Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trade Waiting - Uzumaki by Junji Ito

Manga is a scary beast to crack into. What's with the reading it backwards? What's the obsession with school boys? Volume sixty five? Like American comics Manga can be dense and inpenetrable to an outsider trying to get in. Not only is the nature of reading the things daunting but also the sheer amount of product on display. Who do you ask where to start as seemingly all the fans of it are twenty years younger than you, (well, me anyway.) Having a great LCS helps, knowing what your tastes are and pointing you in the right direction, as does starting at the classics, in particular Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, one of the points of the great comic art triangle of the world. (The other two points being L'Incal by Jodorowsky and Moebius and Fantastic Four issues forty eight to fifty by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, disagree at your peril!) The other issue, and worry, is the confusion between what is Adult Manga and what is, as the Carry On films call it, Saucy Manga. Where is the content for Adults that doesn't have Cthulhu stand ins doing nasty stuff to co-eds? Well it is there, and a great example of it is the works of Junji Ito, a creator who is regarded as being one of the best horror practitioners in Japan. As well as this, his stories tend to only run for a few volumes, scant stuff when compared to the fear your wallet feels whenever someone recommends you should read One Piece. One of his most highly regarded tales is Uzumaki, is it any good? Find out after the jump.

Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Published by Viz Media

What if your town was terrorised to such an extent that the inhabitants were either driven insane or to suicide? What if the thing doing the terrorising was not a person or creature but a shape, in particular a spiral, that affected your mind state and corrupted your soul? These are the questions that Uzumaki asks of its readers. Set in a small town in Japan, Uzumaki centres on Shuichi and Kirie, a pair of high school lovers who discover something so ubsurd that initially Kirie is unwilling to believe it. As the people they know and love, friends and family alike, are put on the slow path to madness, Kirie begins to accept the truths that Shuichi has been trying to convince her of, yet both are seemingly unable to do anything about it.

Uzumaki is both a horror book and a horrific book. The spiral manifests itself in a number of ways and each member of the town that succumbs to it reacts differently. The chapters within the comic are effectively short stories, with each one focusing on a particular inhabitant, and what the spiral does to them, and how Kirie and Shuichi react to it. Not to spoil the surprise but it doesn't end happily for anyone, with scissors, impossible contortion and more being used to great effect. The debt to David Cronenberg, specifically Videodrome is evident with a lot of the shocks coming from the grotesque nature that the bodies in Uzumaki can do, none of which is possible in the real world. Lovers intertwine together like snakes, while other characters are able to move their eyes in spirals independent of the other. These are just two of the example of the way Uzumaki revels in its ability to put the body through terrifying and very painful scenarios.

The major themes of Uzumaki go hand in hand with each other. The first being the sense of self image and the perception that you want others to have of you. On more than one occasion characters use their bodies to get one up on someone else, that someone else being more often than not Kirie. It may surprise you that the way they use their bodies is anything but sexual, like the rest of Uzumaki it is all about the spiral. The other major theme that runs through the book is one of obsession; both consciously and subconsciously characters become obsessed with the spiral until more often than not reach breaking point. Whether it is characters being obsessed with the spiral or obsessed with using the spiral, whether knowingly or not, to further their own sense of self, the symbol completely degrades the town. The metaphors within Uzumaki are easy to spot but nevertheless still potent.

Junji Ito knows how to get under your skin both creatively and artistically. Eschewing the usual shocks of horror, Ito uses his, at times, suitably disgusting line work to leave you feeling slightly uneasy. He contorts the body in ways that they really shouldn't and even the simpler pieces of body horror, such as Shuichi's father tongue stretching out to make a spiral, stay with you long after you have read Uzumaki. Having said all that, Ito's panels can also be jaw droppingly beautiful, up there with the aforementioned Otomo, and his page layouts are absolutely sumptuous. What seems to be par for the course with most manga, there is not a lot of wasted space; character motivations, the whys and wherefores are put to the sidelines to ensure the story zips along at a fast pace. This is a technique that particularly suits the horror genre as the reader has very little time to stop and catch their breath, short of to admire the grotesque nature of Ito's sublime line. Like most manga, Uzumaki is in a digest size format that, even with its small dimensions, keeps all of Ito's art intact and fits perfectly in the back pocket.

Verdict - Try It / Buy It

Sure, manga might not be for everyone but nor are western comics. Having said that, once you wade through all the other stuff, like western comics, there is a lot of good stuff to be found. Junji Ito is a master of his craft and deserves all the praise that he gets. The man should, if he isn't already, be mentioned alongside the the greatest that the genre has to offer regardless of the medium that he decides to use. For fans of horror, and in particular the body horror that someone like David Cronenberg specialises in, this book is a must.

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