Writer: Ito Junji (Manga), Kengo Kaji (screenwriter)
Starring: Keiko Takahashi, Ren Osugi, Hinako Saeki, Fhi Fan
Matt: This week we’re continuing our appreciation of horror comics in movies and focusing on Uzumaki, a Lovecraftian tale from Japan. Uzumaki is translated as “spiral” or “vortex” (depending on the DVD edition you own). This simple shape invades a small town, causing madness and obsession. Eventually, the town’s inhabitants begin seeing the uzumaki everywhere as spirals become ever-present. At the center of this tale is a high school couple, Kirie and Shuichi, who watch as their friends and family transform into something (cue eerie sound effect) more than human.
The movie is based on a manga by Ito Junji, and despite some flaws, does a wonderful job of translating the language of comics to the big screen.
Charles: The film was released in Japan in 2000. I recall seeing it around 2002 or 2003 – a period where a lot of Japanese horror titles were being experienced for the first time by curious viewers. Around this time bootleg copies of Battle RoayleRoyale, Kairo (AKA Pulse in the U.S.), and the Ringu trilogy were making the rounds and Audition was freaking people out in art houses.
Looking back it was definitely a transformative period for Japanese horror that many of us came to secondhand, due to the labyrinthine processes of licensing foreign properties, came to secondhand. The lead in Uzumaki, Kirie, was typical of the kind of lead in many of these films and reflective of the target audiences in Japan. She was: a young girl, frightened out of her mind, unable to depend on adults whobut she nonetheless tackles a pretty hairy supernatural (and at times psychological) mystery.
I suspect what appealed to Western audiences (before the often uneven remakes) was how the movies skewed younger but nonetheless had real stakes. That is to say, the film didn’t need a masked stalker killing victims to make the threat of the movie tangible. with the lack of gore but many times played darker since the stakes were real and frequently quite messed up.
Take Uzumaki is a great example of the genre. It’s this apocalyptic film whose tone is fairly obsessively -dark and jarringly neurotic. It’s all about the familiar becoming increasingly strange, and being unable to depend on even one’s parents in a time of crisis. I think that those themes resonated with audiences on both sides of the pond.
Matt: What drew me to this slew of Japanese exports was the focus on concept and atmosphere, which, despite the weak storylines or characters, kept moviegoers on the edge of their seats. Since the glory days of American horror in the 1970’s and early 80’s, atmosphere has been – for the most part – a lost art form.
The aesthetic practiced in these “J-horror” titles is not easy to put your finger on. Many of the shots are objective, often holding for a length of time that a western studio wouldn’t have the patience for. These moments of stillness are often contrasted with shocking -moments, jarring us viewers out of our sedated state. Sometimes the long takes shots capture a moment of brutality in a cold, matter-of-fact language that is even more shocking for its detachment.
Of course, these Japanese directors weren’t the first to use these techniques.
Charles: Matt, your mention of the objective shots suggests to me that many of these shots are thematically about the slowly encroaching dread entering the frame, figuratively and literally.
Consider the oft-parodied image of a lead actor or actress seen by audiences in the foreground, while in the background a black-haired specter resolves itself into view. So too does the dread in these stories reveal itself over time – at the periphery but ultimately oppressive.
What these directors were able to do – to my mind – was find a direction after the post-slasher, self-referential 90’s which informed so much of the horror output here in the USA. I would argue that these films created resurgence for psychological horror here in the U.S. over the last few years (the quality Ring remake being one of the financial successes that helped spur the movement).
What marks many of these films is the conflict between the characters and dread as opposed to the characters and another character or a creature. Uzumaki, in particular is about a character against a pattern – a young girl facing down a pervasive, powerful obsession articulated through murder, madness, and mutation.
The movie is so effective for me on its initial viewing because it spirals ever inward from relative normalcy to icky weirdness to finally what appears to be the end of world (for Kirie, at least).
It’s some heady stuff, even if, as you mentioned before, Kirie isn’t a fully-realized character as you mentioned before.
Matt: True. And your point about a character facing a dreadful presence instead of facing another character is an important one. I would say that is a defining characteristic of this sub-genre.
Normalcy in this movie is a relative thing. From the first sequence, director Higuchinsky lets us know the reality of our situation is not OUR reality. It’s seemingly the reality of a manga aimed at teenage girls, featuring a quiet love interest and a quirky upbeat soundtrack. It’s a sweet, almost cartoonish world. All of this makes the strange goings on that much more horrifying once they begin, which is pretty soon.
Charles, you mentioned before reviewing this movie that in many ways it resembles a fairy tale. Would you say the tone plays a large part in that?
Charles: Yes to the extent that it presents the fantastic as the matter-of-fact in some parts such as the baroque hairstyle of Kirie’s school nemesis (I believe it was Keiko Takahashi’s Yukie character). As the uzumaki begins to invade the small village the character’s hair seems to positively sprout spirals from their tips downward.
What this feels like is a gradual slippage into the unreal: from Jack attempting to sell his cow at the market to the fantastic kingdom of giants in the sky. The sweet, slightly cartoonish world at the beginning of the film that you mention, Matt, is the fairly pastoral, slightly goofy little town in a valley. Then a flip is switched and it’s outright horror for the characters.
The only reason I won’t get fully behind my own idea that it’s a fairytale is because the calamity that befalls the village has no real moral
component (like the best fairytale calamities do).
But like the richest, best fairytales, it does have a vividly realized, highly visceral visual world with production design by Hiroshi Hayashida, which transitions easily from the mundane and rickety to the sinister and decrepit.
Matt, what did you think about the looks and effects of the film? I know one of the things that grabbed me (and I think you as well) are the truly bent and malformed snail-like things that seem to possess the villagers.
Matt: Absolutely. From the snails to the hairstyle, this movie is a visual treat.
The uzumaki design never gets tired like you might assume it would. Higuchinsky finds new ways to exploit the spiral design as it starts to take over the town, crafting brilliantly creepy setpieces showing characters increasingly going insane (suicide by clothes washer being my personal favorite). Even the camera replicates a spiral in many of the ways it moves. And the last shot of the film is the same as the first, making the story spiral in on itself.
Some of the computer graphics (especially at the very end) are comically rendered. Which – to my surprise – I didn’t mind all that much. Though the effects are just as much due to a low budget as they are a stylistic choice, they work well in Ito Junji’s world.
My only qualm with the film is in the ending. Just as things get truly dire for our main character and my butt starts creeping up to the edge of the seat… it ends. Kirie, being your average uniformed school girl, is a pretty passive character. When her fight-or-flight moment finally comes we never get to see it. We can assume what happens, based on a few following images, but it’s not at all emotionally satisfying.
I felt… robbed. What about you, Charles?
Charles: I’m a ambivalent about the ending: yes, it’s as if the story ends at its climax but at the same time it makes the final images so much more effectively downbeat.
I guess it comes down to the question of what Kirie’s role is in the film: to watch or to see?
I think that’s precisely why I love this movie – it’s rich with feeling (if not necessarily meaning) and it sticks with you after your initial viewing – in my case for years. It’s a mixed-bag recommendation: I would encourage others to check it out with the caveat that it’s not a traditional narrative – no one changes or grows and “good” (almost vaguely described in Kirie’s character) most definitely does not triumph over “evil.”
Your final analysis?
Matt: Despite my criticism, I enjoyed this movie a great deal. Many of the sequences and expressive camerawork will stay with you long after you’ve watched it. If your tastes run a little odd then this will be a good addition to the Halloween roster.