Uzumaki and Gyo, by Junji Ito

I’m very late to the game on this, but I just recently read Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (1999) and Gyo (2002), and was so enthralled by Ito’s horrific visions I thought I’d share a few thoughts!

For those unfamiliar, Junji Ito is a Japanese horror manga artist. His work has earned international renown for its powerful images and macabre creativity.

I really first became aware of his work, as many people have, through his short work The Enigma of Amigara Fault, which you can read in its entirety online (probably not authorized, but if it gets more people to read and purchase Ito’s books, so much the better). Amigara Fault is the story of a set of human-shaped holes that are revealed in a cliff face after an earthquake, and soon people begin to become convinced that specific holes are intended for them, leading to this super-memed image:

People enter the holes, seeming to disappear into the mountain without a trace. But this absurd situation is revealed in the end to have a strikingly horrific denouement.

Uzumaki and Gyo are considered Ito’s masterpieces (to date), and were released in gorgeous deluxe editions about a decade ago. It is a testament to their brilliance that those editions are still readily found in stores — my local Barnes & Noble has what appears to be a full collection of Ito’s works.

Gyo begins on a small Japanese island, where Tadashi and Kaori are enjoying a vacation. While scuba diving, Tadashi spots something in the water that he can’t identify, moving impossibly fast. Later, on land, they discover what it is when it invades their room: a fish, seemingly rotting, with spider-like legs. Their attempts to destroy it are unsuccessful, and soon they find that they are not the only ones with a problem: a horde of rotting, legged fish emerge from the ocean and swarm all over the island, bringing with them an unbearable stench. Because of their early encounter with the creatures, Tadashi and Kaori become involved in trying to determine what exactly these monstrous creatures are and where they come from. But the horde continues to grow, and it is not content with staying on one small island…

“This is Kurouzu-Cho, where I grew up. I would like to share with you the strange events that took place here.” So begins Uzumaki, innocently enough. It is narrated by teen girl Kirie Goshima, describing the bizarre and inexplicable events that occur to her and her boyfriend Shuichi in their hometown. She describes the growing obsession of her town, and its contamination, by spirals. It starts with certain villagers having an unhealthy obsession with the spiral shape, and moves into strange manifestations of spirals in natural phenomena. Eventually, though, townsfolk begin to suffer grotesque transformations associated with spirals, and supernatural spirals overwhelm and threaten to destroy the town, and everyone in it?

Does the idea of “spirals” destroying a town sound rather absurd in print? That, to me, is part of the genius of Junji Ito’s work. The scenarios he describes sound absurd, even implausible. The idea, for example, that a monstrous horde of sea creatures could acquire legs and destroy the mainland just doesn’t make sense when you think about it impartially. But the haunting, macabre images that Ito creates brings a monstrous reality to the ideas, making them impossible to ignore. In my opinion, Ito uses the visual medium to force us to accept the possibility of things that would otherwise be dismissed as an irrational nightmare. It is much like the difference between imagining a ghost versus actually seeing one standing in front of you.

Ito’s stories are really nightmares brought to life. Our nightmares seem ridiculous and irrational by the light of day, but it is quite another matter when you are experiencing them. The same is true of Ito’s work.

It is worth noting, as a warning, that Junji Ito’s work features an incredible amount of body horror. Monstrously horrific things happen to the human form in both Gyo and Uzumaki, and just when you think you’ve seen the worst possible thing that could happen, Ito finds something even more terrible to show you. It is absolutely brilliant, though also not for the faint of heart.

I’m kinda obsessed with Ito’s work now, so don’t be surprised if I end up blogging about more of it in the near future. Super, super recommended for fans of intense horror.

PS it’s probably worth noting, for those who haven’t read manga before, that pages are read right-to-left in Japanese, as opposed to left-to-right in English. These means that the book is basically printed “in reverse” from the Western perspective. It’s a small adjustment, but worth it. (I previously got the hang of it by reading Yusei Matsui’s Assassination Classroom.)

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