In a horror film, the director can use a variety of methods to play with the viewer’s mental state. Underlying music can create the feel of a scene as much as the dialog spoken by the characters or the way they move between beats. Then of course you’ve got editing, more general sound design and other tricks to create pacing and mood.
Comics don’t benefit from many of those elements, so a piece of sequential storytelling that can still scare while moving along at its own pace can be a real feat. Japanese writer-artist Junji Ito is an absolute master of the form thanks to his panel pacing and incredibly detailed line work. His UZUMAKI manga is the perfect example of just how effective a horror comic can be, especially if body horror gets under your skin.
Originally published between 1998 and 1999 in a weekly magazine called BIG COMIC SPIRITS, the story of a town becoming more and more obsessed with spirals and their effect on the human body has been collected in a variety of formats since. Whatever form you read them in, these stories come filled with some of the creepiest, most twisted images around. Here are the 10 that we just can’t stop thinking about as they appeared in the series. Spoilers follow.
Our lead character Kirie Goshima, a high school student in Kurôzu-cho, first comes across her friend Shuichi Sato’s dad staring at a snail in an alley. That seems odd enough, but things get crazier for the young lady and her friend. First, pops shows the kids how his eyes can fully spin around in his head – a scene perfectly paced and drawn by Ito – but it pales in comparison to his final fate. Mr. Saito’s spiral obsession lead to a near constant desire to create small whirlpools in his circular bathtub. One day, he whipped up such an intense one that it stretched and wound his entire body so he looked like a grotesque piece of human taffy! Worse yet? His wife and son found him like that leading to their own intense spiral phobia.
AZAMI KUROTANI’S SCAR
Kirie remembers a classmate of hers called Azami Kurotani in the third chapter. This young woman seemed to have a supernatural hold over the boys in their class thanks to a crescent-shaped scar on her forehead. Eventually, Azami becomes obsessed with Shuichi, partially because he showed zero interest in her, and especially after he realized that she’d been contaminated by the spiral. The proof eventually showed itself on her forehead which first sported a kind of whirlpool that eventually grew to consume first her head and then her whole body!
THE BRAIDED LOVERS
In another twisted tale from Kurôzu-cho, Kirie entangles herself in the love lives of the Romeo and Juliet-like Kazunori and Yoriko who lived next to one another. Because their families hate each other, the kids go on the run, but soon find themselves twisting fully around in the middle as if they were made out of clay. Once they both started wringing themselves, they intertwined and slithered off into the ocean!
THE BOUNCING CORPSE
In the seventh chapter, Kirie remembers another classmate by the name of Mitsuru who earned the nickname Jack-in-the-Box for jumping out at people and scaring them. He developed a crush on Kirie, though she repeatedly told him she wasn’t interested. To really get her attention, he ran out into traffic and stood in front of an oncoming car! The inevitable collision left thew boy wrapped around the front wheel! Worse yet, he began haunting our heroine through a Jack-in-the-Box toy he’d given her just before his death. When she and Shuichi inadvisably dug up his corpse, he jumped up and started chasing them in all his decomposing glory. He even popped around after losing his legs thanks to a spring embedded in his torso.
KATAYAMA, THE SNAIL BOY
Kirie notes how a student named Katayama only comes to school when its raining. He’s also incredibly slow, but thanks to a long storm, he shows up several times but begins to show signs of a change. In addition to the spiral on his back, he seems to leave a slime trail in his wake, so it’s not overly surprisingly when he starts turning into a snail person. Ito’s incredible detail as Katayama goes from wide faced kid to eye-stalked snail are enough to make your skin crawl, and it’s really just the beginning of the snail-related horrors found in the rest of the series.
MURDEROUS MOSQUITO MOMS
After an adventure in a possessed lighthouse, Kirie finds herself at the local hospital, recovering from burns she sustained while saving her brother. While there, she hears about some incredible mosquito-related attacks that left victims drained of blood. Soon, her pregnant cousin Keiko joins her at the facility. One night, Kirie awakens to discover all of the pregnant women in the hospital wandering around with hand drills so they can suck the blood out of their victims. Though the hospital tries to sweep the attacks under the rug, they can’t hide the alien-like placentas growing out of the babies or the fact that said offspring want to make their way back into their mothers!
THE HORNED NEIGHBOR
Plagued by spirals as it is, the town of Kurôzu-cho eventually finds most of its buildings destroyed by whirlwinds and only the old row houses standing. Kirie and her family have taken up residence in one of the more run-down ones where they must contend with some strange neighbors and a kind of skin disease that leaves its victims with twirly horn growths popping up all over their bodies. The result is like a unicorn mixed with a hedgehog by a deranged David Cronenberg. It bores through walls, crashes through obstacles, eats rats and wants to kill people, but ultimately stands no chance against javelin-like flying debris.
THE NOODLE PEOPLE
If you’ve ever made noodles of any kind, you know that the cooked version can look like a swarm of worms all entangled with one another in a bowl. Now imagine that, but with faces and filling every spare millimeter of space in a dwelling from floor to ceiling. That’s what happens to the people of Kurôzu-cho as they continue to build connecting row houses, essentially turning the town into one giant spiral. They even toss out their dead out like trash to make more space for the wriggling, twisted mass they’ve become.
As they try to search for an escape, Kirie, Shuichi and a few others find themselves traveling with some shady individuals who drag along future snail people to eat them. Kirie and her crew escape as soon as they can, but the circular nature of Kurôzu-cho soon reunites them all. One of the guys – who had pushed his entire body inside the shell of a snail person to eat it raw – gets so excited thinking about his shell experience that he loses control of his own body and contorts into horrendous shapes along with his pals. Think of the kind of meaty balloon animals might populate a Clive Barker world and you’re part of the way there.
THE WORLD OF SPIRALS
At the end of the story, the now-connected row houses flush their noodle people denizens out leaving just Kirie and Shuichi to travel down the enormous spiral staircase previously hidden under Dragonfly Pond. Their descent leads to near death, more monsters and enough winding stairs to give anyone vertigo. In the end, they find themselves in a world with no straight lines and only curves resulting in spirals, twists and all kinds of wobbly turns. It’s hard to explain, but after immersing yourself in the world of UZUMAKI for all these chapter and then finally seeing the cause of it all, the source of the madness? It seems like the most appropriate word to describe it all is “dizzying.”