The Great TOH Junji Ito Read-Off: Uzumaki
I saw it myself, his eyes swirling round and round. This town . . . this town is contaminated with spirals.
We’re almost at the end now. For this post we’ll be taking a look at the macabre obsession-based body horror turned dark fantasy romance epic that is Uzumaki, considered by many to be Junji Ito’s magnum opus.
The book follows Kirie Goshima and Shuichi Saito, who live in the coastal town of Kurouzu-cho. The town is deeply, deeply haunted. Not by a person or object or consciousness but by the pattern of a spiral, pulling everyone into compulsion and mania as they follow the swirl down, down, down to the center.
First, a little music to set the mood:
The book begins with Kirie stumbling across her boyfriend’s father as he stares into the spiral of a snail’s shell. When she catches up to Shuichi he reveals that his father has been acting strange lately, and talks with her about the sense of dread he’s developed about their hometown, begging her to run away with him. After Shuichi’s father commissions Kirie’s father to make some spiral-based pottery pieces for him, the depth of the man’s obsession starts to slowly be revealed.
note that manga is read from right to left
After Shuichi’s dad is killed by the spiral curse, a huge spiral cloud of smoke forms over the town above where he was cremated. After the smoke settles into the town’s water supply, Dragonfly Pond, Shuichi’s mother is convinced Shuichi’s father is acting through the smoke, and develops a severe phobia of spirals, the opposite of what her husband once was.
After this we take a break from Shuichi’s troubled life to meet one of Kirie’s friends, Azami. While reserved and polite, she’s the type of young beauty who is burdened with constant come-ons from unscrupulous men, and vicious rumors from jealous girls. Azami reveals that underneath her bangs she really does have a scar, which she half-jokingly admits gives her power over men as she got it in the first place trying to impress a boy and ever since she’s been able to get any guy she wants. After she meets Shuichi, things are kicked into action.
Poor Shuichi himself seems to have fallen under the spiral curse, and Azami becomes obsessed with him as he’s the first man to not fall under her spell. He can sense the spiral within her, and the once crescent-shaped scar on her forehead begins to pull into a spiral, and it begins to grow.
Kirie’s father seems to be having trouble now, and the smoke from his kiln looks to be joining the crematorium smoke in the spiral cloud, headed for Dragonfly Pond. No matter what, every single piece he makes deforms and coalesces into spirals, some of which seem to have human faces on them.
After Kirie manages to get Shuichi to leave his home and come over for dinner, her father reveals he has been digging the clay for his pottery from Dragonfly Pond, where all the crematorium smoke has been headed. Surely this can only bring ruin to Kirie’s family.
The next chapter shows the life of a Romeo and Juliet-esque couple, as they live in the same row house but their families despise each other.
As the spiral corrupts the youths, against their families’ wishes they are finally able to be with one another.
In the next chapter Shuichi begins to be seen more as the voice of reason, the one person in town who is able to see the spiral for what it is, and has managed to escape its influence. When Kirie’s friend begins to act strangely, obsessed with getting attention, Kirie talks it over with Shuichi and he says all the strange behavior happening throughout town is due to the spiral.
Unfortunately, it is poor Kirie who ends up having to deal with the curse of the spirals first.
Kirie’s friend grows jealous of all the attention Kirie’s strange hair has garnered her, and they end up having an epic anime battle with their hair.
Shuichi comes to Kirie’s rescue and snips off all her hair before it’s too late. As for the other girl, well:
After this the book chronicles all the weird shit happening in Kurouzu-cho. We have a seventh-grade boy who’s infatuated with Kirie turn into a zombie:
We have some people who turn into snails:
People start endlessly walking in circles after the old abandoned lighthouse suddenly comes back to life:
After epidemic levels of mosquito swarms, victims from the maternity ward are overcome with murderous urges:
The mosquito ladies’ babies start, uh, talking?
And now the destruction of the town begins with a storm that has taken quite a liking to Kirie.
After the storm, Kurouzu-cho is left reeling from the amount of damage, with many people losing their homes, including Kirie and her family. Like many, they end up having no choice but to relocate to one of the squalid and degrading row houses that spot and surround the town, and spiral-shaped warts begin showing up on Kirie’s family after she sees an old woman afflicted with the same condition.
After another hurricane hits, a trio of reporters head to Kurouzu-cho to do a bit on this poor, ailing town. Another storm traps them in Kurouzu-cho and they leave their wrecked car to gaze at a ruined world full of horrors and barbarism.
Every day in the mown-down Kurouzu-cho it pulls itself more into a spiral shape, and the post-apocalyptic town grows all the more absurd. We have gangsters riding tornadoes, the turning-into-snails thing seems to have caught on, and the run-down row houses are the only things that seem impervious to the storms. As such, they are uncomfortably crowded, to put it lightly.
On top of that, anyone who tries to leave finds themselves walking forever, unable to make it out—trapped in the spiral. With more and more people slowly pouring in to Kurouzu-cho and getting trapped, the row houses have been packed above the point of saturation, and people begin twisting and knotting together.
As Kirie’s situation grows all the more desperate, she attempts to leave in one last-ditch effort, along with the people she cares about. At the edge of town, they’re able to see that people are extending the row houses.
The further Kirie and her group get from the center of town, the more the spiral tries to keep them, and they admit that they have to turn back. Unfortunately what they see when they return is more than they were prepared for.
Years have passed while they were lost. The row houses have all but finished together into one, and rotting, deformed corpses fill the streets between the winding labyrinth.
When the houses finally connect, they suddenly empty out and Kirie and Shuichi head toward the center, the bottom of Dragonfly Pond, left with absolutely nothing except for their love and one another.
The deluxe edition of Uzumaki comes with a bonus “lost” chapter and an afterword by Ito, meaning this book tops out around 650 pages overall. Similar to The Stand, Uzumaki blends horror, romance, and dark fantasy in a near seamless mix and it’s well worth the read. Unlike The Stand, the ending to Uzumaki doesn’t feel like a copout at first blush. I personally don’t think it’s Ito’s best work, but it’s an incredible showcase of the potential that manga and comics in general have. Uzumaki could easily stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any World Fantasy, Nebula, or Bram Stoker award-winning book and I highly recommend you read it at some point.
We’re nearing the end now, folks. At least for me. Catch me next time for what is in my opinion Ito’s best book.
Uzumaki is available in English through VIZ Media.
Banner image by Anton Oxenuk.