Time for more manga and another Junji Ito series, Uzumaki, written and drawn by Ito and translated by Yuji Oniki . Junji Ito is not the most prolific of mangaka and very little of what he has done has been released in the west. I looked at Gyo a couple of months back and now I am looking at Uzumaki (which means "Spiral") his hands-down, no holds barred work of demented, twisted (pun intended) genius. Twenty chapters set in one cursed Japanese sea-side town narrated by a teenage female character, which starts out with queasy conicidences and strange obssessions and ends in a full blown Lovecraftian nightmare of epic proportions. Fans of weird Japanese cinema may have seen the surreal film based on the series, which cherry picked various chapters but didn't have the budget to take it to the spectacular place it ended at. Although it's still an enjoyable weird little film if you're a fan of the genre, the manga is more coherent and builds terror much more effectively. Although the horror isn't gross out in it's defiling of the body like Gyo was, it's still quite alarming and so those with faint hearts might want to give this one a miss. I've also split this look into two posts, ten chapters apiece as it is a weighty volume, so part two will be up in a few days time. So how can Spirals be scary? You are about to find out...[note: This manga is unflipped so reads right to left]
The first thing to note is that the whole tale is being told in flashback. We don't see the "present" until the very last pages of the book. The story begins with a few colour pages and a look at the town of Kurouzu-cho where the events will be taking place. We meet Kirie Goshima, our narrator. She is a normal teenage girl who lives with her family and has a boyfriend called Shuichi Sato.
|Kirie and Shuichi|
Shuichi: "I can't stand this place. We'll go crazy if we stay here."
He says he feels dizzy everytime he returns to the town. Kirie doesn't know what to make of it. We then cut to Mr. Sato talking to Mr. Goshima - Kirie's dad - who happens to be a potter by trade. Mr. Sato enthusiastically says "It's really the art of the spiral". He orders a piece from Mr. Goshima, specifically with a black spiral. He says he has a love of the spiral and collects things with them on. We then get a look at his room full of spiral objects.
Shuichi and Kirie carry on walking home. Shuichi says his father can make his eyeballs spin independantly of each other in spirals. At dinner he got angry because there were no spiral patterened fishcakes, so he stirred his miso soup into a spiral. He evens makes a spiral before getting into the bathwater. Shuichi invites Kirie to come and see if he doesn't believe her. On the way he points out all the spirals in a stream they are walking by.
|Shuichi's spiral crazy dad.|
We then jump forward to Mr. Sato's funeral. Shuichi says to Kirie he'll tell her how his father really died. They found a wooden tub he had ordered especially and when he and his mum looked inside they found Suichi's dad "spun" somehow into a human spiral which killed him. As they talk outside the crematorium, the smoke from Mr. Sato's cremation starts to form a huge spiral in the sky.
The smoke moves away from the chimney in a whirlwind formation and settles over "dragonfly pond". Mrs. Sato begins to freak out, Shuichi tried to calm her but they see the smoke for, for an instant, the face of Shuichi's father. And Mrs. Sato just starts screaming with hysterical laughter. In the hospital she is being restrained by several doctors and nurses, when she sees one of the nurses has her hair in a spiral like bun she screams "Spiral! Spiral! Take it away!"
|Shuichi's mum gets rid of unwanted spirals.|
Thanks to all the precautions the hospital staff are taking she seem to be calming down. He, his mum and a doctor talk in the doctor's office and Shuichi becomes distracted by a diagram on the wall showing the inner ear, especially the spiral-like cochlea. The doctor recommends Mrs. Sato goes to Midoriyama-shi psychiatric hospital. She doesn't really want to go, and tells Shuichi she won't hurt herself anymore as she has removed all her spirals.
Later Shuichi walks with Kirie and tells her about the cochlea, and implies heavily that if his mum found out about it she'd take drastic measures to get rid of it. Later that night, Mrs. Sato awakens to find a centipede trying to crawl into her ear. She kills it and it curls up into a spiral with her husbands face and it says he wants to curl up inside her ear. She wakes up for real, screaming.
|Haunted by her dead husband.|
Mrs. Sato hallucinates her husband telling her there are spirals in her ears. She takes a pair of scissors and plunges them into her earhole. With her inner ears destroyed she loses her sense of balance and feels like she is experiencing spirals all the time. She dies not long after.
Kirie: "On the day of her funeral as her body was burned...another black spiral emerged in the sky above our town."
The next chapter begins with Kirie musing about a friend she had called Azami Kurotan. She says she regrets knowing her because then Azami wouldn't have met Shuichi, "and we might have prevented what happened." She is a beautiful but reserved girl, "she was good at giving the cold shoulder." She lives in a different town but attends school in Kurouzu-cho.
One day Azami and Kirie go to see Shuichi who hasn't been coming out of his house since the death of his parents. They are greeted by a depressed and hollow eyed Shuichi who freaks out when he sees Azami and tells her to go away and never come back again. Kirie apologises to Azami who goes quiet on the way to the station. Later on the phone, Shuichi says to Kirie "you have to watch out. She's a spiral".
His doorbell goes and he answers the door to be confronted by Azami. She demands to know what is wrong.
Azami: "Every boy I have ever met has fallen for me. How could you reject me?"
He says she's hiding something on her forehead. She pulls back her fringe and her scar has turned into a spiral. Shuichi says the town has changed it and she should leave while she still can. But she refuses and becomes obssessed with him, even getting her parents to rent her a flat in the town. She goes to see Shuichi every day but he refuses to see her.
Kirie confronts her and tells her to leave Shuichi alone. She won't, she wants Shuichi to care about her. Then a large spiral appears on her forehead. A boy called Okada appears and tells Azami how he is drawn to her. Azami runs away and stops coming to school.
|Possessed by the spiral.|
Then, as Kirie arrives to witness what happens, the spiral takes over Azami's head and sucks Okada in. Then the spiral gets bigger and bigger, consuming Azami's body until finally there is nothing left of her.
The next chapter begins with Kirie observing another spiral of smoke from a cremation moving over to Dragonfly Pond. She goes to look for her father and finds him sat by the kiln, he gets angry and tells her not to look inside. She notes that even the smoke from the kiln is making a spiral.
We then cut to a ceramics exhibtion. Mr. Goshima's pieces are all distorted and covered in spirals. He says of them, "The do have a life of their own" and the distortion happened during the firing process. He doesn't sell any though. Kirie says she isn't surprised, they look weird and aren't practical. Kirie's little brother spots a distorted face on one of them and says it looks like Shuichi's mum. Kirie's dad brushes it off as coincidence, but they find other faces all from people recently cremated.
Kirie says she wouldn't eat from that plate either, that a plate made from clay from Dragonfly Pond might be "clay made from dead people". However her father keeps getting the clay from the pond. One night Kirie goes down to the kilm and while her father sleeps, peers inside and sees ghostly faces calling for help.
Her dad wakes up and sends her away, in bed she can still hear the voices. Shuichi calls her saying he was lonely, but he also hears the voices. He rushes over and they go down to the kiln. Shuichi hears his parents inside and picks up a huge brick and smashes the kiln with it, setting the ghosts free. The kiln workshop catches fire and burns down, but even so, Kirie's obssessed father goes and digs his final pieces out of the ashes.
|Ghosts in the kiln.|
Kirie talks to Kazunori who says he and Yoriko are in love. He says that due to their poverty their families souls have become twisted. He goes home and has to endure the two families screaming insults at each other through the walls. It gets too much for him and Yoriko and they rush outside to each other, but both get pulled back inside before they can reach each other.
Kirie tells Shuichi about the situation. Shuichi says they have been "cursed by the spiral".
Shuichi: "If what I saw hasn't driven me completely insane then those houses are part of this. And everyone in them is doomed."
|Kazunori and Yoriko.|
The adults find them and Kazunori gets a punch and Yoriko taken away. Somehow Kazunori twists his body round unnaturally, then pops it back. Kirie arranges for Kazunori and Yoriko to escape together and she and Shuichi wait to meet them at the railway station. But Kazunori and Yoriko come running up saying they've been discovered, so they all run to the beach.
Their families catch up with them, but before they can be seperated, but Kazunori and Yoriko twist their bodies round and round each other like the snakes or a length of twine. Thus entangled they cannot be seperated.
Yoriko: "We're never going to be apart. That's right..."
And they take off like a twister across the sea and are never seen again.
Sekino: "I understand how he must have felt. It's nice when other people notice you."
Kirie says that she doesn't like sticking out, but Sekino says lately she "craves it" but doesn't know how to go about it.
Later Kirie and Shuichi talk about the rash of strange, exhibitionist behaviour. He says it's the spirals "mesmerising" people into wanting attention. He also notes that Kirie's hair is getting longand maybe needs a cut.
Next day at school her hair suddenly forms spiral-like curls, when Sekino braids it for her, it unwinds back into the curls. She goes to get it cut, but her hair suddenly grows and attacks the styalist. Then acts like it's alive. She has to leave it alone to stop it trying to strangle her, and she has to walk around with it floating around her head in spiral curls.
Her hair forces her to go to where crowds can see it and keeps on growing. She starts to feel weak like it is draining her strength. Then one day Sekino arrives on the scene also with floating spiral curled "living" hair. School becomes a battleground for attention between them despite Kirie's reluctance.
Finally it turns into a literal battleground as their hair fights and Sekino's starts choking Kirie. Shuichi cuts Kirie free and tries to cut her hair but gets bound up in it. Sekino declares victory as Shuichi cuts his way free and finally manages to cut off Kirie's hair. Sekino cackles madly "ha ha ha! Look at me!" but her hair starts draining her lifeforce faster and faster until she ends up a dry, dead husk, although her hair lives on for a few more hours.
Suddenly Mitsuru jumps out from behind a gravestone and startles them. Shiho tells him off and that Kirie already has a boyfriend. Mitsuru says he won't give up and she'll "go out with me eventually". He keeps stalking her, popping up all over the place. He sends her a package one day, but she doesn't open it and tries to return it to him. He decides to run out in front of a car and says his love for her will stop it. It doesn't and he ends up dead, crushed under it's front wheels.
|So ends Mitsuru. He lived. He sucked. He died.|
So she and Shuichi sneak out to the graveyard that night. They plan to dig him up so Shuichi can hammer a stake through him. Kirie isn't sure Mitsuru is actually a vampire. Shuichi says:
Shuichi: "Look we're here because we believe a toy clown talked in the first place. Nothing is unbelievable in this town."
They uncover the casket, but before they can open it, Mitsuru's corpse pops up out of it. He begins jumping after them as Kirie and Shuichi run. His guts fall out then his legs fall off. Then a large spring pops out of his body and he bounces after them on it for a little while further before collapsing fully dead again. Shuichi says the spring is from the suspension of the car that killed him.
Kirie: "And so Jack-In-The-Box never surprised anyone again".
|Wise fwom your gwave!|
Later Katayama is useless in a volleyball game, so the class bully, Tsumuru strips him naked. This exposes a large spiral-like mark on his back. Next day he arrives at school and the spiral has swollen on his back. Kirie thinks: "A spiral.. A spiral rising". her friend says he looks like a snail. And in fact by the next day he as transformed into a full on snail, albeit with vaguely human features still. He crawls up the side of the school building.
The rain stops and Katamaya retreats into his shell. Kirie and her friend worry about him and spray him with water, but when he comes out revealing fully snail features, they flee. The teacher asks where Tsumuru is and then they see another slug climbing the building, it's Tsumuru. They put him in with Katamaya and they start mating!
Later the two of them escape. Kirie, her friend and her teacher Mr. Yokota follow the slime trail. They find a nest of snail eggs and Mr. Yokota stomps them all. Katamaya and Tsumuru are never seen again and a few days later Mr. Yokota comes to school and has turned into a snail as well.
Finally some men from the town go inside to investigate but they never come out. Then the light starts making people do "crazy things" like walking round and round in circles. After a boat crashes into the shore because of it, Mitsuo and friends run off and go inside to investigate. Kirie goes chasing after him.
|The mysterious light.|
She finds Mitsuo and friend huddled together at the top of the lighthouse. Instead of a lamp, there is a melted thing marked with the shape of the spiral. Kirie realises the lamp has melted in the heat and they are now in great danger. It is nearing dusk and time for the lamp to light up.
She and the two boys go pelting down the stairs as the light switches on and begins to follow them. The other boy falls as they run and the light catches him and burns him to a crisp. Kirie and Mistuo make it outside, although only just and get buffeted by the edge of the heated light beam, and next day the bodies are removed from the lighthouse, but it still keeps shining it's weird light over the town.
|The melted sinister lamp.|
More people start being hospitalised for mass mosquito bites, including many pregnant women. Kirie visits her pregnant cousin Keiko who has been bitten a lot. She helps unpack her things amongst which is a mysterious wrapped item, which Keiko tells Kirie to ignore. Next morning some patients are found dead, with many holes drilled in them and their blood drained out.
|This hospital has problems.|
He tells Kirie that only female mosquitos suck blood, and only when they are carrying eggs which need feeding. The nurse yells at Shuichi to leave and physically shoves him out of the room. That night Kirie is wakened by a weird noise, and when she gets up to investigate she is greeted by the horrible sight of all the pregnant women armed with drills walking the corridors.
She looks in one room and sees a pregnant woman sitting on a male patient and drilling into him. She has blood all round her mouth and on her gown. They all go to attack Kirie when another patient appears. They make spiral motions in the air with their fingers which knock him out, then gather round him with their drills and start drinking his blood.
|Unusual pregnancy cravings.|
And here we take a break to prevent this post getting even more unwieldy. Part two will cover the final ten chapters in a few days time. So far the weird horror has been mostly confined to the personal level, with Kirie and Shuichi being the unlucky recipients of the worst of it. Part two will see events spiral (heh) out of control and take in the whole town. One thing Junji Ito is excellent at is juxtaposing the silly with the horrific. The possessed hair chapter perhaps being the best example. Long hair with a life of its own? Pretty funny. Two girls getting into a hair battle? Goofy. Said long hair sucking out all the person's life force leaving them a skeletal husk? Holy fuck that's grim! As a personal note, I have lovely long waist length hair and now I am wondering if it's sucking my energy all the time? Could happen. The snails, while a somewhat surreal example of body horror will have utterly stomach churning plot importance later in the story. Ito's artwork remains detailed and as adept at capturing the everyday and normal as he is the parade of twisted bodies and screaming corpse ghosts. Kirie is a very likeable main character and a calm centre for the crazy events going on around her. I'm a horror fan since my early teens and to find horror that can turn even my stomach is rare, but this manages it. Superb stuff.