Panpsychosis: Junji Ito’s Uzumaki
Reality is a living thing in Junji Ito’s manga masterpiece - and speaks to us in a twisted aesthetic language
Any good iceberg meme about spooky books to read for Halloween should, at the very least, include Junji Ito’s Uzumaki. A manga released serially in the late ‘90s, it has since been re-released as a fantastic omnibus edition. 1
The manga, following a young couple in a town cursed by spirals, is not only a monument of contemporary weird fiction, but further suggests that the universe is a living, conscious thing - a thing which speaks the same language as us.
Black Vortex Town
Uzumaki’s protagonist is Kirie Goshima, a high schooler in the fictional seaside town of Kurouzu-cho in Japan. Life so far has been pretty uneventful for her and her boyfriend Shuichi Saito, until she one day discovers that her father has become obsessed with spirals. Contemplating snail shells, whirlpools and the spiral’s tendency to lead the eye toward its centre, Kirie’s father’s obsession grows until he is found dead, contorted grotesquely into a spiral. At his cremation, the townsfolk notice that the smoke rising from the crematorium twists itself into a spiral, too.
Neither the townsfolk nor the town itself are immune to the spiral obsession. Shuichi, with a keener eye than most, points out to Kirie when whirlwinds rip through the town’s sleepy streets, how whirlpools randomly form in its roadside streams and how the people of Kurouzu-cho are slowly becoming obsessed with the shape.
Told episodically, each of the sixteen or so chapters recount a series of escalating incidents all involving spirals manifest in the world around Kirie and Shuichi. In ‘Chapter 6: Medusa’, Kirie’s hair takes on a life of its own, curling into spirals and garnering the attention of her classmates - until Shuichi cuts it off before it can sap all of Kirie’s life energy.
In ‘Chapter 9: The Black Lighthouse’, Kirie’s little brother investigates the local lighthouse, long since abandoned, after it starts emitting powerful, spiralling cones of lights at the same time every evening. Littered with twisted corpses, they find her little brother at the top by the lighthouse’s molten fresnel lens which, ‘because of the melting, looked like a spiral.’ (p. 289)
Uzumaki was published serially, meaning that each chapter both present a ‘monster of the week’ (a schoolboy turned into a horrific snail-thing, townsfolk covered in spiralling warts, a mass of entangled people all spirally interlooped) as well as a sense of deepening chaos and destruction. Kurouzu-cho is eventually destroyed by a series of spiralling typhoons, leaving its remaining residents to huddle together in a ramshackle structure of conjoined terraced houses, spiralling inwards towards the town’s former centre.
Throughout the story, readers might notice further visual cues signalling Kurouzu-cho’s spiralling into chaos. Grass in background scenery begins visibly curling as the story progresses while clouds - or, seemingly, the air itself - form great spirals in swirls of wind.
The spiral itself is already present everywhere in nature, manifesting throughout in snail shells, draining water, and even galaxies. It is a natural shape which takes little energy and to which conventional physics seem especially amenable, meaning that it’s a shape into which matter will regularly twist itself into all on its own - naturata naturans.
Uzumaki’s uncanny physical process thus isn’t that alien to start with, but rather a nature naturing at an increased (and accelerating) rate. Further, this means that the curse itself is ontologically absolute, woven into the material reality itself in which the characters find themselves trapped.
Crucially, the spiral is also a sublimely aesthetic object in its consistency and hypnotising quality to the pattern-seeking human eye. Hence why many in Uzumaki, like Kirie’s father, become obsessed with the spiral: it is both one of nature’s base shapes and cognitively entrancing, a sort of sensory bridge between materialism and those around to perceive it.
Here I can’t help but think of Carl Sagan, in decidedly cosmic terms, saying that we are the universe experiencing itself. And as the spiral shows, not only does the universe speak to itself in mathematical terms, but also in aesthetics.
In this radically immanent frame - in which the curse infects reality itself and manifests in a shape both natural and aesthetic - nothing is safe. The curse of the spiral is not some transcendental phenomenon in Uzumaki, but more akin to some cosmically eldritch process of the immanent frame, a hypernatural phenomenon which is ultimately unknowable.
The Universe Speaking Sign Language
Towards Uzumaki’s end, Kirie and Shuichi discover a hidden Lovecraftian city under Kurouzu-cho.2 Grotesque spires and great domes, all twisted and spiralling into themselves, have been waiting under the town for thousands of years. Shuichi remarks:
“I feel like it’s permeating me and cursing us for being down here, hidden from those eyes up there. Spirals suck things in… the eye follows the pattern to the center. I don’t know who or what built all this, or why… but every few hundred, or thousands, or tens of thousand of years it can reach the people above ground, and though its builders are gone… maybe it’s still building itself.” (p.606)
These themes of permeation, of the role of the aesthetic (of “those eyes up there” and their tendency to follow the spiral), and the self-propagation of the curse (“it’s still building itself”) all emerge in this final monologue conventional of Lovecraftian fiction.
But neither the spiralled ruins nor its builders are the ultimate, Cthulhu-like monster of Uzumaki. Reality is. Again, the spiral is endemic throughout nature/reality and a recognisable symbol throughout Uzumaki it attracts and destroys its human characters. It lures people in with its innate beauty, but when the curse latches on to a human, it twists it to horrific ends.
In terms of Uzumaki as a material piece of fiction, the curse’s grisly effect on the human is its monster-of-the-week mechanism; every issue, more or less, ends with another horror visual of the human body grotesquely twisted into a spiral. It simply wouldn’t be a weekly horror manga series without it.
But within the story’s logic, this only reinforces that reality speaks the same aesthetic language we use to make sense of it.
The curse’s intent, in other words, is as much about twisting everything into a spiral as it is about cognitively affecting those unlucky enough to witness it. The universe is a living, thinking thing in Uzumaki as the gaze into the spiral goes both ways. When you become entranced by the spiral or horrified by the effect upon the human body, the spiral stares back, relishing in its curse’s effect upon the consciousnesses which find the shape so enticing.
This is the most cosmic aspect of Uzumaki’s conscious universe, raising the familiar question of whether we can even consider nature doing its thing as evil in intent - or whether, given the curse’s gratuitously gruesome effect, there is something leering back at you from the other side.
This revelation that reality is much more extreme and, well, weirder than previously thought is a foundational marker of weird fiction. In Lovecraft’s fiction, it is the existence of monstrous beings lurking in space or oceans’ depths that drive his protagonists to madness. But Uzumaki makes a case for a sneaky, aesthetically-minded panpsychism - a universe with a mind of its own which exploits its own aesthetics to malicious ends.
This makes for a strong point when it comes to differentiating supernatural fiction and weird fiction. The supernatural involves a set of tropes - vampires and werewolves and ghosts, all familiar from classic tales - representing a lapse in reality. The existence of a ghost or a vampire is a metaphysical fluke, a glitch in the matrix, in an otherwise relatively mundane materialism.
In weird fiction, it’s reality itself which turns out to be the strange entity. Cthulhu provides only glimpses at a greater universe in which eldritch entities exist and humanity means nothing. Uzumaki suggests that the world is not only conscious, but capable of exploiting the pattern-seeking caveman brain. It is Carl Sagan’s universe experiencing itself - and scaring itself shitless.
Aesthetics are crucial in Uzumaki as the process by which we experience and interpret the world around us - and in suggesting that the abyss might be staring back. Set in a totally immanent frame, it isn’t simply the individual spiral-monstrosities that constitute the horror of Uzumaki. Rather, it’s the distinct possibility that nature itself is inflicting this upon Kirie and co., aesthetically communicating with its own conscious observers so as to entrap them in a conscious - and overtly hostile - reality from which there is no escape.
There are other weird stories which similarly deal with a world come alive. Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation takes a more biological approach, although the rippling, oozing reality of that novel similarly understands its aesthetic effects upon its human components - such as when the protagonist finds a meandering bio-gothic poem written in plant material on the walls of a spiral (!) staircase.
There’s also John Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies, which may be one of the strangest pieces of weird non-fiction you’ll ever read. Detailing the real-life events around Point Pleasant, West Virginia between 1966 and 1967, Keel’s paranormal piece of journalism recounts the multiple sightings of UFOs, strange entities like ‘men in black’ and the eponymous winged creature, nicknamed the Mothman, which was witnessed by dozens of people just before the town’s bridge collapsed, killing 46.
Keel, via Fortean analysis and synchronicities recounted in the book, ties these events together into a larger phenomenon so as to paint a picture of a universe that is both consciously messing with humanity and speaking in a language that is both aesthetically meaningful and hard to make sense of. The Mothman Prophecy’s ending, while terribly pessimistic, could just as well apply to Uzumaki:
After spending a lifetime in Egyptian tombs, among the crumbling temples of India and the lamaseries of the Himalayas, endless nights in cemeteries, gravel pits, and hilltops everywhere, I have seen much and my childish sense of wonder remains unshaken. But Charles Fort's question always haunts me: "If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?"3
1 - All references are taken from edition Uzumaki, given in quotation marks after quotes.
2 - Ito directly cites H.P. Lovecraft as an inspiration for Uzumaki, although the original interview in which he states this has since disappeared.
3 - John Keel, The Mothman Prophecies (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991), p. 296.
Animation and collages by Katia