Uzumaki in its Medium: Mandelbrots and Death

Welcome back! A little this and that before we get started. I did a rewrite of my oldest story for a creative writing class, and you can find that here. This week saw the introduction of two new Letsplayers to the Valid and Sound stable: DeathSarge and Alice Brady. You can find Deathsarge’s blog here. For Deathsarge’s introductory video, we played The Stanley Parable. Alice Brady’s introductory video was Organ Trail, the zombie-themed remake of Oregon Trail. This week, Alice and I are starting our descent into Alan Wake.

For those of you not familiar with Valid and Sound, it’s the collaborative label for my local group of nutty Letsplayers. We were going to call it Valid OR Sound, but we figured that, with enough of us in the room, we could cover both bases. Now, for the reason we’re all here: this week’s discussion of horror. Just before Halloween, I polled my Facebook friends for their favourite horror antagonist in any medium and the overwhelming response was The Spiral from Uzumaki. So, today, we’re going to discuss how Uzumaki’s medium enables its particular exploration of horror, as well as some of its more psychological aspects.

Uzumaki___Spiral_by_Tailed_Fox

There are a lot of complaints when a story changes mediums. Often, we blame the directors for ruining our book in the process of making a film. If you ask anyone that likes anime and manga, they’ve probably got a favourite expression of any franchise. Don’t word it like that, though, ask them: Do you prefer the manga or the anime? Almost unfailingly, they will have a preference. This isn’t always because one is of greater or lesser quality. Often, this is because the story was made for its original medium. Have you ever tried to sketch an oil painting or fry a cake? What you get out of it might be good, but it will also be fundamentally different.

This problem is exacerbated when we’re discussing horror, because horror is an experientially fickle genre. Translating a story from one medium to another takes a greater deal of skill and an understanding of the essential elements of the story. Look at Ender’s Game. I loved the book; it was one of the first novels that I read as a child. The movie, however, left me cold. It was a box-checking exercise. It covered all of the events of the book, but felt stunted and emotionally detached (I actually laughed at the inciting incident of the token conflict with Bernard). That’s not really fully the fault of the directors. They actually did some pretty clever things. How could they have done it better? Well, for starters, they’d have to strip down the story to its fundamental elements and focus on those. On the characters, the plot and the message.

However, again, that would produce a movie that would be fundamentally different from the book but that would still carry the same weight of experience. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. Yes, they got three movies to work with, but they were also telling three books worth of story. A lot of stuff was chopped out to ensure that the movie’s world felt Gestalt. And it worked. It worked because the directors understood how to translate from one medium to another. Translation relies on two things: 1: The fan-base being open to changes (That’s where we can assist in the production process). 2: Having an understanding of why something works in a particular medium and how it could work within another.

That brings us back to Uzumaki. The story of The Spiral is an interesting one. Essentially, this town has been cursed by The Spiral. What is the spiral? Well, it’s a shape, but it’s not a self-contained one. It suggests the infinite within the framework of a circle. It spirals endlessly outwards and unceasingly inward. Well, at least, that’s what it looks like. In reality, it’s a self-contained shape, but it’s also visual short-hand for something that’s mesmerizing. It’s a drill. It’s a slump into depression. It’s the physical decline of old age. It’s the cyclical nature of history and human experience: roving in circles that are never quite the same. It’s a literal example of not being able to make ends meet. It’s a plume of smoke. It’s draining water. It’s hurricanes. It’s everywhere. It’s a physical manifestation of the rules of nature. It’s Mandelbrots and death

That’s what makes the spiral such a perfect antagonist. The Spiral appears to have a Will of its own, but it’s absolutely inscrutable. There’s no way to know the motivations of a force of nature that’s so enigmatically ubiquitous. Our lives are spirals. We are made, in part, by spirals. Yet, it’s sort of an odd shape, so it’s salient when we find it.

These things make The Spiral perfect as an antagonist. It’s both innocuous and vaguely disconcerting, but also fascinating and self-referential. This is the slow-building, existential horror that Japan traditionally does so well. Think Silent Hill or The Ring. As a person trapped within the Universes where they hold sway, there’s nothing you can really do to understand them, no matter how hard you thrash. Even James Sunderland’s revelations at the end of Silent Hill 2 do little to explain why it was all happening in the first place. There are hints and pieces of lore, but truly understanding the motivations of the town is beyond his ken.

That’s a lot like Uzumaki. What the hell does the spiral want? What’s its end-goal? Does it even Want? And if it’s unstoppable and insatiable, by virtue of having no actual goal, then we’re caught in a violent maelstrom of unreconcilable impossibility. Two of our greatest human strengths are pattern recognition and curiosity. Both are part of the search for meaning and The Spiral skewers us with them, because we find it fascinating. We can go mad trying to discern the patterned motivations of the spiral and fall to it through our unfailing motivation to understand it. In that way, it’s extremely Cthulhian. It turns our minds against us and hollows us out with the domineering surety of a drill. Ceaselessly and without motivation, it chips away at who we are.

Most disturbingly, it is us. The seeds of our doom are sewn in the very tools we would use to resist it. That’s what makes The Spiral so awesomely disquieting, but the method of presentation is important, too. Why does Uzumaki fare better as a manga than it would as a book, if Lovecraft exploited a similar vein of fear in literary form? Well, in part, it’s because the fear is visual. The manga includes some pretty disturbing images, like this one:

uzumaki-1136762

Believe me when I say, this is pretty normal by the standards of Uzumaki. Yet, it’s not entirely the visual. Part of it is our attempts to understand the mind –the experiences– of the character. Third-person and first-person books often include a semi-omniscient narrator to allow us to look into the minds of  the characters within it. Uzumaki does something similar, because it shows us the characters. Whether you realize it fully or not, you’ve spent your entire life trying to figure out what people are thinking and feeling based on their postures and facial expressions. The manga format lets us do this, but it also plonks its characters into completely alien circumstances. What… how does the person in the picture feel? Sliding along the floor, dragging against the rough linoleum, eyes askew, depth-perception shattered. His skin isn’t his own, and his back has become a horrible burden. A burden of The Spiral.

We can, in a way, look into the mind of this young… man, but we can’t quite figure out everything about him. In fact, we’re disturbed and repelled by the idea that we might. Even, that we might try. This is the uncanny valley of psychological interpretation. Close enough to us, close enough to our edge of madness, to be enticing, but still so Eldritch that it’s beyond our comprehension. It’s unsettling how much that notion suffuses our experience of the story.

In the early stories of the series, we see more clearly the effects of the fascination induced by The Spiral, but the same uncanny valley rules apply. We can see the madness in their eyes, but we can’t experience it. We have to take it as rote that it’s there, whereas we might question it in a literary piece or a movie, when it would hinge on actor portrayals. Unless we can experience the force of the mental spiral downward into insanity through the medium, it will always seem stilted. Uzumaki’s visual element bypasses that by letting us see it in freeze-frames. We can see it happening, but we’re locked out of fully understanding its nuances. It’s the edge of the uncanny valley of understanding that we find disturbing.  This is why “Eldritch light” is always more effective than “vaguely fuzzy lights of unknown origin.” It’s fully understandable, but partially incomprehensible.

Yet, the story counts on the fact that we’ll try. Some of the story’s more visceral contortions are made doubly effective by the imagination of the reader trying to understand the feelings of the character. You’ll see what I mean as you read, but, for a more general interpretation, you know how you cringe when you see someone hit their head? That’s because you know what that feels like, and part of you has understood what that feels like. You’re fed the sensation theoretically, and, if your mirror neurons are firing properly, part of you felt the necessary movements to produce the effect. We’ve all been trapped in tight spaces before, so you’ll understand the effects of The Spiral just enough for it to disturb you.

There’s more, though. One of the most important elements of contemporary horror is timing. I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaring violin strings and building musical jump-scares that go into most horror movies now. For the veterans among us, this sort of thing can be annoying, because it basically warns us when something’s going to jump out. It’s a bit sigh-worthy, but the crescendo of the strings, the height of the musically inspired tension, is juuuust before the horror-trope is executed, and then it is held. It’s just before the stabbing. Just before the cat flies across the screen (So many fake-out scares are cat-related!!). In a way, the music is telling you when it’s time to tense up and think about what might happen. Manga doesn’t need that, though. Uzumaki requires your volition.

Turning the page of a book is an active process. In fact, reading a manga, at all, is an active process. You have to construct the scenes that occur between each panel yourself. You have to think about what’s happening in each panel, take it in and animate it. That plays right into Uzumaki’s hands. It uses detailed, highly unusual, somewhat disturbing images to provoke our imagination. This is the thing that helps to guarantee what I was talking about earlier. Because the onus is on you to animate the scene, you have to work that little bit harder to understand the motivations and situations of the characters. Often, that simply doesn’t happen when we’re being spoon-fed something on a screen.

In a way, comics are a nice compromise between mental animation and gratuitous information, with a well-defined mental distance between character and reader. It’s this specific type of engagement that makes Uzumaki so effective in manga form, surprisingly off-putting two-page spreads included. Besides all that, if it was on television, the camera would control what your eye looked at. It would trace the lines of The Spiral, and, personally, I think that would look a bit hokey. It would break the forth wall, because I would know that the director really wants me to get into the spiral mind-set. As a book, it would describe The Spiral, but it wouldn’t have the same impact of having to absorb it and its effects visually, mentally, the same way the manga does. Uzumaki, as a manga, asks me to sit and really appreciate The Spiral. I’ve caught myself, time and again, following its flowing, orderly lines to the edge of the page and into the void of ethereal madness beyond.

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