as most Manga is B&W), and they work pretty well conveying the pacing, even though in its native Japan they were released in periodical mags, much like our 16 page Marvel or DC comics you buy in the newsstand, or comic shop.
Mr. Ito’s art is detailed, clean, realistic, and elegant. He seems equally comfortable drawing apparitions that are the stuff of nightmares as well as dreamy and bucolic landscapes that serve as backdrops to horrors that are about to happen. It takes a special kind of author to avoid easy clichés, such as setting the scene of the scare moment on a dark and stormy night, or in the middle of a desolated road, or in a old creaky house. Mr. Ito’s horror comes to an idyllic landscape and slowly transforms it before our own very eyes, the way it transforms the bodies of the people it affects, or the same way the atom bomb transformed the lives of those who had to endure surviving it (I told you the Japanese Manga is plagued with subtext, didn’t I?)
And that is what makes this comic so good. Not only the art, and the story, but the fact that the artist understands the horror that the unknown produces in us, and holds onto that thought, avoiding explanations, stepping around the “whys” and just showing us that the “horror” is greater than us and we are really powerless in front of its subterfuges.
Knowledge and explanations are part of the plan to reassure the audience that “the good guy” will win at the end. We say “Ah, vampires can be killed by daylight, and hate crosses!” or “Werewolves require a silver bullet, and demons an exorcism!”
But many times in Manga horror, “the monster” is just this unstoppable force, that makes us face our ignorance regarding nature and its workings, as well as making us face our own frailties and mortality.
Let me be clear about one distinction here: Some “horror” comic books currently made in the US I would have no trouble sharing with my 10 year old nephew, since the monsters in those books behave just like cheesy comic book villains, like anthropomorphic avatars of evil to be conquered. I would NEVER let any child near UZUMAKI, because of its powerful content, and its unadulterated horror. I actually know of a few adults who were not be able to finish Uzumaki, and would have nightmares for weeks even though they didn’t get very far in their reading. I am not saying this is the scariest graphic-book ever written, but I am saying it is pretty darn close, and it should remain in the top of the list of horror comics you may be compiling.
Fortunately, for you, Western readers, Junji Ito is in tune with your western sensibilities when drawing and telling the story visually, so you won’t feel too alienated if you haven’t been exposed to manga priory, or if you are not a big fan of the genre.
All you have to be is a fan of the Horror genre, and this master will give you enough to keep you busy for a few scary nights.
So, on my Critics rating, Uzumaki by Junji Ito gets
If you like this book, try to pick up others by this master, such as Lovesick Dead, Tomie, Black Paradox