or the horrible truth of the uncanny

By Starlyiana Osias

Junji Ito’s Japanese manga Uzumaki (published in 1998) like most Japanese horror leans toward the psychological, rather than the violent or monstrous. Although it is categorized as psychological horror, it employs several other sub-genres, including mystery, the supernatural, suspense/thriller, and the most important of them all, Lovecraftian cosmic psychological despair. Uzumaki is about a town, Kurozucho, plagued by the curse of the spiral. Through a series of short stories, we gradually learn about the town, the scope of the plague, and how it all relates to the two main characters, Kirie Goshima and Shuichi Saito. Is it frightening? Yes, sometimes, but not in a there’s-a-monster-in–the-house way. What’s scary is how the normal becomes inexplicable, and the characters can’t truly grasp and/or explain what they are seeing. And we as readers become similarly confused about what’s right before us.

And what’s right before us are the spirals. The spirals are evil. Though that’s not quite right: they are not so much evil, but the place of where evil resides. They’re also beautiful, instantly hypnotizing anyone who sees them, and that includes, most disconcertingly, the reader. In “Chapter 1: The Spiral Obsession,” Shuichi’s father, Mr. Saito, has become completely engulfed by the spiral. After witnessing his obsession grow over time, from his moments of being entranced by anything containing a spiral, to his requests for spiral objects from Kirie's father, we get a glimpse into Mr. Saito's room, which is full of spirals. It’s vaguely nauseating.

People love horror. They anticipate gore and scares. It’s all good fun. Yet, no one wants to experience true discomfort and this is where Uzumaki hits the nail on the head or through it. Yes, it is occasionally gory, yet, rather than causing fright, the events within Uzumaki give off an ominous and creepy aura and moves into the realm of deep psychology and what Sigmund Freud identifies as the uncanny.
Listen to me, the uncanny is more than a little disconcerting.
In his famous essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud states that “we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar." He explains that the new and unfamiliar isn’t exactly what is frightening. For it to become uncanny, something must be added to it. Spirals are a part of our familiar world; and are part of many things around us. However, Ito places them in such odd and discomforting situations that it causes us to retract. We want to look away, even when we can’t help but keep staring.

While discussing ETA Hoffman’s short story, “Sand-Man,” Freud mentions that it “is true that the writer creates a kind of uncertainty in us in the beginning by not letting us know, no doubt purposely, whether he is taking us into the real world or into a purely fantastic one of his own creation." This is exactly what Ito does with Uzumaki. He creates a town that appears, at least visually, normal and realistic. Yet, there’s a subtle eeriness in the background that makes us question everything that we see. At first glance, the spirals of Kurozucho seem to be part of the natural landscape (which they are), but as he progresses they start to twist in ways that become unfamiliar to us and truly frightening, exactly Freud’s point in the “Uncanny.” This move into the unfamiliar occurs nonstop throughout Uzumaki.
A bad end to a good date.
In “Chapter 5: Twisted Souls, two teenage lovers, gaze into each other’s eyes near a pond. They embrace. That’s okay, we’ve seen that lots of times. What’s not okay is that they slowly begin to connect, and I don’t mean in any way that we’ve seen before. The teens simultaneously twist and elongate their bodies into spirals, as they intertwine and dive into the pond. This is completely disorienting. Ito renders the events in ways that are both realistic and beautiful and the horror is terrifying because it springs from the familiar. It’s not just disgusting, but uncanny.

One of the first moments of the uncanny is the death of Shuichi’s father, “Mr. Saito, in Chapter 1: The Spiral Obsession.” After days of obsessing over the spiral pattern in the town, Mr. Saito finds ways to create a spiral with different body parts, including his eyes and tongue. One day, Mr. Saito receives a delivery of a wooden, circular bath. His wife and Shuichi return home, only to discover his dead body in the bath. And when I say dead body in the bath, I don’t mean the typical “slip and fall” or “drowned” dead body. Instead, Mr. Saito’s body is caught somewhere between human and spiral.

If he were just dead that would be okay, and if he had gone completely spiral it would be scary, but an abstraction. The fact that you can still see him in the spiral, that they have become the same is what makes it such a nauseating image. Look at his face and eyes in the picture. They are his, but they seem to be in a permanent state of shock, as if the last thought he had is that I can never come back from what I am becoming. With this scene, you are left with an uncomfortable feeling of awe and wonder as to how this happened, and yet the awful thing is we kind of know. Such is the power of the familiar in the uncanny. It doesn’t lead us to the fantastic, but pulls us to the most terrifying aspects of the everyday.

No way to die in a tub.
Given how nauseating Uzumaki is, it’s amazing how addicting it is. It’s like those strange stories your parents tell you that you want to hear again and again. My family would frequently mention a popular Haitian belief that some people can transform into dogs and goats during the night. It’s like “Chapter 8: The Snail,” where a young male high school student slowly transforms into a snail. He is constantly late to class because of his slow movements, and is always sweaty. Disturbingly, his sweat soon turns into snail slime, leaving a trail wherever he goes. As the days go by, he soon begins to drag his body. Becoming a snail is one thing, but turning into one is where the horror lies. Like in An American Werewolf in London, the horror isn’t being the werewolf; the horror is turning into the werewolf. In Uzumaki, as the boy slowly turns into a snail: his awareness, and our awareness of his awareness, is the most horrible part of the transformation. When does he cease being a boy and become a snail.

As Freud points out in his examination of the uncanny, the best way to “awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one." And after hearing these stories, we are left unsettled, rather than frightened. And that’s because the horror is part of our world rather than an intrusion into it. In a real way, Uzumaki is about our fear of the everyday.

This isn't what I expected.
It’s not to say that that people who believe in the supernatural or were exposed to folkloric stories are the only people who can relate to Uzumaki. It’s that they’re familiar with the odd unsettling feeling of being able to understand it on a kind of unconscious level. That might explain why it hasn’t gone completely mainstream despite its numerous awards and critical accolades. In 2009, The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) called Uzumaki one of the “top ten greatest graphic novels for teens.” An omnibus edition was published in 2013. It also made it to the list of 53 "Great Graphic Novels for Teens," as well as IGN's "Top 10 Horror/Thriller Manga" list at #2.

One would guess that would be enough to propel Uzumaki to the forefront of success and that it would at least get the type of acknowledgement that Charles Burns’ Black Hole received. The answer appears to be that just like the characters we do not really want to know. Uzumaki is about awareness of our own mortality and the way our bodies can betray us at any moment. It’s both uncanny and a horrible thing to think about. It’s necessary and important, but it’s hard to believe that we can ever fully accept, as a culture and individuals, the terrifying work before us.

©Starlyiana Osias and the CCA Arts Review

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