In my time reading comics, I would have to say that the Japanese are number one at making some of most eerie, creepy and downright disturbing horror comics that I have ever read. You have stories like The Drifting Classroom, Higurashi, Dragon Head, Franken Fran, and so many more.
However, one of the freakiest and also most popular horror manga to ever hit America was Uzumaki, written and drawn by Junji Ito (who has written Gyo and Flesh Colored Horror).
Uzumaki is well known for its terrifying stories and horrific imagery that put fear in the hearts of its readers (okay that may have sounded a bit cheesy). It’s a very beloved horror series, but what makes it so liked? Are there any problems with it? Would nonfans of manga like it? Let’s answer that right here and now: Is it good?
Uzumaki Vol. 1-3
Written & Drawn By: Junji Ito
Translated By: Yuji Oniki
American Publication By: Viz Media
Uzumaki is set in Kurôzu-cho, a small coastal city in the middle of nowhere (the perfect place for bad things to happen obviously) and focuses solely on Kirie Goshima, a high school student. Her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito, attends a high school out of town and asks her one day to run away with him, so they can leave the town behind them. He says that he gets a very strange and dizzy feeling every time he returns home, feeling that there is something off about the town. Coincidentally his father has taken a very odd interest in spiral shaped objects and the pattern in itself. He collects spiral-shaped and spiral-like objects so he can stare at them all day long and even stirs his bathwater to make a mini whirlpool before getting in the tub.
Hell, our first introduction to the guy is him staring at a snail on a wall.
Dad’s interest in spirals only increases and grows far more disturbing, as he begins he can make spirals out of his own body (one way is by making his eyes rotate rapidly in circles, moving in different directions). Then one day, he dies. Everyone hears from his family that he died falling down the stairs, but there is a far more sinister and flat out disgusting reason why he died.
And from there, things spiral (pun may or may not be intended) out of control in Kirie’s life. People start dying all over town, strange events occur, and a storm barrels towards the town at the end of the second volume that pushes things even more to the extreme. I won’t say what happens, but I’ll just list some key words that should get newcomers curious and make the fans nod their heads, knowing exactly why I brought those words up: Birthmark, hair, snake, mosquitoes, mushroom, snail, cyclones, maze, and lighthouse.
Here’s another one and with an image to boot: pottery.
To start from the top, Uzumaki is a sort of anthology series (well for most of it, but we’ll get to that) where each chapter (with two exceptions) tells its own self-contained tale. The focus of the series is that these tales all center on the idea or theme that spirals (or Uzumaki in Japanese) are the cause of/or have some odd connection to the strange occurrences, as if the town is cursed or haunted by these odd patterns. Kirie herself is caught in the middle, effected by, or playing witness to the bizarre events in each chapter.
Kirie is our lead and we see things from her point of view. As a character, she’s pretty generic beyond the traits of the common man/woman. Her reactions are realistic for the most part and would fall in line with how we would react if we were in the same situations. Considering that and how she has no definitive personality traits (outside of concern for others), I feel as if we are supposed to project or put ourselves into her shoes, so we can fill out the rest of her character.
I find that to be a problem though because of the one character flaw she does have that the audience would really not have: Kirie suffers from the worst case of forgetfulness I have ever seen. After each chapter, Kirie never mentions any of the things that happen again unless the story itself brings them up itself; acts like nothing has happened; or flat out seems confused when someone points out a recent change. It can be very irritating at points.
Uh, Kirie… how do you not remember that?! You were present for several funerals!
But enough our forgettable main character, what about the rest of the cast? To start with, there really isn’t much of a cast. Most of the characters only appear for one chapter and then they are out (for various reasons). The recurring cast that makes several appearances are Shuichi, Kirie’s parents and brother, a reporter (who I won’t talk about) and also Shiho, Kirie’s friend (that’s her in the above picture). They also do not have much to offer in the way of characterization or personality.
Shuichi is sort of the straight man and probably the only person to notice there is something going on, but that’s pretty much it. There’s not even much to his and Kirie’s relationship to the point that if the comic didn’t bring it up, I would have just assumed they were friends. Shiho is a character who’s just there for Kirie to interact with for a few chapters and then disappear from the plot (Seriously, she just disappears after a while). Kirie’s parents, with the exception of her dad who takes a very deep interest in his pottery, are just there to be occasional cameos and say something. Her brother is sort of the stereotypical younger brother when he appears, causing trouble for his older sister at points. He serves as a purpose later on as motivation for Kirie (along with her parents) to do something, but that’s it. To be honest, this is not a series to get for the characters.
There are some characters, like Azami here, that do leave an impact and are rather characterized, but they are only around for one chapter.
The crux for getting Uzumaki is the plot and the art. This is where the series truly shines many times. For the first two volumes, each chapter, besides the opening and the hospital arc, are done in ones and are really good. The focus and characters of the chapter are setup right away, but the main idea and theme will slowly be developed over time (one chapter is above love, another about the urge to be center of attention, etc.) carefully. Also, we’ll slowly see how spirals or the ideas surrounding them will play into the issue. Sometimes that part is very strong and effective, like chapter 6, and then it can be very flimsy and really stretches far to connect to spirals, like chapter 7 and the hospital story.
The quality of each one-shot tends to vary in terms of effectiveness and horror. For instance, chapter 3 of the series is probably my favorite and the most effective in terms of story and horror. The imagery is creepy, the story is interesting and well-paced and it leaves a lasting impression. Chapter 7, on the other hand, is the weakest and most problematic: the imagery is fine, but the story is very low in quality and light on scares (one of the scary bits slowly becomes more confusing the longer you look at it). It doesn’t leave a good impression with how silly it ends, really counteracting its creepy vibe.
The last third is where everything changes after a storm shows up. The book stops being an anthology and reveals a main story; building upon the themes, ideas, and plot points brought up in the previous two volumes. We learn about what is causing things (sort of it, it is still vague ultimately) and watched as it reveals its true nature, corrupting the town and its citizens even further. Again, can’t go into much detail, since you should really see this. There’s also a bonus chapter at the very end of the third volume about galaxies, but it pretty much like the stories in the first two volumes, a one-shot little tale.
“I think my Daddy gon’ crazy!
I will comment on the ending though. It features one of my biggest pet peeves with stories which annoys the hell out of me. The ending makes me wonder what exactly was the point of it all if that’s how it goes down. The ending also has a very big plot hole: Who exactly was Kirie narrating this story to, if this is how it ended? There are theories I heard but I don’t really buy them. It’s just very frustrating and is one of the major reasons why I don’t read this manga very often.
That being said, the stories are written very well and the artwork makes them even better. Admittedly, some of the characters have the same faces (Kirie and her friend look the same for example, but with different haircuts), but that’s not something you’ll even notice. This is a horror comic and by God does it show! The imagery is horrific and beyond twisted, with some of the most disturbing and macabre images you’ll ever see. It’s not that they are even that gory (well some are), it’s just that the art is so messed up and so meticulously detailed and designed that you’ll be left shocked by many of these scenes. We do a weekly Panels in Poor Taste where we pick out the foulest, most disgusting, and shocking images from books that come out each week. We could easily have two to three full weeks of material from just this series alone.
If you would believe it, this is honestly the tamest creepy image in the entire series.
Is it Good?
- The main and short stories are mostly great.
- The horror aspects are extremely effective and unique.
- Utterly fantastic artwork.
- The characters aren’t very memorable.
- Some stories are very problematic.
- The ending has some problems.
Uzumaki is a very effective horror comic and deserving of a lot of its praise. The stories are good and the artwork is fantastic, though it has flaws that prevent it from becoming a masterpiece like many claim it to be. The main and recurring characters are forgettable, some of the stories are rather weak and flimsy in tying into the spiral theme, and I do genuinely think that the ending has problems despite my personal issues with it.
Uzumaki is currently available in three different forms. The original printing (which these images are from) from 2001 had the pages flipped so you could read it like an American comic, the reprinted editions flips them back to their normal Japanese right to left style, and a recent hardcover omnibus edition that combines all the books into one has colored pages in it. Give it a shot and enjoy some good old fashion freakiness this Halloween season.