Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Ito Junji Halloween 2: Uzumaki

Goshima Kirie is a delicate, pretty girl who lives in Kuruozo-cho with her parents and little brother. It's a typical seaside town, possibly having recently become a suburb or bedroom community of some larger metropolis like so many places along the rail lines in Japan have over the years. Kirie goes to school a couple of towns over so she's not around to see some of the strange things happening around her home neighborhood lately. Oh sure, he boyfriend Shuichi's dad is acting a little off, staring at snails and compulsively swirling his miso soup. But at least he seems happy about his new enthusiasms.

A more pressing concern is how haggard Shuichi looks, and the strange concerns he confides to Kirie one evening...

Ito Junji's Tomie is a somewhat fractured narrative, the stories only loosely connected to each other through the title character. And even she's not exactly consistent throughout. Uzumaki, on the other hand, is a tighter story made up of a series of increasingly depraved short stories. It's Ito's magnum opus and arguably the best horror comic ever created-- well, I don't argue about it. I know it's so. Even the mildest horror comics had the ability to keep me awake when I was an imaginative kid; it requires a stronger effort to disturb me these days, now that I'm a jaded old know-it-all asshole. And to date there has been one and only one.

Uzumaki cost me some sleep. And it haunted me during the day. I don't think I've ever had the experience of dreading turning a page before. If Ito had never done anything else, never created Tomie or Gyo (a big disappointment, by the way) or any of his other nasty delights, Uzumaki would be enough to cement his reputation as a horror master.

What Ito does here is make the reader complicit in the scares. It's the difference between walking along a brick wall and having someone jump out at you when you reach the end and walking along that wall thinking, "What if someone jumps out at me with a knife when I reach the end?" Have you ever had one of those friends who could draw you into a kind of magical fantasy world around twilight? Someone who starts whispering things about wookalars or serial killers hiding behind trees-- and the next thing you know, the slanting shafts of the last few minutes of sunlight, the long shadows and the chilly autumn wind become so haunted, you're absolutely convinced you're both about to be murdered?

Apparently, from anecdote's I've read, writer Charles Beaumont was one of those people. He could create a scenario out of pure imagination that would quickly bleed into the real world and draw in his friends until they were all on edge. I've had friends like that, and I've been that kind of friend. It's all in good fun, a little trip into the frame of a horror movie or the panel of a horror comic and just for a few minutes until common sense reasserts itself, you're in Ray Bradbury-land. Ito Junji is exactly like that in Uzumaki.

First he sets up a situation-- the spiral affects something negatively-- then reiterates it with a few horrific variations. And after a few stories in the first book, you're on guard for every little thing. Little vain about your curly hair? Someone's pregnant? Oh shit, I do not wanna see the results! Practical joker? Oh man, this is gonna be so bad! Slow mover? What's the spiral going to do to him? It acts like one of those "WARNING! GRAPHIC IMAGE!" warnings you run into at from time to time. You can't unsee these things. And once Ito branded my imagination with some of his ultra-grotesque imagery, I saw these things for days afterward, haunting after images flashing on and off whenever I blinked. And the anticipation, the dread was just that intense.

Eventually, the story takes a turn worthy of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, only not as clumsily written. There's a feeling of inexorability about Uzumaki once Ito establishes the pattern and begins magnifying the scale. The horrors go from personal-- spiral shapes inside the body-- to communal: a taifun approaching the city. The imagery becomes epic-- witness the structural changes within Kurozu-cho itself and the tragic results when several vessels of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force attempt a rescue.

What chance do waifish Kirei and traumatized Shuichi have against the malevolent spiral?

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