by Junji Ito. Viz, 2007-2008. 3 Volumes, $9.99 each.
Charles and I usually review new books on Tuesday, but we're making an exception with Uzumaki. The original Japanese version of Uzumaki was written and drawn by Junji Ito in 1998-99, and first translated into English in 2001-02 as one of Viz's early forays into manga book publishing, so it's been around for years in both languages. Uzumaki was also made into a Japanese movie in 2000, so its bizarre plot--of a small town haunted by spirals(!)--is familiar to Asian movie fans as well as comics otaku. Viz's English-language edition of the Uzumaki manga lapsed out of print, though, until last year, when they began to republish the entire story in three paperbacks with stylish, pitch-black covers engraved with portraits of tormented teenagers.
It was time for me to catch up with Uzumaki.
In 2004, I was preparing to teach a comics class, and while casting around for manga to include in my syllabus, I hooked Ito’s Gyo (2000-02, English translation 2003-4; most of the dates cited in this post are lifted from Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide , an invaluable resource for gaijin like me). The two volumes of Gyo portray our world reduced to ruin by mechanical harnesses that mindlessly take over fish, animals, and humans (click the thumbnail for a clearer view -- and that goes for all the images below, too):
Sickening, repulsive, and full of panels showing power hoses thrusting themselves into anuses, Gyo quickly became one of my favorite horror comics. I didn’t assign Gyo as a primary text in my comics class—I teach in a small, relatively conservative North Carolina town, so I blinked—but I started a lending library of supplementary graphic novels for the students to borrow, and the competition for Gyo volume 2 was fierce. The students couldn’t wait to read about the cybernetic, insecticide apocalypse (and you can about it too, since Gyo, like Uzumaki, has been reprinted in new paperbacks).
My next blasts of Ito were the three volumes of Dark Horse’s Museum of Terror anthologies (2006), which translated stories published between 1987 and 2003 in various Japanese mangazines. The first two volumes collect the Tomie series, a suite of stories about, in Jason Thompson’s succinct words, "a fickle young femme fatale with long black hair, who cannot be killed but is often chopped into thousands of pieces that regenerate gruesomely into loathsomely beautiful clones" (230). Most of the Tomie tales are less effective than Gyo or Uzumaki—they’re obviously by a younger, less disciplined artist—but Ito still manages some stomach-churning variations on Tomie’s rejuvenations. My favorite is volume 2’s story "Assassins," where a young man slices a Tomie-face off its host body, and ends up an overworked gofer for the bossy face-on-a-pillow:
In volume 3, Museum of Terror showcases unrelated short stories, one of which, "The Bully," is simultaneously one of Ito’s least gory and most disturbing works, with a final page that evokes the real life horrors of child abuse as chillingly as Debbie Drechsler’s "Visitors in the Night" or a monstrous father muttering "Mo-o-om--y needunt kno-o-owW..." to a terrified daughter in Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s Swamp Thing #26 (1984).
So I was ready for Uzumaki, and I wasn’t disappointed. I won’t discuss it in much detail—I won’t give away its surprises—but it’s my favorite Ito work to date, a story that several times actually made me feel sick. God, I love that sickness. Why do I smile, and simultaneously feel like I'm going to puke, as two snail-men begin to mate with each other? Or as a woman's forehead is replaced by a bottomless hole, and one of her eyes is sucked down that hole?
I think Uzumaki is effective at unsettling readers like me because of its fidelity to the general traits of the horror genre. On the most elemental level, the purpose of horror is to impart fear and nausea, and Uzumaki has that effect on me. Horror is the genre that raises goosebumps, that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. In her classic article "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess," Linda Williams lumps together pornography, melodrama and horror as body genres, genres whose pleasures rely on "the spectacle of a body caught in the grip of intense sensation or emotion.” In pornography, the body climaxes; in melodrama, the body experiences "ecstatic woe" represented by sobbing and weeping; and in horror, bodies are mutilated, violated, killed. (Uzumaki includes a jumping corpse dumping its guts onto the ground, and a recently-born infant sewn back into his mother’s womb.) Williams further argues that the responses of these fictional bodies are repeated among the actual spectators staring at the movie or video screen. Porn is supposed to turn us on, melodramas try to make us cry as much as the on-screen characters do, and horror films make us jump and gag.
The gag reflex applies to horror prose as well as horror films. In H.P. Lovecraft's stories, for instance, the descriptions of monsters are an unsettling combination of indistinct generalities—“I ought to be hardened by this stage; but there are some experiences and intimations which scar too deeply to permit of healing, and leave only such an added sensitiveness that memory reinspires all the original horror"--and more specific details meant to turn our stomachs: "From each one the tentacled starfish-head had been removed; and as we drew near we saw that the manner of removal looked more like some hellish tearing or suction than any ordinary form of cleavage.” (Both of these quotes are from chapter 11 of At the Mountains of Madness.) Lovecraft's specific details gross us out, while his generalities leave space for us to add our own disgusting details. Also, Lovecraft's refusal to write precise descriptions of his otherworldly monsters doesn’t feel like a failure of imagination; rather, language itself is an inadequate tool to convey horror literally beyond human reckoning. Lovecraft called this incomprehensibility “cosmic awe,” and I feel this Lovecraftian awe at the end of Uzumaki, when Ito obliquely references ancient, arcane history as a pseudo-explanation for “the eternal spiral.”
Why does horror give us nausea and awe? In his superb The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Noel Carroll argues that monsters are central to the effects of horror, and the primary trait of these monsters—beyond their obvious malicious intent--is their impurity, defined by their “interstitiality and categorical contradictoriness” (43). As human beings, we structure the world into mutually exclusive categories and respond with dismay and revulsion when we encounter something or someone that doesn’t fit into that worldview--i.e. a monster. As Carroll writes, building a monster usually entails
the construction of creatures that transgress categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, living/dead, insect/human, flesh/machine and so on. Mummies, vampires, ghosts, zombies, and Freddie, Elm Street’s premiere nightmare, are fusion figures in this respect. Each, in different ways, blur the distinction between living and dead. Each, in some sense, is both living and dead. A fusion figure is a composite that unites attributes held to be categorically distinct and/or at odds in the cultural scheme of things in unambiguously one, spatio-temporally discrete entity. (43)
Carroll defines other types of monsters in The Philosophy of Horror, but the fusion type dominates Ito’s manga: Tomie is living and dead and sexy and revolting, the creatures in Gyo are animal/machine hybrids, and in Uzumaki the design of the spiral is relentlessly grafted onto organic forms, breaking down bones, flesh, and the boundaries among individual bodies:
For me, Uzumaki works as horror because its hybrid monsters and piles of spiral flesh violate enough natural, cognitive categories to make me sick. There are images in Uzumaki that trouble me as much as the surreal castrations and fecal mountains in Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown (1989).
Uzumaki follows the horror genre in other ways. Carroll points out, for instance, that most narratives in the genre stick close to what he calls the complex discovery plot, which has “four essential movements or functions. They are: onset, discovery, confirmation and confrontation” (99). In the onset phase, “the monster’s presence is established for the audience” (99), and Uzumaki begins relatively slowly, as the two main protagonists (Kirie and Shuichi) notice relatively small manifestations of the spiral in their town of Kurôzu-Cho, like tiny dust devils whirling through the streets and the strange behavior of Shuichi’s father. Incidents of twistedness (pun intended) increase in number and intensity, however, reinforcing and confirming Kirie and Shuichi’s mutual suspicion that the spiral is corrupting Kurôzu-Cho. Most of the three volumes of Uzumaki are an extended confirmation of the spiral’s power, a prolonged tease that dovetails with the serial demands of the Japanese manga market—Uzumaki’s chapters were published separately in Weekly Big Comic Spirits magazine--while allowing Ito to amass details (fleshy giant eyes, snail men, entwining bodies, etc.) that reoccur when Kirie and Shuichi directly confront the cause of the demonic spirals at the conclusion of volume 3.
Adhering to the traits of the horror genre isn't always a good thing, of course. One of Uzumaki's flaws, and a persistent flaw in just about all the Ito I've read, is that the normal characters (Ito's "final girls," the characters who discover and confirm the existence of the monster) are one-dimensional and dull. In Uzumaki, Kirie and Shuichi are ciphers, as boring as the leads in a typical slasher film, and by the end of volume 3 I cared a lot less about their safety than about the hidden secrets of the spiral. And although Ito's handling of the mystical and horrific elements of Uzumaki's narrative is masterful, he's clueless when it comes to portraying everyday life; at the beginning of volume 2, for instance, Kirie and a friend walk through a graveyard on their way to school, ignoring all of volume 1's signs that the world has gone mad. This isn't the way real people would act if faced with Uzumaki's perversity, and it's this sense of the real that Ito doesn't quite capture in his horror tales.
Despite its flaws, Uzumaki remains a must-read. Ito is a sensational artist--he's probably my favorite Japanese manga-ka in any genre, with the possible exception of Jiro Taniguchi (apples and oranges, anyone?) and I'd love to see his art in a larger format and with color added. Uzumaki volume 1 opens with four attractive color pages that set the appropriate ominous mood...
...and I'd love more images like this. I'm desperate to read more of Ito's manga to see where he takes his machine aesthetic--his mixture of organic forms with machinery and the assembly line--next. In all of his books I've read, Ito, like some sort of twisted, pseudo-Deist god, sets down irrational but consistent rules, and then wrings endless, perverse variations on these rules. With the regularity of passing time, Tomie comes back from the dead, even when pieces of her are boiled in a giant sake vat. And in Uzumaki, everything is connected to the rigid design of the spiral: plant life, snails, jack-in-the-boxes, hair (boy, does Ito have a hair fetish), pottery, umbilical cords, and storms. Perhaps Ito's work is an implicit critique of our over-reliance on schedules, machines, bureaucracy, inflexible protocols; maybe Ito's telling us that the machines have already stuck their tubes down our throats and up our asses. Maybe we've built the spiral labyrinth ourselves and we'll never find our way out. This notion, more than any gross-out imagery, really sickens me.