Horror and manga fans alike have long praised Junji Ito’s Uzumaki. Epic in length, it is a truly unsettling work and one of the best examples of sequential art’s power to terrify.
What makes this story even more brilliant is how intentionally it was constructed and how its primary symbol, the spiral, is embedded in every aspect.
In the opening chapters of Uzumaki, every arc is more or less episodic and the only connective tissue seems to be that these events center around the main characters, Kirie Goshima and Shuichi Saito, and the town of Kurouzu-Cho. However, as readers delve further into this dread-filled tale, the nature of the chapters begins to make sense. Kurouzu-Cho has been cursed by the spiral and citizens slowly become enthralled with the shape, allowing it to destroy themselves or their livelihoods.
The first stories focus on individuals, but soon the weather and laws of physics themselves succumb to swirls and whirlpools. It’s almost like the stories and the entirety of the book itself is organized to mimic a spiral. On a micro and macro-level, Uzumaki starts small but continues to expand. This can be most seen in the beginning stories, which all contain a character with a peculiar trait that spirals (pun intended) out of control.
Mr. Saito, Shuichi’s father, begins this trend through his obsession with spirals. He collects anything and everything with the pattern on it and even begins swirling his bathwater and demanding spiral foods. By the end of his tale, he buys a giant, circular container to turn himself into a spiral and kills himself. This pattern continues through multiple characters. Mitsuru, known by his peers as Jack-in-the-Box, continuously jumps out of places to scare Kirie until it kills him. Another student, Katayama, known for his slowness and chronic tardiness, has a spiral-shaped growth emerge on his back before turning into a giant snail.
After many of these individual-focused episodes, the book begins slowly upping the stakes. At first, a long-dead lighthouse comes to life, illuminating the area with superheated, spiraling light, but this is mild compared to what comes next. By the end, the laws of nature and reality have turned on the citizens of Kurouzu-Cho. Because the book’s structure mimics the story’s antagonist, the reader feels intensely immersed in the terror. Each chapter entices the reader into a truck and pushes them down a hill. This style of the story shows Ito’s meticulous thought that makes Uzumaki unlike any of his other works.
Readers are strung along as an increasing number of Kurouzo-Cho’s residents fall into the claws of the spiral. Kirie and Shuichi aren’t sure what is causing these supernatural events, but each victim seems to lead them closer to the truth.
By the end, the two have some theories and deductions about the origins of the spiral and what might be causing it, but nothing concrete. Even with the alleged source staring them in the face, this story's antagonist appears beyond human understanding.
Uzumaki’s epilogue, which features Ito searching for the “secret of the spiral,” seems to suggest this is intentional. Within this short coda, the cartooned author is eventually visited by an old man who promises the answers he seeks, but the story ends before the reader receives any answers. What this suggests is that the secret of the spiral is nothing. There is no secret or, at the very least, the secret can never be known. This revelation is stunning and shows the horror at the root of this comic’s antagonist: the fear of the unknown.
The spiraling structure wouldn’t be as effective if the terror weren’t a mystery throughout. What ultimately makes this story so shocking is that the reader goes through a constant building and release of intense dread only to realize there is no happy ending and none of the questions posed have black-and-white answers. This futility of incomprehension nags at the human need for stories to have closure. It’s unlike other more traditional horror stories, such as Frankenstein and Dracula, because the monster doesn’t have decipherable motivations. The spiral of Uzumaki is not a character, but a force: an uncaring, indifferent entity.
It’s scary because it can’t be understood and its secrets will never be revealed.
Beyond the previously discussed theme of fearing the unknown, Uzumaki is also a thoughtful exploration of a relatable human flaw: obsession. Many of the supernatural occurrences that focus on individuals spiral out of their desire for an object, person, or idea. Following the structure of the story, these desires begin as quirks but devolve into deadly consequences. Although this is explored in multiple characters, the best example comes from Kirie’s classmate, Azumi.
Being quite beautiful, Azumi draws the eyes of every boy at their school, causing the girls to start a rumor that the scar underneath her bangs magically hypnotizes the opposite sex. At first, she explains to Kirie that all of it is an annoyance, and constantly turns down those who ask her out. This changes when she meets Shuichi, who shows no interest in her. Azumi bangs on Shuichi’s door for hours and gets an apartment in the city to be closer to him because she cannot reconcile that he rejected her. In desperation, she tricks Shuichi into meeting her at night, but her scar has enlarged into a massive spiral and eventually consumes her.
These beginning stories are a gorgeous metaphor for the dangers of obsession. These characters need to have spirals – a girlfriend or the concept of beauty sends them down a deadly path and swallow them whole. Before the later, larger effects of the spiral curse, it seems that it originates from the obsession of everyone in the town, but instead, it's merely a symptom. The story shows that obsession is the push that sends the truck careening out of control.
After 20 years of publication, Uzumaki remains among the zenith of horror comics. Its continued ability to make readers uncomfortable demonstrates that it is timeless and a must-read for any fan of the dreary and eerie. It’s so terrifying because it takes a holistic approach to its concept. The intermingling of structure, an unfathomable force, and cautionary metaphor make it an immersive experience unlike any other. The reader becomes so dreadful because they feel like they too are a victim of the spiral.