Words an’ Pictures: A Veil and a Symbol – Cosmic Terror from the Heart of the Spiral

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“Such forces cannot be named, cannot be spoken, cannot be imagined except under a veil and a symbol, a symbol to the most of us appearing a quaint, poetic fancy, to some a foolish tale. But you and I, at all events, have known something of the terror that may dwell in the secret place of life, manifested under human flesh; that which is without form taking to itself a form.”

— Arthur Machen, “The Great God Pan”

Junji Ito, writer and artist for noted horror comics Uzumaki, Gyo, and Tomieamong others, is certainly no stranger to the idea of terror dwelling in the secret place of life, veiled behind a symbol. With Uzumaki in particular, Ito channels cosmic fear in a way that firmly places him alongside the likes of Arthur Machen and H.P Lovecraft.  Uzumaki is centered around teenager Kirie Goshima, her boyfriend Shuichi Saito, and the spiral. It is this last element that ultimately makes Uzumaki so terrifying, because unlike most horror narratives, there is no tangible villain to put a face on, let alone battle, but a terror that is so ultimate that it must remain veiled behind a simple symbol.

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Originally released in serialized form, Uzumaki begins as a series of loosely connected episodes depicting horrific supernatural events in the fictional coastal Japanese town of Kurôzu-cho. A deep plot reveals itself, but very gradually, in way that strongly evokes the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Along the way, there are plenty of fantastic moments of body-horror, many of which will likely haunt the reader forever. For most of the early chapters, the main characters and the spiral are the only thing held in common and so one could easily read isolated chapters from the beginning and enjoy them separate from the rest of the story.

To not read all of Uzumaki, however, is a complete injustice, because as disturbing as the individual images are (including, but not limited to, extreme body contortions, jack-in-the-boxes, human snails, and some very complicated pregnancies), Ito’s real accomplishment is atmosphere. At no point does Uzumaki feel like a bag of cheap tricks or simple jump scares. What really sticks with me every time I read it is the sense of extreme, inescapable dread that is found on the panels. Ito’s art is remarkably deep, and although that is apparent from the first reading, there is an even more subtle element to it that draws the reader in and causes everything to feel connected. From the very first panel, Ito uses the natural setting in order to set the stage for the inconceivable events that are to come.

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While reading Uzumakione begins to see spiral patterns all over Kurôzu-cho, since, as one character points out early on, “They’re everywhere once you look for them!” This is one of the elements that makes Uzumaki so effective — unlike an axe murderer or vampire, the spiral is completely inescapable because it is sublimated into every panel, every aspect of the setting, leading the characters and reader spiraling further and further toward an unforgettable conclusion.

Like the spiral pattern it focuses on, Uzumaki will completely suck you in, making you feel as frantic and helpless as its characters. You’ll not know whether they are confronted with some kind of intangible cosmic force of evil or simply going insane and finding the latter more comforting. Along the way, you will find many of the greatest visuals in Junji Ito’s catalog, which is to say many of the greatest visuals to be found in the comic medium or elsewhere. This is not only referring to gruesome body-horror either, with many moments of transcendent beauty to be found as well.

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I would recommend Uzumaki to any horror fan, and particularly to those who may be bored with the genre, as it taps into a fear that is much deeper than what is to be found in most horror narratives. Horror can be a tricky genre to get right, as many books and films that seem terrifying at first glance ultimately do not hold up since they were based primarily on shock value. Uzumaki, like all of the Junji Ito works I have read, certainly holds up in the best possible way, going much deeper than shock value (although there is plenty) to terrify me on a profound level that leaves me questioning my reality and fearing cosmic forces beyond my comprehension. I hope that it can do the same for you. 

— Quinn Stratton, Comic Blogger

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