Junji Ito’s masterpiece is without a doubt Uzumaki. Junji Ito is a manga creator (writer and artist), and he is known for his horror graphic novels and story collections. The bulk of his work is made up of story collections such as the brilliant Shiver. Uzumaki, however, is a long six hundred-plus page single-story book. Yet, at the same time, it is still made up of discreet, individual stories. Each chapter, while featuring the same main characters, focuses on another aspect of this strange town, which is the true main character of Uzumaki. The town is characterized by the proliferation of the spiral (Uzumaki means “spiral” in Japanese). The reason the book is written as a series of discreet stories is that they were serialized from 1998-1999 in Big Spirit Comics, a manga magazine in Japan. Each story, therefore, needed to stand on its own even if the reader had not seen the previous stories. Of course, the last stories make the most sense when read as the conclusion to all that came before it, so having the stories available to read in one collection is the best way to read Uzumaki.
The spiral has taken over this town, and by the end, we find out that every so often throughout history, the town is destroyed by the spiral, as are all the people in it. The spiral circles inward, so nobody can escape. At certain points, the main characters try to make their way out of the town’s grasp, but they find that they just travel in a spiral back to the heart of the town. Eventually, even the architecture of the town becomes arranged in a spiral, through a series of occurrences: A tornado (another spiral) wrecks much of the homes in the town, but the people, maddened by what they have witnessed, hide in the houses and build onto them from within. They somehow invariably create a spiral leading to a pond in the center of town that is the center for the landscape. And even the people spiral: Some turn into grotesque snails, others become intertwined with each other in some disturbing looking body horror.
One of my favorite stories is called “Medusa.” In this tale, the main character finds that her hair is starting to look beautifully curly. No matter what she does, she cannot get her previously straight her to straighten out again. A schoolmate tries to braid it, but it will not stay in a braid. Another friend ties to cut the curls off, and the hair attacks her and strangles the main character for trying to cut off her own hair. Eventually, her hair stands straight up in the air in gigantic spirals (the art for this is gorgeous). A jealous schoolmate one day finds that her hair has turned into competing spirals, and when she approaches the other girl, the two sets of curls fight each other. Without giving away the reason for the concluding sequence, I will say only that only the main character survives that day in the competition between the two girls.
There are many other great stories in this volume, and I cannot describe them all, but most of them allow for Junji Ito to draw some disturbing pictures in his characteristic black-and-white art. And the conclusion is masterful. Ito, one could argue, is perhaps not great at writing conclusions to his stories, but the one clear exception to that rule is this book. In Uzumaki, we get a sense of closure as the two main characters venture down into the center of the now dried-up pond, getting to the source and history of the spiral in the town. I leave it to you to read to find out if they survive the spiral. Uzumaki is a must-read for horror fans, and it is undeniably a five-star work of literature.