Uzumaki, Vols. 1-3

By Junji Ito | Published by VIZ Media

As with Ito’s two-volume work, Gyo, the best word to describe Uzumaki—despite a back cover blurb promising “terror in the tradition of The Ring”—is “weird.”

High school student Kirie Goshima lives in Kurôzu-Cho, a small coastal town nestled between the sea and a line of hills. She narrates each chapter in an effort to share the strange things that happened there. It all begins when, on the way to meet her boyfriend Shuichi Saito at the train station, she spots his father crouching in an alley, staring intently at a snail. Shuichi confirms that his dad has indeed been acting odd lately, and suggests that the entire town is “contaminated with spirals.”

Mr. Saito’s fixation with spirals grows to the point where he dies in an attempt to achieve a spiral shape, which drives his wife insane with spiral phobia. She too eventually passes away, leaving Shuichi alone to become a recluse who is able to resist the spiral menace while being more perceptive to it than most. Other episodic incidents fill out the first two volumes, including unfortunate events involving Kirie’s classmates (boys who turn into snails, a bizarre rivalry over spiralling hair, etc.), her father’s decision to use clay from the local pond in his ceramics, a mosquito epidemic that leads to icky goings-on at a hospital, and an abandoned lighthouse that suddenly begins producing a mesmerizing glow. Things come to a head in volume three when six successive hurricanes are drawn to Kurôzu-Cho, leaving it in ruins. Rescue workers and volunteers flock to the area, but find themselves unable to leave. Dun dun dun!

Creepy occurrences mandate creepy visuals, but I wouldn’t say that anything depicted herein is actually scary. Oh, there are loads of indelible images that made me go “ew” or “gross,” but was I frightened by them? No. The real horrors of Uzumaki are more subtle: the suggestions that there are ancient and mysterious forces against which humans are utterly powerless and that the spiral’s victims will live in eternal torment. Many tales of horror involve bloodthirsty monsters, but a menace that forces you to live and endure something horrific is much more capable of giving me the jibblies. It’s the ideas behind Uzumaki, therefore, and not the surfeit of disturbing images, that evoke dread.

Uzumaki has a much larger cast than Gyo, which prompted me to notice that Ito actually draws some really cute and realistic-looking female characters. Kirie is a prime example, but her classmates and TV reporter Chie Maruyama also fit the bill. I was pretty distracted by Ito’s rendering of a girl named Azami, though, because she reminded me so much of Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue. Observe:

Flames... FLAMES on the side of my face!

Uzumaki definitely delivers an unforgettable story with memorable art, but I would’ve liked to get to know the characters more. Kirie is a reasonably accessible lead and is smart, strong, and kind, but I felt at times that she was too strong. If anything gross is going on in town, Kirie is the one who’s going to discover it, and though she reacts in the moment, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cumulative effect of having witnessed all this madness. She keeps going and being shocked by things right until the very end, but a more normal person would’ve broken down long before. And why weren’t more people fleeing, I wonder? True, once the storms hit, nobody could leave, but for a while there plenty of crazy stuff is happening and folks are just sticking around.

I also would’ve liked to spend more time with Shuichi. He’s a pretty interesting guy, who wants to get out of town from the very start but remains because of Kirie. He seems to have inherited equal parts fascination with and fear of the spiral from his parents, which keeps him alive if not entirely sane, and is able to function at times when others are mesmerized, allowing him to come to Kirie’s aid on several occasions. Through these actions we see how much he cares for her, but I actually had no idea they were supposed to be a couple until he was specifically referred to as her boyfriend a couple of chapters in. Okay, yes, this isn’t a romance manga and I shouldn’t expect a lot of focus on their relationship, but even just a little bit of physical affection would’ve gone a long way.

Uzumaki is grim, gruesome, and a whole host of synonyms besides. This isn’t jump-out-of-your-skin horror, but a psychological tale with a decidedly grisly bent. I’m not sure I’d universally recommend it—I think I know several people who definitely shouldn’t read it, actually—but if it sounds intriguing to you, give it a whirl.

Uzumaki was published in English by VIZ Media. It is complete in three volumes.

For more entries in this month’s horror-themed MMF, check out the archive at Manga Xanadu.

Gyo 1-2 by Junji Ito: B+

Walking fish aren’t the usual sort of monsters one associates with Halloween, but their invasion makes for creepy reading nonetheless!

Tadashi and his high-maintenance girlfriend, Kaori, are vacationing in Okinawa when Kaori begins complaining of putrid smells. Soon after, a chase ensues between Tadashi and a barely glimpsed, fast-moving creature, culminating with the discovery that said critter is actually a fish with four spindly mechanical legs. This is just the tip of the fishberg, though, as Okinawa is soon overrun by walking fish, which quickly spread to mainland Japan and eventually the rest of the world.

Despite the attempts of the back cover to induce me to regard the series as “horrifying,” the primary adjective I’d use to describe it is “weird.” The scenes of walking fish—and sharks, squids, and whales—swarming down city streets are alarming but fun in a disaster movie kind of way. For most of the first volume, I actually smiled as I read. Things get more serious in the second volume, with revelations about what the creepy legs will do once they run out of fish bodies to use as fuel, but the weird only gets weirder—there’s a critter circus, for example—and the series never loses its page-turning momentum.

While I’d primarily classify Gyo as something fun that’s not too deep, it does offer some commentary on scientific ethics, particularly in the person of Tadashi’s uncle, who immediately begins trying to create a walking machine of his own. Some will be put off by the lack of a finite ending, but I find it interesting. If this were a disaster movie, we’d probably be given the opportunity to cheer on our battered heroes as they figure out the creatures’ vulnerability and blow them all to smithereens, but Gyo stops short of that point. Will mankind prevail? Will the world be overrun? We’ll never know.

Two short stories are included in volume two. “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” is short and random, but I liked “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” a lot. In it, an earthquake has revealed a rock formation riddled with human-shaped holes that go farther back into the rock than researchers are able to measure. People have flocked to the site after seeing it on TV, somehow drawn to holes that seem to have been tailor-made for them. A young man named Owaki tries to keep his new female friend, Yoshida, from entering her hole, and suffers some vivid (and way more horrifying than the fish-monsters!) nightmares about what could happen to a person who enters. The final page suggests he was right.

In the end, I wouldn’t classify Gyo as amazing, but it—and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault”—are certainly entertaining and memorable. I may have to check out more from Junji Ito, like the spooky spiral menace of Uzumaki!

Gyo is published in English by VIZ and is complete in two volumes.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: B+

From the back cover:
Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece of the duality of good and evil in man’s nature sprang from the darkest recesses of his own unconscious—during a nightmare from which his wife awakened him, alerted by his screams. More than a hundred years later, this tale of the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll and the drug that unleashes his evil, inner persona—the loathsome, twisted Mr. Hyde—has lost none of its ability to shock. Its realistic police-style narrative chillingly relates Jekyll’s desperation as Hyde gains control of his soul—and gives voice to our own fears of the violence and evil within us. Written before Freud’s naming of the ego and the id, Stevenson’s enduring classic demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the personality’s inner conflicts—and remains the irresistibly terrifying stuff of our worst nightmares.

In his lecture on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is used as the introduction to this edition, Vladimir Nabokov urges readers to “consign to oblivion” (what a great phrase) their assumptions about the work. Thanks to myriad adaptations, the image of milquetoast Dr. Jekyll gulping a potion that turns him into a huge, monstrous creature is pretty much ingrained in our brains. In actuality, the original book is quite different.

The tale is told from the perspective of Gabriel Utterson, a friend of Henry Jekyll who also serves as his lawyer. Utterson is troubled because of a recent amendment to Jekyll’s will, which stipulates that in the event of his death or disappearance, his money should go to a man named Edward Hyde. The more Utterson learns about Hyde—his cousin, the “unimpressionable” Enfield, relates a story in which (pale and dwarfish) Hyde trampled a little girl and inspired in one a feeling of immediate hatred—the less he likes this arrangement. Thinking Jekyll is somehow being blackmailed by Hyde for “the ghost of some old sin,” he earnestly attempts to help extricate his friend, but Jekyll is curiously unwilling to accept aid.

There’s a fun feeling of fog-filled suspense as Hyde becomes a murderer and fugitive—and as Jekyll first becomes more sociable then a total recluse—until Utterson is eventually summoned by a servant to break into Jekyll’s office where they find not the doctor but Hyde. The truth comes out in a series of sealed confessions, which, though they contain the truth about the transformation, are actually rather anticlimactic. I bet reading this completely unspoiled was quite fun, though it’s virtually impossible for anyone to have that experience now.

Although I feel like the story is too short and doesn’t come to a very satisfying conclusion, I nonetheless enjoyed the read and was particularly impressed by Stevenson’s powers of description. In just a few lines, he describes Utterson so well that I found it easy to visualize him completely.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found its way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.

I think the part I love best is “scanty and embarrassed in discourse.” Here’s another great example, describing Dr. Lanyon, another friend and a respected scientist.

This was a hearty, healthy, dapper, red-faced gentleman, with a shock of hair prematurely white, and a boisterous and decided manner. At sight of Mr. Utterson, he sprang up from his chair and welcomed him with both hands. The geniality, as was the way of the man, was somewhat theatrical to the eye; but it reposed on genuine feeling.

Economy and clarity will always be qualities I admire, I think. It makes the writing feel fresh, despite its age. (And to achieve this when “written in bed, at Bournemouth on the English Channel, in 1885 in between hemorrhages from the lungs,” as the intro informs us! If I was suffering hemorrhages the last thing I’d be capable of is penning a classic!)

Though it be short and, to us, predictable, the original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains a worthwhile read.

Deadman Wonderland 1 by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou: B+

deadmanwonderland1From the back cover:
The Great Tokyo Earthquake. Ten years ago, it destroyed lives as it tore buildings asunder. Among those who lived through the disaster was Ganta Igarashi, now a middle school student finally getting a footing in his own life… that is, until the day the “Red Man” appears at his school and turns his world upside down again. Ganta’s entire class is brutally murdered, and although innocent of the crime, Ganta is sentenced to death and sent to the bizarre prison known as “Deadman Wonderland.” There, a brutal game of survival begins, where Ganta must discover the truth behind his classmates’ murder.

Can Ganta break out of Deadman Wonderland… or will it break him first?

The year is 2023. Ten years ago, the Great Tokyo Earthquake struck, leaving 70% of that city submerged by water. Ganta Igarashi used to live in Tokyo, but doesn’t remember anything prior to the evacuation. Now he attends middle school in Nagano, loves soccer, and has a couple good friends among his classmates. All of that changes on the day when “the red man”—a wonderfully creepy cyborg-looking fellow—arrives and murders all of Ganta’s classmates. In a rush to judgment, the authorities blame Ganta for the carnage and sentence him to death, at which point he’s shuffled off to Deadman Wonderland, the single privately owned prison in Japan, which doubles as a tourist attraction.

There, Ganta must learn to survive in the irrational environment or die. He’s fitted with a collar that is continually injecting him with poison—his death sentence—and the only way to delay it is to take a candy antidote every three days. To buy the candy, one must earn “cast points,” which are awarded for winning the various challenges put on for the benefit of the visiting public. When Ganta loses his first dose of the candy, he enters a deadly race with the hopes of using the prize money to procure another. Meanwhile, he meets a strange girl named Shiro who claims they knew each other before, gains some new super powers, and befriends his gentle-seeming cell mate who is hiding his true intentions.

There’s an awful lot going on in Deadman Wonderland, a fact made clear from the very start with a series of color pages depicting the moments right before the earthquake, but it all boils down to the fact that Ganta is likely not the normal kid he always thought he was. Sometimes I grow frustrated with stories that advance this many mysteries simultaneously, but it’s handled very well here, and the sense of a sure, guiding hand is palpable. I also really, really like “the red man,” who is not the only villain of the piece but merely the most visible. His character design is magnificent and menacing and you just know some crazy stuff is going to go down when he appears.

Ganta himself is also likable, as he rallies from his confusion and depression to fight for his life. I feel a little like one of the Deadman Wonderland patrons for enjoying watching him cope with some of the awful situations he faces, but he pulls through heroically enough that I can avoid feeling too bad.

This first volume of Deadman Wonderland does an excellent job introducing the reader to Ganta’s world and instilling a desire to read more about how he adjusts to his extreme circumstances. I also look forward to him learning more about some of the things at which the color pages hinted, like the truth of his early childhood and why, exactly, he’s been drawing a certain symbol on his possessions for years.

Deadman Wonderland is published in English by TOKYOPOP. The series is ongoing in Japan; seven collected volumes are currently available there.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tokyo Zombie by Yusaku Hanakuma: B+

tokyozombieFrom the back cover:
Tokyo Zombie is a horror-comedy manga about two blue-collar factory workers, Mitsuo and Fujio, whose plans for martial arts fame are sidelined when zombies take over Tokyo. In this gory and hilarious tale, the survivors of the zombie apocalypse have been enslaved by the wealthy ruling class, and must cater to their every depraved whim… or be thrown outside the city to fend for themselves. When some of the survivors are enlisted to fight in an undead gladiator arena for the amusement of the rich, Mitsuo and Fujio are locked in a battle for fame, freedom, and their very lives!

Our bizarre tale begins when factory workers Fujio and Mitsuo, a pair of martial arts buffs, kill their blowhard coworker and then head to Dark Fuji, a mountain of garbage, to bury his body. It just so happens that on that same day, zombies rise from Dark Fuji’s mix of industrial sludge and disgruntled spirits and begin terrorizing society. Fujio and Mitsuo are content to continue practicing their grappling moves in peace, but when zombies invade their factory and Mitsuo gets bitten during a food run, they can avoid the world’s crisis no longer.

The story picks up five years later. Humans have erected a wall to keep the zombies out. The rich are living well while slave labor provides their power and their amusement, particularly in the form of the gladiator deathmatch show, in which humans are pitted against zombies for the benefit of a bloodthirsty and moneyed audience. Fujio is one of the fighters, disliked by the crowd for how easily he wins using skills and techniques they couldn’t begin to understand. When the promoter tries to change things up, Fujio meets his next opponent, zombiefied Mitsuo, while outside a timely slave uprising (on pigback) is brewing. The outcome must be seen to be believed.

You’re likely to like Tokyo Zombie if:
* Absurd things appeal to you.
* You liked Shaun of the Dead.
* You don’t mind gore. These are zombies and they do go around biting people, sometimes in sensitive places. Humans commit acts of brutality against each other, too.
* You think dialogue like “Whoa. I think an old lady’s head just rolled by” is funny.
* You aren’t turned off by the heta uma (literally “bad, but good”) art style that works well for decomposing zombies and justice-dispensing dogs but not so well on protagonists.

I fit most of those categories, so I definitely enjoyed Tokyo Zombie. I can’t lie—it’s totally gross and I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but for sheer strangeness alone this isn’t one to be missed.

Tokyo Zombie is published in English by Last Gasp. It’s complete in one volume.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: B-

hillhouseFrom the back cover:
Four seekers have come to the ugly, abandoned old mansion: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of the psychic phenomenon called haunting; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, the lonely, homeless girl well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the adventurous future heir of Hill House.

At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable noises and self-closing doors, but Hill House is gathering its powers and will soon choose one of them to make its own.

The Haunting of Hill House is considered a classic of the horror genre, but honestly, I found it to be a mite snoozeworthy. I think the main problem is me. I’m a desensitized reader in the 21st century, far more difficult to shock and frighten, I assume, than the typical reader in 1959, when the book was published.

It’s the story of four people who gather to spend a summer at the supposedly haunted Hill House and report on paranormal activity there. Eleanor, a lonely woman who’s spent a sheltered decade caring for her ailing mother, quickly emerges as the protagonist, and early on displays a tendency for fanciful ramblings, as each time she passes a picturesque spot on her drive to Hill House, she concocts a story about how she has lived there and lovingly cared for the stone lions flanking the drive, et cetera.

Upon arrival, she quickly makes friends with the other female in the group, Theo. They bond during various terrifying (to them) supernatural disturbances, but the friendship is tested when the house begins to exert its power over Eleanor. It’s subtle at first, but by the end Eleanor is quite taken over by the place and the ending, though rather predictable, is great.

Besides my not finding any of the events truly creepy, Eleanor herself is the primary reason I didn’t enjoy the book more. Even before she begins to be affected by the house, she’s annoying, with a non-stop inner dialogue of self-doubt and worry about what others thought of her that really got on my nerves. Worse than Eleanor is Dr. Montague’s wife, whom I absolutely hated. Thankfully, she’s only present at the very end; I wonder why her odious presence was deemed necessary at all.

In the end, there are elements of the story that I liked and ones that I didn’t. But that’s okay; it’s never a waste of time to read a classic!

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service 1 by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki: B+

From the back cover:
Five young students at a Buddhist university find that there’s little call for their job skills in today’s Tokyo… among the living, that is! But their studies give them a direct line to the dead—the dead who are still trapped in their corpses, and can’t move on to their next reincarnation! Whether you died from suicide, murder, sickness, or madness, they’ll carry your body anywhere it needs to go to free your soul!

I really wasn’t sure whether I’d like this series or not. I’d heard it was funny in a macabre kind of way, but worried about excessive levels of gore. Though there was one page that was truly gross, there were fewer disturbing images and more amusing snippets of dialogue than I’d been expecting and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot.

The five members of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service each had a different specialty they brought to the table, and their personalities meshed well. At times, I felt like I was watching a genre TV show—one of those with dashes of morbid humor—which is a compliment. My favorite character so far is probably Numata. His special talent is dowsing for corpses and though he looks all tough, he proved a couple of times to be a great big softie.

In the first chapter, the KCDS was formed (thanks to a winning lottery ticket that a grateful corpse gave them), and the three subsequent chapters dealt with different “cases” they came upon. Though each case was interesting, the recurring mystery of the spirit who hangs around one of the team and aids and protects him was what intrigued me the most. It was more genuinely creepy than anything else in the volume.

Lastly, Dark Horse provided extremely thorough notes at the back of the book, including a sound effects glossary and explanations of cultural references. This was good for a couple of giggles, too, and I’m sure the editor had fun describing sounds like “an organ hitting floor” or “foot bumping severed head” when he could’ve just written “thud” or “bump.”

I’m looking forward to continuing with this series; Dark Horse publishes a couple of other things by Otsuka and Yamazaki, too, which I might also check out eventually.

ETA: I’d originally classified this as shounen, because it was serialized some in Shonen Ace. However, it’s currently serialized in Comic Charge, which is definitely seinen. And it simply feels more seinen, so… there’s my rationale for switching it.