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The Horrific Genius Of Junji Ito
BILL WOOD | JANUARY 26, 2022
This past weekend I was browsing at one of my favorite shops, a book store in Little Tokyo called Kinokuniya. Their manga section is exhaustive, threatening to consume the entire store. Separated from aisles of popular shonen titles such as Demon Slayer and My Hero Academia as well as a multitude of untranslated Japanese imports, there is a small section devoted exclusively to horror-manga author Junji Ito. Among his collected works are several oversized hardcover editions, the cover's stark black-on-black art style delivering only the faintest hint of the terror that lurks within. I didn't have to peel open the shrink wrap and peruse the contents to know that I needed to add these books to my ever-expanding manga collection, so I grabbed a copy and headed for the register.
It's a good thing too, as Uzumaki is my favorite horror read since H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
I'll keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but to summarize; Uzumaki chronicles the tale of a coastal Japanese village and its descent into madness. The book begins with a disconnected series of supernatural incidents that occur in the remote town of Kurouzu-Cho. As events unravel, it is revealed that these terrifying happenings may be part of a bigger equation, eventually weaving the townsfolk into a suffocating web of dread and despair.
The word uzumaki means "spiral" in Japanese, and nearly everything about Ito's tale evokes a circular theme. In the opening pages we see a man solidly transfixed on a snail shell. It's an innocuous motif by itself, as many of us lose our focus and fixate on the mundane from time to time. But in the pages that follow, the reader is exposed to the true object of this man's obsession, an all-consuming desire that not only threatens his family's well-being, but also suggests that his fated fixation may only be the tip of the iceberg for the unlucky residents of Kurouzu-Cho.
Reading through Uzumaki for the first time, my emotions ran the gamut; fear, elation, disgust, relief. But more than anything, the prevailing feeling was curiosity. The story is laid out in a way that compels the reader to keep moving, a true page-turner in every sense of the word. Undoubtedly, part of this appeal is the setting. Of course, rural Japan is a very real place in our world. But for many Westerners it is also a faraway place, a region so unknown and remote that the story may as well take place on a supernatural plane of existence. Much like Persona 4's Inaba and David Lynch's Twin Peaks, the sleepy, unassuming villa of Kurouzu-Cho provides the perfect backdrop for gripping horror.
Another huge part of Uzumaki's appeal is the manga format. Whereas most contemporary horror authors work within the written narrative and let the reader fill in the visual blanks with their imagination (never a bad thing, mind you), the stark grayscale delivery of manga puts it all there on the printed page. As with cinema, the director's vision becomes the reader's vision, the unseen becomes the seen. With Uzumaki, the terror is delivered via page after page of Ito's masterful graphic execution. Dialogue is sparse in areas, another cinematic touch adapted to manga. Pages often feature no narrative at all, only the howling of the wind or the blare of a distant warning siren... or worse. Simply put, Junji Ito's compelling art style and suspenseful storytelling tempo put him in a class all his own.
This will be one of my shorter articles, as continuing with an Uzumaki overview would be to inevitably divulge some of the story's shadowy secrets. Instead, I'll rest with this closing statement; If you are a fan of horror yarns, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Then again, I'm sure I'm late to the party as Uzumaki is one of Junji Ito's more celebrated works. Heck, I've known about it for decades and never bothered to pick it up for whatever reason. I've now read it twice. The tale gets better with each read, as I take the time to fully devour Ito's sharp, brilliant line art, his bizarre cast of characters, and his mesmerizing, concentric tale of supernatural dread.
Perhaps I'll read Uzumaki a third time. The spiral beckons. - BW