Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

14 Oct 2011

(Graphic Novel) Spiral/Uzumaki by: Ito Junji

(Reaction) Spiraling into Madness by: Jose Angelo Singson

Uzumaki or Spiral, written and illustrated by Ito Junji, is perhaps one of the most imaginative and really exceptional, both in terms of art and storytelling, graphic novels from Japan that I've had a chance to read. Ito Junji is venerated among mangaka (the Japanese term for comic book/graphic novel illustrator-writers) as one of the pillars of the horror genre of manga.

Uzumaki has won itself a place in the pantheon of oddity. If you really think about it there really is nothing terribly scary about a spiral. It is a naturally occurring geometric shape, mathematically and logically pleasing, not to mention completely utilitarian in purpose and application. If you ask me, the element of horror truly stems from this conclusion I've formulated myself: the town itself is a demonic or an insane genius loci (in classical Roman mythology a genius loci was a spirit of a place) and it was hell-bent (again, pun intended) on destroying itself and the town residents.

Rather than manifesting itself into a terrible, monstrous form like your standard H.P. Lovecraftian evil god featured in all his horror novels it manifested itself subtly, very subtly. One. Spiral. At. A. Time. The spiral therefore served as its herald and sigil and like the spiral it chose as it's embodiment it was also its preferred method of destruction; pulling everything inward into itself like the mythical Serpent Orboros curling inward swallowing its own tail completely indifferent to its own demise.

If you think about it this way it starts to make a little more sense. Not a lot, but it gives one a bit more of an answer as to why things just imploded and again, pun intended, spiraled downwards from bad to worse to absolutely FUBARED.

Although this may have not been the author's intended explanation (I think most of his horror series is written to be innately irrational - fear based on superstition and unexplainable violent events rather than a tangible threat) this is something that I've come to conclude which is not terribly far off especially if you consider Ito-sensei's writing roots (Lovecraft) who often featured fantastically grotesque super-beings manipulating humans from the background; often with those being manipulated being completely unaware that they were being manipulated. Those being manipulated had no idea who was manipulating them.

After having read Uzumaki and having conducted a bit of research I discovered some interesting bits of information that explained a lot about Ito-sensei's writing style and recurring themes: 1. As a young boy he was inspired by Umezu Kazuo of The Drifting Classroom fame, hence his love for noir-ish settings and liberal use of insomniac-looking, wide-mouthed screaming faces 2. He was also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, the father of the cosmic horror genre and much like his idol his stories tend to express a profound indifference to human beliefs and affairs, i.e. human life and human dignity isn't worth a cupful of beans in a vast, scary and often hostile-to-human-life universe.

The graphic novel revolves around Kirie Goshima, the protagonist of the story who narrates most of the strange and macabre happenings within the Kurozu-cho, the cursed town in which she lives in. I hesitate to call Kirie a protagonist or a lead character because most of the time the strange and awful events that occur in the town directly affect her and her family so I am more inclined to call her a victim rather than a narrator.

It is hard to pin down what the actual story is behind Uzumaki as events are presented in one-shot fashion: story is told and then concluded (as best as it can be concluded, many of the chapters end without a terribly clear ending) by the end of a chapter. Most of the stories at first blush seem badly disjoined. It almost seemed like the author was just writing on whimsy, conjuring up whatever frightening story he can develop and draw that had anything to do with spirals. Later on though the stories are loosely tied back up (some of them at least) to give a bit more cohesion to the overall story. The chapters therefore can be treated as colorful backdrops and storytelling devices that build-up a lot of the tension within the series and this is where the graphic novel really excels at, the slow buildup of tension.

Events throughout the graphic novels start out benignly then become increasingly sinister, turning outright murderous as a chapter ends. In the series the spiral is the recurring, all encompassing leitmotif. It (the spiral) is the herald of evil tidings and all the unfortunate events in the series are tied up with, in one way or another, to spirals. The first character in the novel to realize the ominous relationship between the spiral patterns and ghoulish events that transpire in their quaint seaside town is Kirie's boyfriend, Shuichi. Shuichi's father becomes obsessed with spirals, spending hours looking at snail shells and zealously collecting anything that has a spiral pattern to it: mosquito coils, watch springs, seashells, etc. He skips work to stare at his collection and until finally, consumed with his fixation with spirals manages (this of course much like many events in the novel is not explained) to coil his body into a spiral which of course kills the old man.

This obsession with spirals causing the death of the old man then sets off a chain reaction throughout the town, literally initiating the slow but sure spiral into madness (pun very, very intentionally done) and madness it indeed truly is. From the spiral obsession that ends up with a most gristly death scene evens then escalate into absolutely, gruesomely, unexplainably drug-addled mad. Here's a quick run through of the bizarre events in Uzumaki: people slowly devolving into human-sized snails complete with spiral shells on their backs, violent twisters with an intense hatred for Kirie and only Kirie. Pregnant women that develop the feeding habits of mosquitoes---consuming human blood so their unborn children would develop---using hand-cranked drills to draw blood from their victims and finally, the mother of all spirals buried several meters in the center of their town causing all of this utter insanity to manifest in the most unorthodox of ways to serve whatever sinister unintelligible alien purpose it has in mind for the unfortunate inhabitants of Kurozu-cho.

Oddly enough, despite the story's general lack of structure it does tell a very compelling story. One reads through the series spurred on by the desire to unravel (again pun seriously intended) the mystery and the relationship of the spiral to the demise of the town and its hapless residents. Again this is the true appeal of the graphic novel really. It excels in hooking in the reader with the mysteriousness of the events and sustains that interest through the slow buildup of tension. The characters get their fair share of development but seem a bit unrealistic to me. More often than not they seem to be quite unfazed by the supernatural events that happen all around them. Virtually every new chapter begins with the main character going about her usual routine (going to school) and narrating whatever bit of strangeness has been going on in the town, seemingly unaffected by all the screaming and running that she had done just a chapter ago. It also strikes me as very strange that both Kirie and Shuichi seem to be content to become nothing more than mere victims of the spiral. They neither make efforts to try and escape nor do they make attempts to try to figure things out in order to stop it.

What the series lacks though and this is where it really disappoints, is its utter lack of follow-through. Even as the series progresses and the story arcs start to come together the author makes use of the all-purpose explanation it is all the work of the spiral to attempt to make sense of events. This leaves the reader, this reader in particular, wanting a more tangible explanation to all the batty-ness that has been happening throughout the chapters. Eventually the series ends with the conclusion that there is no way to survive, no means to escape but to complete the town's transformation into a huge spiral and give in and become part of the immense spiral. The conclusion seems contrived and gives one the feeling that the author's train of thought had gotten derailed, thus rendering him unable to complete the story. As a reader I felt like the story as a whole had been abandoned, all events that had transpired, especially those that affected the main character, throughout the series futile. The lead character could have died in the first chapter and it wouldn't have affected the way the story panned out in any way. Someone else would have picked up the narration job.

Despite these gaps in the overall story Uzumaki is still an enjoyable read. It is creative enough to stand out among the other horror stories that have come from Japan, especially those that involve curses, and there was a rash of them that came out in the early 2000's. It is highly original primarily because of the author's use of a malevolent genius loci rather than a ghost as the primary antagonist of the series and for his strangely beautiful art. In contrast say to Umezu Kazuo, Ito Junji has a sharp eye for beauty. He often features beautiful women as his lead characters, much like the late Alfred Hitchcock would in his movies. Ito-sensei displays a keen understanding of aesthetics in the depiction of his female characters. He draws them frequently as generally tall, slender, almost willowy young women with gentle, oval-shaped faces (this according to makeup artists is the most ideal face shape to apply makeup to) and wistful expressions.

This well developed understanding of artistic beauty also translates into the effective rendering of some truly horrifying imagery. As the characters become more and freaked out by events the artist is able to translate this growing sense of unease in the characters by making subtle changes in their appearance. Characters begin to develop dark splotches around their eyes, their cheeks begin to hollow out with fatigue and lack of food, their postures start to stoop and the author-artist begins to employ shading techniques that draw out the creepiness of the scene making even an empty room seem foreboding and menacing.

Although there is an almost overwhelming open-ended-ness to the series, the author is able to tie everything together but in a truly twisted manner. Ito-sensei often places his characters in moral procrustean beds. Situations with such complex choices and outcomes that damn the characters whatever path they decide to take. I remember a scene in the series where food becomes scarce as a result of the town being cut-off, people in Kurozu-cho turn to eating the men-snails, all the while trying to rationalize that they are no longer human so it's ok to eat them. This is a sickening turn of events for Kirie as she had seen some of her classmates actually turn into men-snails, the last straw for her being her own little brother turning into a man-snail himself. Although the men-snails are completely devoid of sapience it poses a terribly uncomfortable quandary of conscience: would you try to eat your best friend if there was nothing else to eat in town?

These horrid super-beings had thought processes so profound that it was completely alien; inconceivable and unintelligible by human understanding. These hideous super-beings were completely indifferent to the plight of humans much like to the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft who pulled the strings in human society constantly but couldn't care a wit about what happened to humanity itself. In Uzumaki the super-being chose to show itself as a series of spirals, but it was every bit a tentacled evil elder god from H.P. Lovecraft's own creepy, moldy thought-womb...

Review:

Uzumaki is a great piece of work by Ito Junji. It is truly one of a kind. The story has about as many holes as a colander does but the execution was so well done that a reader is virtually compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what is really causing all of these absurdities to happen.

That and the graphic novel itself is a fine bit of eye-candy. Although it was inspired by Umezu-sensei's body of work, it is almost a complete polar opposite of it. The art is beautifully, almost hauntingly rendered. The story line decidedly apathetic of all human endeavors, it is totally bereft of humanity as having any power to manifest positive change in his situation. The theme even more darkly depressing than the post-apocalyptic writings of his idol; there is no hope of escape, no chance of fighting or resisting. All one can do is succumb. All of this grimness wrapped tight in a gripping narrative manner fully primed and fully capable of sucking in the reader.

All things considered I believe this bit of work to be serious homage to H.P. Lovecraft's mythos in that much like those mythos it makes use of otherworldly forces acting upon humanity in ways that can barely be explained but definitely felt. Cthulu would have been proud to have The Spiral as his neighbor.

If you want to stay up, forget coffee. Open up Uzumaki and enjoy the restless nights to come. It is so weird, it's wonderful. It is so strange it is original. So alien that it's scary. So scary it's compelling...

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