Review: Uzumaki (2000)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #673

Also known as うずまき Spiral
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 11, 2000
Sub-Genre: J-Horror
Country of Origin: Japan
Budget: $1,000,000
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: Higuchinsky
Producer: Sumiji Miyake
Screenplay: Takao Niita
Based on Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Special Effects: Tomo’o Haraguchi
Visual Effects: Kenichi Kobayashi, Issei Oda
Cinematography: Gen Kobayashi
Score: Keiichi Suzuki, Tetsuro Kashibuchi
Studios: Omega Micott Inc., Shogakukan, Space Shower TV, Star Max, Tokyo FM Broadcasting Co.
Distributors: Elite Entertainment, Tidepoint Pictures
Stars: Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Keiko Takahashi, Ren Osugi, Shin Eun-kyung, Hinako Saeki, Denden, Masami Horiuchi, Taro Suwa, Toru Tezuka, Sadao Abe, Asumi Miwa

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Aneka “Japanese Boy”

[2] Raven “Do As Infinity”

[3] Nine Inch Nails “The Downward Spiral (The Bottom)”

If you were looking to a fool-proof way to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, then whispering the word Yūrei 幽霊 in my ear would be as a good place as any to start. Translating to “dim spirit”, these shady figures originated from Japanese folklore, and are souls trapped in the physical realm until such time as a rite can be performed to return them to their ancestors. Over in the west, we refer to them as ghosts, but seemingly we lack the boundless imagination of our eastern cousins, thus we throw sheets and rattling chains over them and give them names such as Casper and Slimer. You see, we’re not fully comfortable with the kind of vengeful spirits Japanese minds can conjure, as attested to by the reams of powder-puff re-imaginings of undisputed J-Horror classics churned out over the past fifteen years or so.

While the likes of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge stick to a tried-and-tested formula to enlighten and frighten, others venture deeper into the macabre for effect. Takashi Miike possesses one such twisted mind and his output over the past three decades has been downright prolific. Highlights from Miike’s jam-packed résumé include his antithesis to the date movie, Audition, the hugely controversial Ichi the Killer and batshit crazy gonzo number, Gozu. Takashi evidently has a screw or two loose and here’s to the threads continuing to weaken in years to come.

That said, first-timer Higuchinsky’s little-known 2000 oddity, Uzumaki, gives the great man a fairly decent run for his money with regards to being whacked out and nightmarish. Based on Junji Ito’s manga of the same name and also known by the less playful but similarly fitting title, Spiral, this hypnotic little pot-boiler is light on fathomable logic and heavy on the inexplicable. That is to say that it’s more absurd than a satchel of unstable squirrels.

“Kurozu-cho, the town of my birth. Let me tell you a story of the strangeness there”

Split into four parts (“Premonition”, “Erosion”, “Visitation”, and “Transmigration”), Uzumaki sets us down in a storybook village segregated from the rest of the world by a long blackened void with no discernible exit. Our tour guide is vivacious Japanese schoolgirl, Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), and she is growing increasingly uneasy on account of the bizarre fascinations of everyone around her.

Take the father of her boyfriend, Shuichi (Fhi Fan) for example – he is obsessed with filming the corkscrew patterns on snails and is busy compiling a video scrap-book of anything whatsoever resembling a vortex. It’s one thing fashioning whirlpools in your miso soup but entirely another clambering into a washing machine for the ultimate in method spiral filmmaking. Things are evidently way fucked in Kurozu-cho, and even more disheartening, is the residents’ entranced acceptance of each baleful revelation.

Before too long, spirals are quite literally free-wheeling their way into the physical fabric of the world Kirie finds herself trapped in, while the nearby crematorium sends out spherical puffs of sinister smog just to further chip away at the poor girl’s speed-slipping sanity. Meanwhile, things aren’t a great deal less freakish at school, with the faculty flinching, mean girls preening, and student body leaving their slimy snail trails along any surface they can slither up.

With the whole tainted town rapidly spiraling down the plunge hole and only roving reporter Tamura (Masami Horiuchi) suspecting things aren’t kosher, Kirie feels like a square peg in a round hole and it’s only about to get worse with the storm clouds rolling in above her pretty little head.

I’ve never really paid particular mind to spirals if I’m honest. However, Uzumaki straps you in and forces you to pay attention. In some respects, it closest resembles Bigas Luna’s 1987 head-tripper, Anguish, with regards to the hypnotic approach it adopts. Whether twisting ceramics or winding Medusa-like hair curls, Higuchinsky is seldom not up to something, delving into the realms of H.P. Lovecraft, David Cronenberg and David Lynch in particular and dousing the screen in pale blues and greens to give a sense of his main protagonist’s steady psychological erosion.

Occasionally he opts for grisly spectacle but is more inclined towards slow-creeping dread and frequent fearful flourishes. Gen Kobayashi’s swirling photography puts an optical spin on every altercation and captures the very essence of what the director is looking to achieve. Drop deep enough beneath its spell and Kurozu-cho is the kind of stifling small town your worst nightmares may well concoct.

Before you go breaking out the slinky, it is critical to know where you stand with regards to Japanese absurdist comedy as there’s plenty of that peppered through the running time. I shit you not, at times it fees like you’re watching a live-action Looney Tunes episode on acid, such is the extent to which Higuchinsky embraces the ridiculous. That’s the nature of the beast I’m afraid and he soon reins it in with something suitably ghastly like a frantic woman self-mutilating in order to remove any pieces of her body that resemble the dreaded spirals. There may not be an abundance of substance on exhibit, but Uzumaki is never found wanting for style.

While on one hand, this film is the very epitome of abstract contemporary horror, on the other it is actually more attuned to traditional folklore and never misplaces those origins. Sure it’s uneven in tone and attempting to navigate its whirling labyrinth may well induce migraines in the better hinged viewers amongst us, but the whole point of the Uzumaki experience is grip on for dear life while it spirals out of control. I know one thing – I’ll never look at snails quite the same way again and slugs can fuck off too as they’re little more than snails in waiting.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Higuchinsky takes a leaf out of Cronenberg’s book here, as while Uzumaki is far from an out-and-out splatterfest, it punctuates the weirdness with some decidedly spiteful dispatches. I’ve seen some roadkill in my time, but seldom has it mesmerized me so effortlessly. 

Read Ringu Appraisal
Read Anguish Appraisal
Read Shivers Appraisal
Read Mulholland Drive Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

  1. “the nearby crematorium sends out spherical puffs of sinister smog just to further chip away at the poor girl’s speed-slipping sanity”

    Not mine (you get my drift!)
    Excellent review of a deliciously absurd film and one of my favourites as with the Ringu saga, Ichi, etc etc etc.

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