Does this look terrifying to you?
There’s definitely something fascinating about a spiral shape, the way it draws you in, how it can play optical illusions on you, and how it’s been used in media as a way of hypnotizing people. Yet you wouldn’t think of using it as an antagonist in horror. In typical American horror, there’s a clear monster/ghost/serial killer to chase the hapless young hero (and a lot of gore and sexual violence tends to ensue).
Yet to Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, the mysterious yet not quite right appeal of the spiral shape was enough to make it into his horror masterpiece, Uzumaki (literally means spiral/vortex).
Imagine you’re living in an isolated town, and slowly, strange things start to happen that somehow all involve spirals. A man becomes so obsessed with spirals he tries to use his body to create the shapes. His wife develops a morbid fear of spirals that lead her to go nuts. A girl who moves into town in order to pursue a boy notices a scar on her forehead turns into a spiral shape. Slowly but surely it becomes apparent that the town is haunted by the spiral, but when the townspeople realize something is extremely wrong, it’s too late. It made for a creepy, creative thrill that I read in one night.
Junji Ito first broke into the manga scene with Tomie, a series about an evil protean entity who cannot die and is constantly being reborn and multiplying, who takes the form of a beautiful teenage girl who manipulates and tricks others. He would go on to create several short stories and have two other noteworthy works: Gyo and The Enigma of Amigara Fault.
Gyo begins with a rather ridiculous premise: schools of fish crawl out of the ocean on mechanical, insect-like legs, and are accompanied by a horrible smell. But soon it develops into a truly nightmarish story, when people and other land animals are infected by the smell (carried by a powerful germ transferred through bodily gases) and become the replacements for the mechanical legs.
In The Enigma of Amigara Fault, after a devastating earthquake, a new fault appears from the ground, sporting human shaped holes.
(Yes, this was referenced in Steven Universe.)
People quickly discover that each hole is perfectly suited for each individual, and they feel compelled to enter the hole. They disappear for months at a time, and when they come out on the other side…well, they’re not quite the same.
What makes all three of these works chilling is that they take seemingly mundane, innocuous parts of life and morph them into something creatively horrifying. Ghosts and monsters and serial killers are scary enough, but what about a spiral that is seemingly everywhere that you can’t run away from? Now that strikes you on a psychological level.
Gyo has the extra horror of post WWII paranoia. In the manga, it was revealed that during WWII the protagonist’s grandfather helped conducted horrific experiments and created a toxic germ that could be used as a weapon. When the animals carrying the germ and emitting the gas would die or pass out, mechanical legs were created to carry them. Before they could be used on the front, they were lost at sea…and decades later, the disaster emerged. You can tell how horrifying that would be to a country nearly destroyed by war. The Enigma of Amigara Fault features a prefecture that was ravaged by a devastating earthquake. While I think that story has more nuances that resonates more with Japanese readers (in regards to things like conformity and finding your place in society), you can see how that would strike a particular unnerving cord to a country that is known for devastating earthquakes.
As you can tell, a lot of (good) Japanese horror is rooted in the country’s cultural fears. Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino is about a family destroyed by the Yakuza and WWII, based on the author’s own life (his grandfather was a Yakuza member and his own family fled Manchuria after Japan surrendered). Perfect Blue is about how the role of a (childlike but made to appeal to men) pop idol drives not one but two women mad when they dare to move on. And the original Godzilla is about the fear of a nuclear fallout. This is probably one reason why a lot of horror franchises that are originally Japanese don’t do as well when they become Americanized since a lot of what makes them truly scary is left out.
If you’re tired of American horror, I suggest you give Japanese horror a try. I strongly recommend reading Junji Ito’s work. He is extremely imaginative and effectively creepy, with absolutely gorgeous art. (He also wrote a genuinely cute and funny manga based on his life with two adopted cats, so you know he’s talented.) I don’t fully recommend Hideshi Hino because his work lacks subtlety and relies a bit too much on shock value and animal cruelty, but you should at least read his work Hell Baby because it’s a genuinely tragic, moving story about what it means to be human. There’s a litany of other horror (including Kazuo Umezuo, the original horror mangaka) that you can read up on. You can start HERE and HERE.
Feel free to share your experience with Japanese horror in the comments below!