Craig has pointed out that Uzumaki is a supreme example of horror as a body genre (in Linda Williams' sense). Yes, its horrors and its appeal have everything to do with the human body: hybridized, distorted, violated, twisted and parodied, and grotesquely aestheticized. As Craig says, Ito's bodies become "fusion figures" which are carthartically nauseating.
Uzumaki is also horror based on obsession. In essence, it's about a town full of people who, individually and communally, become obsessed with a shape.
Ito's plots follow a certain clear pattern: either the characters develop fixations which steal away their sanity and eventually their humanity and their lives, or else they develop some kind of bodily infection, as it were, which plays out not only in monstrous physical transformation but also in obsessive, one-track thinking that builds to a febrile intensity and ultimately, again, madness and death. At times it's the bodily transformation that renders the characters insane, at times it's the insanity that leads to the bodily transformation; in either case, the characters end up obsessing over an idea (some variation of the theme of the spiral) and losing their grip. What's most interesting about this is that Uzumaki is itself determinedly, fixedly, repetitive, suggesting Ito's obsession with his own theme, more precisely with how to render that theme freshly, graphically, in each new installment. I think part of the appeal here is simply that spirals are fun to draw and to look at, so it's very easy for Ito and us readers to get obsessed with them. And indulging obsession is part of the appeal of the horror genre. Sure enough, once I started reading Uzumaki I began noticing "spirals" everywhere in my real-life surroundings. I began doing what Ito has done. Noticing this and taking perspective on it, that is, developing an ironic awareness of one's own fears and obsessions, seems to me to be one of the effects that keeps devotees of the horror genre coming back for more.
From the artist's POV, Uzumaki would seem to be about improvising with basic shapes and within a basic plot, thus to create manifold variations on a theme. That the father of Kirie (the main character) is a ceramicist who becomes obsessed with making the "art of the spiral" suggests a certain self-reflexivity on Ito's part:
The mud of the town's cursed pond, which is the epicenter and seeming source of all its madness, is the raw material of the potter's art, and ceramic pieces made with that mud inevitably bear the mark of the spiral. This means that a kind of art, not so unlike Ito's own, is growing out of the town's madness. Note that almost all of the large spiral shapes in the book -- curling crematorium smoke, hurricanes, a helicopter -- end up being sucked into that whirlpool of a pond, in great swirls of black ink, and out of this the potter seeks to create his own art. His mud, Ito's ink -- both are imbued with madness.
The potter and the cartoonist, evidently, have a lot in common. It remains to point out that Uzumaki also urges the reader toward a self-reflexive awareness of her/his own participation in the story: over time we too become creative obsessives, taking part in a predictable yet varied narrative formula, watching ourselves read and anticipate the story's moves, and, in essence, daring Ito to come up with something even more surprising and stunning than in the previous chapter. Reading horror partakes of obsessiveness, just as does Ito's storytelling. Author, characters, and readers alike are caught in the grip of a fixed pattern.
In other words, it seems to me that Uzumaki's determined focus on a single motif, its adherence to (as Craig says) an irrational but consistent rule, not only compels Ito to up the ante and put his powers of invention to the test each time out, but also compels the faithful reader to be mindful of his/her own habits of anticipation and response. After a while, our sheer stunned horror at the story's images and events becomes instead a kind of self-aware delectation, as Ito ratchets up the story to vaulting heights of absurdity in order both to fulfill the design of what he has started and to juice some remaining thrills out of the formula. We end up, as Craig suggests, loving the sickness.
In Vol. 3 the series' formerly episodic narrative at last tightens into an extended, multipart apocalyptic climax, because there's nothing else Ito can do to resolve the conceptual "dare" on which the story is based. And increasingly our horror gets counter-balanced by a contemplation of the sheer poetry of Ito's spiraling images, as his psychological probings of individual obsession become offset by a mounting Lovecraftian grandeur, an epic and otherworldly quality that has us reveling in the sheer beauty of the imagery even as we shudder. "Cosmic awe" complements our revulsion and nausea (click the thumbnail for a better view):
As we approach story's end, we know better than to hope for a happy resolution; all we want to see is a poetically apt and visually ravishing working-out of the tale's obsessive logic. What we really want to see is images -- drawings -- that, in their scope and phantasmagorical excess, kick our ass and shred our nerves. We get that. In spades.
Uzumaki's intensity makes up for a certain ungainliness in plotting and superficiality of characterization. Vol. 3's shift toward a more gradual resolving of the plot, that is, toward an extended, multi-chapter crisis, points up just how episodic and disconnected the earlier volumes are. Until that third volume, Uzumaki is less a graphic "novel" than a series, repeatedly milking its premise but not jelling into something larger. Yes, Vols. 1 and 2 gradually add up to, as Craig puts it, an instance of Noel Carroll's "complex discovery plot," but they are still frankly episodic in structure, betraying the influence of the story's original serialization in Weekly Big Comic Spirits. Honestly, the frightful shit that happens in Vols. 1 and 2 ought to be enough to drive every sane person straight out of town, posthaste, but Ito structures each of the early chapters as a self-contained horror tale, leading us back, implausibly, to a kind of communal status quo. If, as Craig suggests, the story's stuttering, teasing manner testifies to the serial demands of the manga market, it also undermines somewhat the credibility of the tale. The townspeople simply don't react strongly or believably enough to what's going on around them; everybody seems dazed and passive. (As Craig notes, it's hard to imagine real people responding in this way.) People turn into snails, an inactive lighthouse reactivates and begins mesmerizing everyone in town, a hospital is wracked by multiple murders committed by blood-starved expectant mothers (cripes), yet life goes on. The story's EKG remains a bit too flat. For example, the lead character, Kirie, has to go on with living -- going to school, interacting with family, discussing mundane, ordinary concerns -- despite the fact that any one of these episodes would be enough to knock a person off her rocker but good. By rights Kirie ought to melt down long before Vol. 3 -- how many shocking deaths, how many horrific sights, can one girl bear to witness? -- but Ito's logic requires that she stick it out.
This is perhaps why Kirie is, as Craig says, a cipher. Sure, she shows a great capacity for long-sufferance and survival, and she is kinder and less selfish than a great many of the townspeople we see; we are to admire her goodness and perseverance. However, Kirie doesn't have any identifying quirks that would serve to trademark and enliven her character. She's simply a figure of innocence caught up in a horrific pattern. While she often shows courage, and several times saves others from death, she does not seem outstandingly resourceful or intelligent, and certainly the cadences of her speech, as least as translated here, do nothing to mark her out as a distinctive person. Her friend Shuichi, who is interesting insofar as he is the one person to become obsessed by the spiral who does not succumb to it, shows a bit more character; he's on the gloomy, pessimistic, and recessive side. But even he doesn't show enough character to give us a full sense of his life. Ito's characters are victims, victimizers, witnesses, and survivors, but not vivid characters per se. I would not call this a flaw, though, at least not one that dilutes the pleasures of the story; after all, the awful pathos and cathartic buzz of Uzumaki depend on having generic characters whose struggles are not much more heroic than our own would be. What's more, the terrible, cyclical patterning of the story in effect denies human agency. In its inexorableness and ultimate predictability, Uzumaki makes an argument for destiny.
Ito's challenge is to make a predictable overall pattern continually surprising in its details, and in this he succeeds grandly. It is sheer improvisatory chutzpah that carries most of the series, until, that is, two chapters into Vol. 3, when Ito uses the arrival of an out-of-town journalist to shift the story's perspective, leapfrog forward in time, and show from a wider vantage point the total disintegration of the town. This enables a shift toward a more sustained, novelistic structure, and so Uzumaki's last six chapters (Chapters 14-19) are closer in effect to an epic feature film than to a half-hour episode in a TV anthology show. It's at this point that the narrative, already leaning toward Lovecraft in its obscure evocations of the alien and inhuman, wades deep into full-out Cthulhu-esque cosmic horror. Everything gets larger, then smaller, then larger again. The town dies a slow death and, despite the eleventh-hour introduction of a bunch of new characters, everything eventually contracts to Kirie and Shuichi -- but not before Ito has used the now-apocalyptic unraveling of the town to comment, disturbingly, on what people will do to each other in the name of survival. Here are two examples (click the thumbnails):
Just about everyone descends into animal savagery, ungovernable selfish appetite, and plain cannibalism; Ito makes clear that he thinks human beings under duress are capable of the very worst (in this he seems to have been guided by professed influence Kazuo Umezu, whose The Drifting Classroom has a similar Hobbesian theme). Then, even as the story bears down on Kirie and Shuichi in its final episodes, Ito opens out again, into a surreal worldscape on a celestial scale, full of towering shapes and hints of, as Craig says, an "ancient, arcane history," an undiscovered mythos. Now the story goes straight over the top, into its own grand-scale, Clive Barker-esque horror-fantasy, epic and extravagant; Ito takes this last opportunity to try to exorcise his spiral obsession by magnifying it beyond belief. The ending is spectacular, and perfect: the very landscape, finally, becomes a mosaic of dying and entangled human forms -- as Craig says, spiraling flesh -- and yet that damned spiral motif comes to represent, among other things, love.
I'm not going to explain that last remark; just read the books.
Uzumaki, like Lovecraft's fiction, is intensely, obsessively, stylized, thus already pitched toward self-parody. It is likewise seriously flawed. In addition, it's repulsive in the extreme. That said, I enjoyed it hugely, and I recommend it. Its atmosphere is overwhelming, its visuals mind-rattling, its net effect bemusing but also, in a weird way, delectable. Ito's drawings are staggeringly potent. Once I started Uzumaki, I read it straight through, my attention fixed, playing my part in its pattern of obsessiveness.
Love that sickness.