What on Infinite Earths is: Uzumaki
This year we got a reboot or possibly sequel of the Blair Witch Project. That film was critically praised and panned in equal measures for its tight focus and deliberately obfuscating so much of its content for the maximum emotional effect. For me that film was excellent for a different reason, it struck the perfect balance between the elements of folklore and the unknown to make it feel like a real modern day legend. M R James had a wonderful quote about how he could always tell the difference between an invented and real recounting of a haunting because the fictional account always had a point that it was trying to make while reality’s meaning wasn’t always apparent. The Blair Witch succeeded because it occupied that pointless space.
Which brings us to Junji Ito, Japan’s premier horror cartoonist, who occupies the same mental territory. While there is a prevalence of body horror within his work, it is only the dressing to the deeper sense of dread which permeates everything he creates. In Uzumaki, the particular work that I am discussing today, there is a scene where a boy arrives late to class on a rainy day. In any sane world this is barely even worthy of comment but through art, timing and a slow build-up Junji Ito infuses the moment with horror.
Most people will be familiar with Junji Ito through one of his short comics that did the rounds on the internet a few years ago, “The Enigma of the Amigara Fault.” A comic which spent all of its limited pages building slowly and calmly to the horrific image of its final page. Uzumaki does not follow the same constant climb and crash approach, rather than a single story it is a serialised arc about a quiet, isolated town slowly descending into madness under the “curse of the spiral.” Because of this the tension in each particular story has a small peak of its own and while not every story in the serial reaches the same heights the background tension and the bizarre nature of the story multiplies with each new element that is introduced.
Uzumaki is often compared to the work of Lovecraft because of that existential dread and the growing suspicion that the world is actively hostile to the human characters, but to readers of his larger body of work there is nothing here that is not pure Junji Ito. All of his work takes place in a normal, modern day Japan, depicted in simple black and white but infested with tiny hints of the supernatural. His stories occupy the same mental space as fairy tales, where the truly bizarre can be accepted without blinking as the world’s logic is internalised by the readers. There may be a few specific moments that cause you to jump but the goal is not to appease bloodlust, provoke disgust or even to shock. Uzumaki slowly infects you with a sense of strangeness and dread that it is almost impossible to set aside even when you return to your own life. People may not be turning into snails or being attacked by their hair, but you are still left with a sense that there is a world beyond our usual perception, one that you are only a single misfortune away from witnessing and being trapped within forever.
Uzumaki is surreal, but only by small enough degrees that you come to accept each new level of strangeness without question. It is insidious, nightmarish and it is essential reading for anyone with an interest in horror.