(Guest Blog) Junji Ito and the spirals of hell

Though ideas of hell and its theological structures or “models” existed before Dante, Dante was perhaps the first writer to construct an architecture of hell so vivid and specific, to the point where many of his readers believed he had actually been there. Dante’s hell differs from many glimpses of the underworld that we are afforded in the works of Homer or Virgil. His hell is a mappable place, charted with a cartographer’s eye.

One of the key architectural features of this hell, a feature that was perhaps surprising to his readers, and indeed is still surprising to new readers of Dante, is the fact that hell is arranged in “circles” that spiral downward into the pit. Nine circles, to be precise. Not seven (which would be the obvious choice given the Catholic concept of the seven deadly sins, and seven days of creation), but nine. Research has suggested that, in fact, there are nine key drivers of human behaviour or nine “motivators”, based on various sources, including the Enneagram and even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Could it be that Dante understood this psychological idea intuitively?

His choice of nine circles is even more intriguing when we consider western architecture, on the whole, is mostly angular or square, sometimes triangular, but almost never circular except in rare examples such as in the coliseums of Rome. In fact, it is more often Asian cultures that employ circles in their architecture, so Dante’s conception of a circular hell is culturally anomalous, against the grain of usual western thought, but of course psychologically genius. Circles represent cycles, endlessly repeating, and so Dante’s inhabitants of hell are trapped in their own warped logic, their own justifications for their actions, and the repetition of their own sins.

One of the greatest modern interpretations of this is in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (which literally means “spiral”), originally published in 2010Junji Ito is a Japanese horror manga artist and writer, who has created some of the most haunting horror imagery of the twentieth and twenty-first century. He is greatly influenced by the works of H. P. Lovecraft and “cosmic horror”, but an often overlooked aspect of his work is the Dantean. Uzumaki is the story of Kirie Goshima, a young girl living in a coastal town that is slowly falling into the grip of a “spiral curse”. The townsfolk, to varying degrees, become obsessed and subsequently infected by spirals. The story opens with Kirie finding her lover Shuichi’s father staring at a wall, inspecting a snail.

From this tiny beginning, everything spirals (forgive the pun) out of control. The “curse” of the spiral, though we are unsure if this is really what is going on, takes many different forms, including causing people to warp their own bodies into torturous offerings.

Ito-san’s spirals operate with similar symbolic significance to the circles of hell, namely, they are partly allegorical, as well as literal, of the spirals and endless cycles of human behaviour. Here, Shuichi’s father has become twisted, and so, as in Dante’s hell all things become literal, he is physically twisted to reflect his psychological reality. Each person in Uzumaki is trapped in their own sin.

Shuichi, Kirie’s boyfriend, is trapped in his paranoia and pessimism. He sees the spiral’s work in everything (even a bowl of noodles, or a river).

Shuichi is eternally depressed, his face warped in a kind of rictus. The sad thing is he’s often right, and is the first to see the spiral for what it really is, though his warnings fall on deaf ears. He is like Cassandra in Greek mythology, knowing the future, but cursed never to be believed.

Kirie, on the other hand, is trapped by her own virtue. Many times Shuichi offers to run away with Kirie, but she refuses, because she will not abandon her family. Her desire to help others becomes almost selfish rather than selfless as she drags Shuichi down with her into a labyrinth from which, eventually, they cannot escape.

Each person who falls victim to the spiral throughout this expansive epic is guilty of some kind of engrossing behaviour that ends up determining them. Shuichi’s father is a collector, and his obsession combined with the spiral leads to him collecting spiral objects, and ultimately, warping his own body into a spiral and putting himself in a box, like of one his cherished possessions.

Kirie’s own father is a ceramic-maker, and he refers to it as “the art of the spiral”, using the spinning disc to form his creations. He becomes so obsessed by his art, that it leads to him shaping spiral pottery out of the dead. He’ll literally defile the dead if it means he can achieve an artistic break.

A lazy young boy who never attends class on time is transformed into a snail, so he will forever be slower than the others.

Azami, a beautiful young girl at school whom our Kirie is jealous of, is obsessed with keeping young men in her circle, and eventually becomes a monster, whose head is hollowed out by a grotesque spiral eating into her brain. Men are drawn into this spiral, feeding her ego (located perhaps in the frontal cortex).

There are subtle nods to Dante throughout Uzumaki. For example, as the power of the spiral increases, vortexes sweep across the town, much like the hurricane winds that trap Paulo and Francesca in Dante’s second circle. And, perhaps an even more direct allusion, the story of Yoriko and Kazunori. Yoriko and Kazunori are two young lovers whose families hate each other and will not permit them to be together; so, the two end up betraying their families. Their relationship oversteps the boundary of true love and becomes a kind of co-dependence. The spiral finds them, and they become one twisted serpentine creature, each wrapped round the other, now inseparable and co-dependent forever.

Junji Ito understands, as Dante did, that even positive emotions like love have a place in hell when they are taken to extremes.

Like a spiral itself, the story circles whilst drawing ever closer to a central point. Geographically, Junji Ito locates this in the middle of his town: a lake from which many of the spiral-problems seem to stem. When we finally venture to this lake, we discover the truth of the spiral. Again, like Dante, Junji Ito doesn’t flinch from showing us the full expanse and architecture of the hell he has created, and we see the very “nadir” or low-point of the spiral, and what that represents.

–Joseph Sale (The Mindflayer), 2020


Images copyright © Junji Ito (2010). Courtesy of Viz Media, Uzumaki Deluxe Edition, 2019

Becoming a Whole Person: the Journey Down and Up

It is very human indeed that we spend so much time thinking about Hell when we could be thinking about Heaven, but in the words of Agent Smith from The Matrix: “I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” We are fascinated by the concept of eternal suffering because, in some way, it is more within the grasp of our imagination than bliss is.

But there is more to it even than that. Hell has deep psychological roots. Carl Jung, the eminent disciple of Freud, and who largely contradicted much of his research, is a bridge between Dante and Atheists in the modern world. From a Jungian perspective, the tripartite division of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven represent psychological states on our journey to self-actualisation.

So, to be in Hell is to be in a state of complete denial about reality.

Denial… this is our most understandable, most primitive defence, which, if continued indefinitely, proves to be the only truly pathological state of being” – James Hollis

In Hell, no meaningful communication is possible; the damned merely talk to themselves or to each other, repeating the same cyclical stories of pain (in the same way that the Ancient Mariner from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem repeats his woe-begotten tale) but despite their re-iterations, these hell-bound souls never to develop in any meaningful way. This is very psychologically true of many people in the real world, trapped in cycles of addiction, trapped in cycles of behaviour, unable to progress because they lack the ability to to accept reality and to accept their own fault. Many souls in Hell waste much of their breath justifying their decisions and actions to Dante rather than actually accepting their own fault. Auden puts it startlingly:

We would rather be ruined than changed.

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the present

And let our illusions die”

– W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

Notice the metaphor of ‘climbing the cross’, or in other words, accepting punishment for our sins. Whether you believe in the concept of ‘sin’ in the spiritual, metaphysical sense, it applies psychologically too. We all, at times, make mistakes, or bad decisions, and we can either change or be ‘ruined’ by them. Most, unfortunately, would rather be ruined, as Auden harrowingly observes, than admit they’re wrong.

The classic symptom of this state is repetition of pointless activities. Sisyphus rolls the boulder up the hill. Tantalus reaches for water he can never access. Again, we can observe these traits in real life: people who perform the same self-sabotaging tasks, who stick to the same debasing jobs, trapped in psychological compulsions.

Purgatory is where self-awareness begins to occur, and repentance for what one has done awry or failed to do. Work still needs to occur in order to progress further:

It has kept them stuck in the meaninglessness of purgatory and so they finally let go of the idea that someone else is to blame and look inside” – Dr Alan Watkins

In therapy, they say that the first step is self-awareness before healing can occur. We have to recognise that we have a problem in order to get rid of it. Returning to the ‘hell mindset’, so often people in hell-states deny that there is a problem, which is part of their denial of reality. They are the kind of people who might say: ‘I can quit smoking any time I want’, when in fact the opposite is exactly true.

When we reach Purgatory, however, we begin to see self-awareness. Therefore, we suffer, but in a different way. In, perhaps, a therapeutic way. Carl Jung observed:

Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything” – Carl Jung

Meaning, and discovering meaning, is only possible when we confront reality. However, it empowers us to do so and make the pain ‘endurable’.

Yet each of us is obliged to find out personal path through the dark wood. In the mediaeval Grail legend the knights, having seen the Grail, and intuiting that it symbolised their search for meaning, undertook the challenge and began their descent into the dark wood. But the text tells us that each one chose a separate place of entry ‘where there was no path, for it is a shameful thing to take the path that someone has trod before.’ Your journey is your journey, not someone else’s. It is never too late to begin it anew” –James Hollis

This chimes beautifully with Dante, whose journey also begins in the ‘dark wood / wherein the straight road no longer lay’ (Peter Dale translation).

But what is meaning? James Hollis remarked that: “The gods want us to grow up, to step up to that high calling that each soul carries as its destiny”. Yet, destiny is a slippery thing, something we have wrestled with as a species for millennia. Do we have free-will? Can we choose? If we can choose, then how can we also have a pre-determined destiny? How can we know our own destiny? These philosophical debates tend to go round and round, in themselves like hellish cycles. The reality of our weird, wonderful world is that both are likely true simultaneously.

But the important lesson is that we are all on a journey, and that there is an ‘end point’ to that journey. That, perhaps, can be what we call ‘destiny’. And what is the end point of any psychological journey? Catharsis.

When we have accepted this journey, truly accepted it, we will be flooded with a strong, supportive energy the carries us through all the dark places. For this energy we have an appropriate word. It is called ‘love’. It is love not only of the other, but love of this life, this journey, and love of this task of soul” – James Hollis

So, through suffering and self-awareness, Hell and Purgatory, we might finally arrive at Heaven. Heaven is where the shadow side of our selves or our soul is fully integrated into our personalities. This means not that we purify ourselves and shed the ‘bad’, purging it, but actually that it becomes an accepted part of who we are. Rather than self-condemning, we use the negatives of our personality as strengths and to feed other strengths. Writers commonly say that they use their negative emotions: anger, shame, lust, to fuel their work. They don’t deny the emotions exist, that would be a Hell-state, but rather embrace them and harness them. The same is true, I’m sure, of top athletes, musicians, dancers, actors, you-name-it.

So, Dante’s journey can be understood not just as a spiritual one, but as a psychological one too towards self-actualisation and wholeness.