I’ll give Uzumaki this: I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Author Ito Junji’s concept sounds like one hell of a creative writing challenge: the town of Kurouzu-cho is cursed by spirals. Every chapter repeats the “spiral” motif somehow, and though some episodes succeed more than others, I have to tip my hat to Ito just because he could write a three-volume comic using such an odd hook.
The first few stories are the most effective, in part because the supernatural elements only appear late in the episodes. So, in the first story, a man becomes obsessed with spiral-shaped objects, like snail shells or whirlpools, which causes his wife in to develop a phobia of spirals in the second chapter. Throughout each of these chapters the characters look like they’re simply crazy, and the horror is more effective because the bizarre events in this town are ratcheted up gradually in each succeeding story arc. So, the audience isn’t shocked at the outset and desensitised for the rest. Also, a series of stories taking place in the same town like this runs a risk of straining the audience’s suspension of disbelief with questions like, “Why doesn’t everyone leave?” Because of the gradual escalation, though, it’s plausible that, at the end of each episode, the town’s residents would assume they’ve seen the worst and choose to stay.
After the first couple chapters, the rest of the comic is loosely connected by the spiral motif, setting, and a few recurring characters, until the last few chapters where the whole town becomes aware of the curse, and which form a single, long arc. By then, though, Uzumaki isn’t a horror story so much as a grotesque version of Lord of the Flies with supernatural elements.
Now, Uzumaki‘s main selling points are the detailed artwork and unforgettable imagery. How much one enjoys the comic depends on what one looks for in a horror story. It’s generally more grotesque, or simply gross, than frightening, and has a generally well-done, foreboding atmosphere, with details like swirling wind or whirlpools in a stream from the beginning of the first chapter.
Unfortunately, some of the chapters are a bit silly. Seeing a man contort himself into a spiral is terrifying, but a boy turning into a giant snail or a group of babies talking about returning to the womb is impossible to take seriously.
On a final note, Uzumaki seems like an excellent example of the type of story that can only be done in comics or animation, but apparently there is a live-action adaptation. I’m afraid to even imagine how this film looks, but I’m told I must see it. Stay tuned…