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#55 [Feb. 8th, 2009|11:35 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#55 UZUMAKI – Junjo Ito

“I’m getting wound up...”

Horror stories wait between the covers with their hockey masks and special stabbing knives hidden from view, showing only some lush artwork, a mildly spooky title font and enticing quotes like the light hanging from an angler fish’s forehead. They grab us by our curiosity and use it to drag us through the kind of harrowing reading experiences we have to be lured into enjoying.

Past its cover and towards its teeth, Uzumaki draws readers into an ordinary world and then gives us glimpses of the cracks around the edges of that world, slowly spreading until everything is torn to pieces including our perceptions of what is ordinary and safe. The people of the seemingly mundane Japanese town of Kurôzu-cho are themselves being drawn in by things that appear innocent – the spiral shapes that can be seen all over the town in dust devils, eddies in streams, curving plants – and hypnotised by them. As events in Uzumaki get stranger, the story circles in on itself, showing events from different angles so that no matter where you look you’ll have the chance to flinch and cringe.

The spirals are sometimes fixations for their hapless victims and sometimes infections. When the father of the main character, schoolgirl Kirie Goshima, crosses paths with the spirals it’s an obsession. He becomes entranced by the patterns his pottery starts making after he uses clay from the strange pool at the centre of town, unable to stop himself from baking the curved and twisted pots even after they begin screaming with human voices. On another occasion the spirals ensnare their victims in the form of a disease spread by the town’s mosquitoes. They begin swarming in circling columns at the same time as bodies are found punctured and drained of blood and the hospital is flooded with eerily calm pregnant women with a sudden affinity for the buzzing insects.

Kirie, like most of the main characters, is a simple cipher, a stand-in via whom the readers experience the events for themselves. She’s what horror-movie critics call the ‘final girl’, a paragon of kindness and indomitability who is guaranteed to survive long enough to confront the central horror in its most terrible form so that its debasement can be most effectively contrasted with her perfect innocence. The early chapters of Uzumaki are self-contained, with Kirie encountering the latest manifestation of her home town’s oddity, before the event peaks and is dealt with in such a way that we may never speak of it again. For most of the series, until things really hit the fan, each new chapter begins with life in Kurôzu-cho back to normal again and no one bothered by the previous chapter’s weirdness, so that the spiral into fear can start over.

Only her boyfriend, Shuichi, who attends high school in the next town over and so has seen that the place they grew up has somehow curved away from true perceives the deepening horror. He’s the one who doesn’t go return to Go and reset back to an attitude that everything is okay at the beginning of each story, instead following his own spiral into madness. At the same time he speaks with the common-sense voice of the audience, trying to convince Kirie that they should get out of town, which of course she ignores as total nonsense. “Shapes have become malevolent! Look out, a geometric figure’s behind you!” Also like the audience, Shuichi slowly grows enthralled despite himself and begins searching for an explanation in the face of the unlikeliness of a satisfying one really existing.

Kirie and her family are resolutely conventional in their way – even when spookily emerging from the lake with another batch of the cursed clay for his pots, her father whoops, “Whoo ha ha! I’m soaking wet!” like a typical teenager’s embarrassing father. The rest of the town though, are inches away from spiralling into savagery, ready to turn on each other at a moment’s notice. The citizens are frequently twisted into inhuman shapes by the evil coils, but they’re only too happy to twist themselves into inhumane barbarians whenever things get bad. They rapidly revert to a siege mentality where kicking people out of your shelter and leaving them for the wolves is perfectly normal, as is forming your own vicious gang of goggle-wearing whirlwind riders or cannibalising your friends after they’ve begun mutating under the spiral influence – because apparently they taste better that way, as they describe in ecstatic, drooling detail.

Once it’s bewitched you and sucked you in, Uzumaki has atrocities worse than hockey masks and special stabbing knives within its pages. Appropriately, it’s as twisted as horror can get.