The Art of the Spiral (Juniji Ito’s Uzumaki)

Juniji Ito is a mastermind of a mangaka. The manga Uzumaki is a showcase of his incredible story telling and artistic skill. It is perhaps one of his most famous works, and for good reason too.

It tells the story of our protagonist, Kirie Goshima and her boyfriend, Shuichi Saito and the terrible tale of the contamination of spirals in their home town.

THE SPIRAL OBSESSION

The first two chapters are named “The Spiral Obsession”. It marks the beginning of the end, of how one man’s obsession begins a domino effect, hurtling the story forward towards its inevitably gruesome death. The man in question is Shuichi’s father, Mr. Saito. A whirlwind blows past Kirie before she sees him, a foreshadowing of the events that are about to occur. She sees him staring at an empty snail shell.

The spiral in the snail shell is naturally occurring, not suspicious at all. We can see the theme of the spiral begin to creep into the lives of the citizens of the town. Ito specialises in turning the seemingly ordinary and normal into something increasingly grotesque and disturbing and we can see that in this piece of work.

Travelling from a different town Shuichi is able to see the difference and states that Kurouzo-cho is ‘infested’ with spirals. While speaking to Kirie’s father, Mr. Saito, claims that spirals are ‘everywhere once you look for them’ and he calls his profession, pottery, ‘the art of the spiral.’ To him, the shape is ‘mystical’ as it is devoid of imperfections.

It is true that once you start looking, spirals are everywhere, they appear in whirlpools, seashells, snail shells, whirlwinds and more. Mr. Saito’s obsession reaches a point where he cannot live without the spirals. After his wife confiscates his belongings he achieves enlightenment and turns himself into a spiral by crushing his body inside a round tub. His corpse is found by his wife and son, which traumatises the two of them.

The way Mr. Saito is drawn, swirled into the tub, is exquisite. Only someone with a great understanding of the way the human body works could have perverted it so perfectly. It sends a chill down my spine every time I look at it, as though I myself am being traumatised by it.

Mr. Saito’s cremated ashes swirl up into the sky in the form of a spiral, then swirl back downwards into Dragonfly Pond. The significance of the ashes falling into Dragonfly Pond becomes clear once we reach the end. The pond is the centre of all the madness and beneath it is the Labyrinth that will end this whole ordeal.

One of the mourners proclaim that it is a ‘bad omen’, unknowingly foreshadowing what was to come.

“The Spiral Obsession” is broken into two parts, one for each of Shuichi’s parents. His mother ends up in a mental institution where we become aware of the natural existence of the spiral shape on our own bodies. She aims to destroy all spirals within her body, the cochlea, her fingertips and the swirls in her hair. On the day of her cremation ‘another black spiral emerged in the sky’.

Ito’s research into the spiral is extremely thorough. In these two chapters alone he has identified almost all natural things that form spirals, which is incredible as they are usually things we wouldn’t think twice about until they are brought to light.

The obsession with spirals is a theme that is continuous throughout the story.

SPIRALS AND MESMERISM

Spirals have a pattern that supposedly draws the viewer in. The theme of mesmerism and how it relates to spirals can be seen in a few instances.

Chapter three, “Scar”, is the first instance. In this chapter, Azami, a student from another town, moves to a town and unluckily befriends Kirie. Due to Azami’s beauty, some jealous girls spread rumours that boys are attracted to her because of her hidden crescent shaped forehead. Kirie takes Azami to meet Shuichi, which turns out to be a big mistake as he is terrified of her, claiming the crescent had turned into a spiral (which it had) and warns her to get out of Kurouzu-cho. She does not heed Shuichi’s warning and by the end her whole body turns into a spiral, sucking up a boy who wanted to date her, then she collapses into herself.

As readers, we realise that the reason men were so drawn to her was because she was like a spiral, hypnotic and drawing them in. They were mesmerised by her. Being in that town had grown her scar, grown her spiral-like attraction which ultimately led to her death.

Chapter six : “Medusa”, is the most outright about the relation of spirals and mesmerism. After a boy in Kirie’s class dies from falling off a roof with a content look on his face, Shuichi draws a comparison to the attention he is getting with that of the spiral. He explains, ‘it’s about mesmerism. They both have the power to attract people.’ He also points out that Kirie’s hair had grown long, something that is easily missable by the reader who would probably chalk it up to time passing. Kirie’s hair grew far too fast and in true fashion of the story, the only culprit here is the spiral. Sekino, a girl in Kirie’s class craves attention and when Kirie’s hair begins to ‘constantly changed shape to better draw people’s attention,’ she becomes jealous. The effect it has is like that of a pendulum swinging left to right with the gaze of people fixated on it. Sekino falls into the trap of the spiral and her hair begins to grow.

Kirie’s hair is cut off by Shuichi and they discover that the hair grows by draining the body’s energy. Sekino doesn’t realise this before it’s too late and she loses her life in the pursuit of fame and attention.

This is Ito’s way of saying one’s life is not worth the attention and fame if the individual is lost in the process. Nobody helped Sekino as they were too mesmerised by the show her hair was putting on, and she was too blind by her craving for attention that she didn’t care to ask for help. This whole scenario could have been avoided if Sekino did not lust after revenge and this story serves as a warning to the reader not to repeat the mistake.

SPIRALS, SPEED AND REVENGE

In the chapter, “The Snail”, Katayama, a student of Kurouzu High School, who only turns up on rainy days and is extremely slow, begins to grow a lump on his back. This lump has the shape of the spiral on it and as the days progress, it gets bigger and bigger until he finally turns into a snail. Following his transition, one of Katayama’s bullies begins experiencing the same symptoms as him and turns into a snail as well. They are both locked up in a shed where, much to the disgust of the students, the two of them mate as snails are hermaphrodites. They then escape and lay eggs in the forest which are destroyed by Mr. Yokota, their teacher who claims the ‘mollusk people’ were disgusting and mustn’t breed.

As Katayama was a slow student, the spiral had caught up to him. Here, Ito may have been suggesting that the slower and lazier you are, the easier it is for you to fall into a spiral is perhaps what Ito is trying to convey. One can draw a comparison to a treadmill, if you slow down while the speed is high you are likely to fall and be swept away.

The snails mating may also be a reference to homosexual relationships and how they are looked down upon in society. Some words that are used by Mr. Yokota, ‘disgusting’ and ‘unnatural’ are also used by people who are homophobic, Katayama was also abandoned by his parents after he turned into a snail which is also similar to how children who come out as LGBTQ+ are disowned by their parents.

The bully got turned into a snail after annoying Katayama, and Mr. Yokota got turned into a snail after he crushed the eggs. The theme of revenge is clear in that the two of them experienced karma for the deeds they committed. The theme of the spiral may be included here in that once you mess with someone who has been affected by the spiral you are pulled into it as well.

Chapter nine, “The Black Lighthouse” also has these themes as anyone who enters the light house or basks in its mesmerising light is possessed by the spiral. Kirie’s brother ventures into the lighthouse despite a few people entering it and never coming out. Kirie follows them and finds charred bodies on her way up so she runs to rescue the boys. She eventually reaches the top to see that the lamp was melted but light still emerged.During her rescue attempt the light catches up to them and kills one of the boys while injuring Kirie and her brother.

The boy that was burned up was too slow to escape from the spiral light house and because of it he suffered. This suggests that life is unfair and some people don’t make it to the other side and are sacrificed in pursuit of freedom. It is also symbolic of how no matter how hard we try, we cannot always save and protect people from their fate.

SPIRALS AND ART

‘The Firing Effect’ is a chapter which shows Mr Goshima’s increasing obsession with the kiln and its effects on his pottery. When his clay creations enter the kiln, they are transformed into a spiral mess with faces that resemble those that have been cremated, a process he tries to keep a secret. When it is revealed by Shuichi, the whole kiln goes up in flames.

Even in the chapter ‘Chaos’, while at the end of Kurouzo-cho Mr. Goshima refuses to leave, stating that he wants to make ceramics there and work on the ‘art of the spiral.’ He digs up mud from Dragonfly Pond for this, which is the centre of all the chaos. In the last chapter ‘Completion’ Kirie finds him entangled with her mother, turned into stone after hearing that there was still a potter by the pond. He was dedicated to his work and died for it.

In these instances Ito conveys a story of how artists become obsessed with their work and spiral into madness and irrational behaviour. He shows how they are ready to sacrifice even themselves for their craft and that they are the only ones who can go to the centre of the madness, the centre of the spiral, and come out of it alive, just as Mr Goshima had dug up mud from that pond for his creations many times and had come out mostly unscathed.

SPIRALS AND LOVE

As stated earlier, in the chapter “Scar” Azami’s crescent-shaped scar turns into a spiral after she becomes obsessed with Shuichi, trying to get him to fall for her. We know her budding love is the beginning of her scar’s transformation as it is pointed out at her first meeting with Shuichi. As she goes mad trying to get him to reciprocate her love, her scar grows when she faces her final rejection from him, her spiral scar causes her to collapse into herself while sucking up another boy who had fallen for her. The plots in “Jack in the Box” and “The Storm” tell similar stories.

This is Ito’s way of saying becoming devotedly in love with someone who doesn’t love you back can send one down a spiral of self destruction and may pull in and harm others who are just trying to help.

The chapter ‘Twisted Souls’, however tells a completely different story. Similar to Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet, two young people belonging to families that hate each other fall in love. The two attempt to elope but when they are caught by their parents they entangle up in one another and run away into the ocean. Similarly in “Completion” Kirie’s parents die tangled up together as do she and Shuichi.

Just as love is destructive, it is also beautiful and comforting. It can help you get through the roughest of times and can make even death seem less daunting.

SPIRALS AND MOTHERHOOD

Juniji Ito brings forward how motherhood appears to him. The story in ‘Mosquitoes’ and ‘Umbilical cord’ are connected, ironically like an umbilical cord. Pregnant women in the hospital feast on the blood of other patients at the hospital to nourish their babies, Kirie witnesses this but no one believes her. Here, Ito suggests that pregnant women can get away with murder because of the way society views them as innocent.

It is a way of saying women spiral into obsessively eating whatever they can on order to make their babies grow best. The mothers in this story are like blood-sucking parasites who feed off of everyone else’s energy just because of their pregnancy and the corrupted children are the result of this.

The next chapter takes a darker turn as the babies want to go back into the womb where it is safe and comfortable. A doctor carries out this cursed procedure and the umbilical cord of the babies grow into mushroom type plants that are fed to the patients as ‘all mammal life springs from these organs. If it was fed to the sick, wouldn’t they get better’. A doctor’s spiral into research is what is shown to the reader.

SPIRAL INTO THE END

This theme covers everything that happens in the last chapters from ‘Madness’ to ‘Labyrinth’ all the way to the settlement of the story into its disastrous end in the final chapter ‘Completion’. It is an almost apocalyptic, as people lose their senses and nothing seems to make sense anymore. It is an utterly chaotic setting from which there is no escape, and everyone who tries to help from outside of the town just gets sucked up into the whirlwind of disaster.

Ito beautifully portrays the way people lose themselves in selfishness and madness when they should be the most selfless. The labyrinth under the town’s river sucks up all the people into itself and builds itself up with their hardening corpses before putting an end to the strange occurrences that had been happening.

It is a fitting end, akin to the way a spiral stops at the centre of itself, like the eye of a storm that remains still while surrounded by madness, The towns citizens are all drawn into it.

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