Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Uzumaki (aka: Spiral)

(2000) Directed by: Higuchinsky; Written by: Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo; Based on the manga by: Junji Ito; Starring: Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Hinako Saeki, Keiko Takahashi and Ren Ôsugi; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“…to those of you who felt lost while watching this movie, and to those of you who felt the ending was not satisfying, I ask you, is there really an ending to this film?”
 – Higuchinsky (from the DVD commentary)

“One makes one’s own uzumaki.” – Toshio Saito (Ren Ôsugi)

One of the joys of doing a theme month is having the luxury to focus on one specific genre or category (e.g., Japanese cinema), and finding something really special in the process. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a methodical way of choosing which movies I review, or defer to one or two “definitive” authorities. More often than not, I’ll just throw out some titles and see what sticks. As a matter of course, it’s the films I’m not counting on that end up making the biggest impression. This time around, it’s the bizarre, darkly comic head trip Uzumaki, directed by Higuchinsky (aka: Akihiro Higuchi).

Higuchinsky described his film, based on a manga by Junji Ito, as a “kaiki” (meaning mysterious and eerie), rather than a straight horror story. It’s a subtle distinction that perhaps sets the best framework from which to appreciate Uzumaki. While the movie certainly has its visceral shock moments, the overall effect is an underlying sense of dread, which motivates the characters’ actions and reactions. The crux of the creepy mystery is one small town’s* obsession with spirals. As the obsession grows like a virus among the residents, it begins to consume (and transform) them. Higuchinsky plays with the concept of the spiral shape, exploiting it at every angle. He leaves no stone unturned, incorporating spirals throughout, including an electric barber shop sign, fish cake slices, pottery, cloud patterns and fingerprints. Recurring images of snails and snail shells reinforce the spiral shape, prefiguring some of the denizens’ literal transformation into the slimy gastropods (Hey, I told you this movie was weird, didn’t I?).

* Fun fact: Uzumaki was shot in Ueda-shi, in Nagano Prefecture. Higuchinsky selected the location because the sleepy town resembled his mother’s birthplace, and represented a throwback to earlier, simpler times.

Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), the film’s nominal protagonist, introduces us to the unusual occurrences in her town. She’s accompanied by her unflappable childhood friend Shuichi (Fhi Fan, in his only film credit to date), who stands as her protector and safe harbor when everything begins to fall apart. He’s the first to realize there’s a curse on the town, as he watches his father, Toshio (Ren Ôsugi) succumb to the spiral-induced madness, followed by his mother Yukie (Keiko Takahashi). Unlike her husband’s infatuation, however, Yukie’s obsession manifests itself as a phobia toward anything spiral-shaped. Despite Shuichi’s insistence that she leave while she can, Kirie keeps getting sucked back, as if there’s an invisible, inescapable vortex.

What’s the greater significance of all of this spiral mumbo jumbo? It’s open to a number of interpretations, but Higuchinsky, indicates in his DVD commentary that he left a trail of clues for filmgoers.* One of the more intriguing clues is uncovered by a newspaper reporter, who finds an image of a snake, recalling (at least on a subliminal level), the Greek Ouroboros legend, depicting a snake eating its own tail. It suggests the cyclical, unending nature of the spiral curse, as well as the inherent fatalism of the situation. Another theme is transformation as a means of social relevance. As one of Kirie’s high school classmates observes, “If you’re not noticed, it’s like you’re not alive.” Most of the film is displayed from a subjective point of view, cast in sickly greenish hue.  The only time the colors appear somewhat normal (objective) is when we see a news report through a television monitor, describing the unusual goings-on. The film is divided into three chapters, which provide a general framework: “Premonition,” “Erosion,” and “Visitation.” How it all adds up, though, is left to you.

* He revealed what was possibly the most tantalizing clue, suggesting that film itself, by nature, is one big spiral (I think my brain is melting).

It would be a massive understatement to say there’s nothing else quite like Uzumaki. It’s   unique, creepy, and strangely elegant in its exploration of the spiral, but don’t expect life’s mysteries to be revealed. It’s probably not healthy to dwell too long on the deeper meaning, unless you wish to suffer a similar fate to the film’s characters. While Uzumaki is not to everyone’s taste, it’s refreshing to watch something that’s not a product by committee. It’s probably a foregone conclusion this one isn’t on the long slate of Hollywood remakes, and that’s a comforting thing.

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