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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 21: Uzumaki (2000)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Kengo Kaji (supervising screenwriter), Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo, based on the manga Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Directed by Higuchinsky

Eriko Hatsune:  Kirie Goshima
Taro Suwa:  Yasuo Goshima
Fhi Fan:  Shuichi Saito
Keiko Takahashi:  Yukie Saito
Ren Osugi:  Toshio Saito

If you're an American moviegoer, you're pretty much guaranteed to think of one thing if you hear "comic book movie":  tights and fights. Superhero characters from either Marvel or DC Comics gaining their abilities, fighting a nemesis (frequently but not always to the death), and the current trend with the various universes of characters is to have them show up in each others' movies so that, say, the people who dig Spider-Man might buy a ticket to a Captain America movie. Sometimes this works out astonishingly well, balancing five main characters and their story arcs with a massive alien threat unlocked by a beam of energy that punches a hole in the sky (The Avengers) and sometimes it's a hastily introduced team made up of four guys with guns, a dude who throws a stick and Hot Topic Mallet Clown versus a massive interdimensional threat unlocked by a beam of energy that punches a hole in the sky (Suicide Squad). Sure, once in a while you get something like Scott Pilgrim Versus the World made that isn't specifically a superhero film, but even that one--a romantic comedy--is full of video-game-style martial arts fight scenes.

Either way, if it's based on a comic book American audiences have been primed to expect certain things from a given movie, because generally, the comic books that are available in America are superhero comics. Marvel and DC (and their competitors that are no longer around) have, in various corporate guises, been telling stories about superhumanly strong characters fighting to protect the helpless since 1939. At least in the States, those stories are the ones that are getting told in four-color ink. Now, there used to be romance, Western, war, crime, and horror comics sold at newsstands and drugstores; when comic books became a consumer good sold almost entirely at specialty stores, most of those other genres faded away (though something like Archie has been around about as long as Batman has, and is a hugely successful non-superhero title--but I'm overgeneralizing to make a point here).

Over in Japan, however, there are manga about virtually any subject (my favorite is undoubtedly Lone Wolf and Cub, the story of a disgraced samurai's four-year-long quest to avenge himself against the corrupt noble who killed his wife and framed him for treason). And over there in the Land of the Rising Sun, horror comics are big business. Junji Ito is a crossover success, with his Tomie, Flesh-Colored Horror, Gyo and Uzumaki all getting English translations and reprints at one time or another here in Americaland. Well, he's a huge success in his native land as well, with nine different movies being produced based on his Tomie property (featuring a supernaturally seductive young woman who spells doom for anyone who falls for her, anyone who rejects her, or anyone who tries to hurt her--lots of luck, characters in a Tomie story). Today's film is an adaptation of a different one of Ito's works, a horror series about horrible things happening in a small coastal Japanese town, all of which are prefigured by the appearance of a spiral in some way. The film, by the way, is only an adaptation of the first third or so of the full story, partly because it was in production before the comic was finished and partly because it would cost half a billion dollars to film the full story of Uzumaki and it would be banned in every country in the world. There's also the distinct possibility that your eyes would spontaneously catch on fire if you watched the full story unprepared.

I loved the comic, by the way. It seemed to me that it was influenced by the beginning of 2001:  A Space Odyssey. In the Kubrick film, there is an obvious influence from aliens that are working with the primates that will one day become human. The way you can tell they're there is from the presence of that smooth, glossy black monolith--a perfect rectangle, obviously shaped and crafted, in the rocky desert full of eroded stone and spindly trees. That monolith didn't belong in the place that it was set, and without ever seeing someone in an alien costume it became obvious to the viewer that there was something working its will in the world, as represented by those ninety-degree angles in a place where nothing had been shaped or built by the hands of proto-men.

Well, all the weirdness in Uzumaki is signified by the presence of spirals (the word "uzumaki" translates as "spiral", so in Japan the comic and movie are just called Spiral. Here, let me give you a few panels of something going horribly, impossibly wrong with a spiral on display:

Why did Junji Ito use spirals as his "everything is fucked" signifier? Well, for me to answer that I'd have to give some half-baked analysis about Japanese culture that I'm horribly unqualified to offer (and about which anyone who genuinely knows about the culture in Japan is welcome to correct me). But it's my blog so I'm going ahead with it. The logo of the production company is shown over a shot of waves gently crashing on a shore; near the end of Lone Wolf and Cub, the protagonist tells his four-year-old son that their lives are like waves breaking on the shore. They live, they die, the reincarnate and come back. (In that sequence, the ronin tells his son that neither one of them is likely to survive the coming final battle, but in all the worlds that ever existed they are father and son, which broke my heart and gave me goosebumps at the same time.) Assuming that's a metaphor that is used for life and death and rebirth in Japan pretty commonly, then existence is cyclical. A person is born, lives, dies, and the soul returns in a new body to live again and die again. Like the surf breaking gently on the shore, existence is continual.

Well, a spiral is a different pattern than that, isn't it? A spiral just deteriorates until it winks out of existence, like water going down a drain or a beetle tied to a nail struggling to free itself and just getting trapped. If your society views existence as cyclical, a spiral is a slow trip to Hell that speeds up horribly the closer you get to that final destination.

Like I said, people who actually know things about Japanese culture are free to poke all the holes they like into my ignorant and probably wack-ass analysis, but that's where I'm coming from on this one.

The first shot of the actual movie, however, is a closeup of protagonist schoolgirl Kirie Goshima's eye as she speaks in voiceover about the strange events that happened in her home town Kurozu-cho. That name, by the way, can be translated as "Dark Town", "Closed Town" and "Black Spiral Town". Not a lot of hope there regardless of which one you pick as the English meaning. Then the shot changes, showing the grey-faced corpse of a man with blood coming out of its mouth and its brains dashed out on the floor in the center of a painted spiral pattern. The camera itself moves in a spiral, pulling back from the body. Then it's time to check in with Kirie again. She's running late from school when a strange gust of wind blows by her, making her feel weird without a definite reason; making her way back to Kurozu-cho she runs past scenes that I assume are meant to be archetypal and idyllic small-coastal-town images in Japan. Yamaguchi, a nerdy goofball fellow student jumps out at her to try and startle her, because that's how he shows affection. Kirie gets past him without coming into physical contact and rests after her run, noticing her boyfriend Shuichi Saito's father crouched down in an alleyway.

She approaches Shuichi's dad and finds that he's obsessively staring at and videotaping a snail climbing the alley wall (complete with extreme closeup of the spiral pattern in the snail's shell). She waits at an underground tunnel for Shuichi to ride his bike up and give her a ride home. Kirie's an attractive girl, as one expects in a horror flick (Asian or otherwise), but her boyfriend looks like a teenaged Japanese Jeffrey Combs. I'm wondering if he got the part because he looks like Herbert West's long-long-long-lost relative. As the pair rides past the local police station, the equally local Barney Fife cop runs out to yell at them for doubling up on a single bicycle, which is another way to inform the audience that Kurozu-cho is one of those quiet little places where nothing much happens (when the officer turns back to the police station there's a wanted poster of Junji Ito himself; it's a neat little author cameo). Shuichi doesn't find it in himself to smile, even when biking along with his girlfriend and the soundtrack plays soothing harp music. Poor dude. If he's not having a good time seven minutes into the film, he's certainly not going to like what happens for the next hour and change.

Kirie and Shuichi hang out at a playground on the swingset and talk about school (while there's a baffling shot of someone walking backwards down the street; it's funny to watch two characters not notice or disregard the importance of odd little things before reality breaks down completely). Shuichi says his father's been acting strange lately, but in the history of horror cinema, I'm at a loss to think of a single film where someone listens to the kid in the first act when he notices oddball things are happening. Shuichi asks Kirie to elope with him, at least partly as an excuse to get the hell out of town before the weirdness strikes. He's so undemonstrative with his emotions, though, that Kirie (and the viewers) don't imagine that marriage would be such a great choice--at least not before they get out of high school.

Making her way home (eventually), Kirie stops by a man selling produce out of a van, who gives her a melon as a gift to celebrate her father winning a competition for pottery designs (and, of course, throwing pottery on a wheel means repeated spinning motions, which could have made Goshima-san susceptible to the spirals' influence earlier than other people. Goshima says that it was luck more than talent that got him the prize, as he is self-effacing and humble, but Shuichi's dad is there filming a bowl being constructed and he says pottery is the art that exposes the true uzumaki. Kirie's dad looks down at the bowl as he works on it and sees the spiral pattern swirling in the wet clay. Shuichi's father says he wants to commission a platter with an eternal spiral pattern--one that goes on and on and on. Goshima-san agrees to make one, which leads to a bit more weirdness from Saito-san while he tries to film and stare at the slowly spinning pattern in the wet clay bowl. Japanese society prizes politeness, so Goshima-san just nods and smiles while Saito-san has the video camera about half an inch from his face. Then it's time for the videographer to leave and for the Goshimas to have dinner (Dad thinks the melon is too extravagant until he finds out it was a celebratory gift from the greengrocer) while ultra-sappy flute music melts over the soundtrack. The score in this film, by the way, has to be a parody of "think about the happy times" music from other Japanese movies. It's so on-the-nose it recalls the super-direct dialogue in Streets of Fire. Similarly, many of the shots in the movie have a sickly green pallor; that's another thing that's got to be the result of the director and cinematographers making decisions on how things are going to look for effect (although if it's a reference to anything in Japanese media, I don't know what that would be).

After a couple hours of homework it's time for Kirie to go to bed, though she takes a moment to look through a scrapbook first (she was a cute baby, as it turns out). The film shows her memories as a series of snapshots that come together like crude stop-motion animation, and also shows that Shuichi has been her friend who is a boy for years before becoming her boyfriend. He always had those glasses and that Herbert West hair, as it turns out. Looking over the photos again, Kirie starts to wonder if eloping with Shuichi wouldn't be a good idea after all. Then it's time to go to school again, where audience identification figure Kirie is greeted by friends and hassled by the inevitable clique of Mean Girls and startled by Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi gets shut down by Kirie's friend and the pair walk down a hallway talking about how to avoid the boy and fail to notice a dozen or so of their classmates standing at reverse attention (staring down at the ground silently) on the sides of the hallway before going to a staircase--a spiral one, of course. 

Then that shot from the beginning of the movie of a corpse with its head split open comes back around--one of the students either slipped while screwing around on the railings or decided to opt out of his final exams by jumping from the topmost level of the school and plummeting past Kirie and her friend before dashing his brains out on the floor. The camera pulls up several stories to show the suicide's body occupying the lowest point of the spiral on the floor and the spiral formed by the staircase rising up above him. Japan being Japan, one assumes suicides are not the rarest thing in the world over the course of a schoolyear but everyone's still rather shaken up. The leader of the Mean Girl clique points out that in dying, the student was finally noticed by everyone and that without people paying attention, none of her gang feels alive.

After school. Shuichi intuits that it had to be a spiral staircase that was the site of the student's death, since so many other weird things are going on related to the uzumaki shape. Kirie thinks it was merely an accident, as most rational people probably would. Shuichi goes to school in another town, so he leaves Kurozu-cho every day (and also comes back to it); biking through that tunnel twice a day gives him an opportunity to perceive the background weirdness in town twice--when he leaves it and when he returns. He tries to tell Kirie how strange things have gotten at his own home (his father's stopped going to work, preferring to wander around scavenging anything he finds with a spiral appearance, and has painted spirals on every surface in his den at home), but Kirie doesn't think things have gotten that bad--partially because she doesn't see how odd Saito-san is acting in private. Yamaguchi, watching the pair talk from a distance, is so distraught that he gouges marks in a tree with his bare hand and is shaking badly enough that he appears to be having a seizure.

But Shuichi has someone else at home to talk to--unlike Kirie, his mother is still alive (and at home preparing narutomaki for dinner when Shuichi tries to talk to her about what's happening to her husband). But before they can get anywhere in the conversation the man in question returns home, having stolen the electrical marquee sign for a beauty parlor that features a moving spiral). He chuckles gleefully over this latest acquisition and adds it to the spiral things in his hoarder room before settling down for a dinner where he admires the spiral pattern on the fish cakes in his soup before eating them in the most repellent manner you'll see outside of that Monty Python sketch about Mr. Creosote. Having eaten all of the slices of narutomaki in the house (looks like his wife and son got one apiece) he gets angry before stirring the leftover broth in his soup bowl and watching it spin around, which calms him down (Kirie, hearing about it later, finds it amusing but there's nothing at all funny about wondering what's going to set a parent off or cool them down in the middle of an ordinary situation--the sensation is somewhat like walking through a minefield with a handful of notes that might not be accurate one day to the next).

When Shuichi (and Kirie) go to the Saito residence, they arrive just in time to see Shuichi's father slap his mother to the ground, accusing her of throwing away his "collection". Shuichi says he did it (which may or may not even be true; the film hasn't shown either character cleaning out the house) and his dad shifts gears, claiming that he doesn't need to look at all the spirals he'd gathered up because the idea's enough for him now. He then demonstrates that he can generate his own uzumaki at will by rolling his eyes impossibly fast and independently of each other; the film burns through and Kirie faints as she witnesses this act (and thus this film has something in common with The Legend of Hillbilly John--disruption in the natural order is represented by the film breaking).

At school the next day, Kirie's friend is daydreaming and getting mocked by the teacher for doing so when Katayama, a slow-moving student, shows up with a wide, placid smile and makes his way to his seat. It's a measure of how strange things must be in everyone's life that nobody freaks out too much over the way he's sweating out a gallon or two of clear slimy ooze. The student says he left at the usual time but just doesn't seem to be able to move very quickly and the class bullying jerkoff declares a snail could leave Katayama standing. Katayama makes his way to his seat and gets tripped by a bully; he even falls slowly, if that's possible. After he hits the ground and the chief bully starts kicking him for splashing slime, Katayama's back starts to hunch and swell and a spiral shell grows out of it, somewhat hidden by his shirt (which was white when he put it on but is now clear with all the goop that's saturated it).

Shuichi and his mother go to talk to a psychologist about what might be possible to help his father with the man's delusions and strange behavior, but from the looks on their faces that person told them nothing can be done. Around the same time Kirie gets startled by Yamaguchi, who offers her a gift box and won't leave her alone till she opens it. It's a jack-in-the-box on a spiral spring, and Kirie swats Yamaguchi to the ground in irritation. He says to himself that he won't give up and then busts out a creepy horror movie grin, so Kirie's got some non-supernatural bullshit to worry about in her life as well. Shuichi isn't there to give her a bike ride home after school and his father's too obsessive to answer the phone at the Saito household so as far as Kirie knows she's just being ignored. 

But when her father asks Kirie to take that platter he designed for Shuichi's dad over to their house, she gets to have a long walk in the dark holding a giant ceramic spiral and think about the strange behavior she saw from Saito-san the last time she was over at their house. Nobody answers the door buzzer at the Saito residence, and the audience is treated to a lengthy and suspenseful pullback with Kirie's face superimposed over it as the soundtrack starts to go in a more horror-film appropriate direction. When Kirie sneaks into the house to deliver the package she finds the body of Shuichi's father, who has crammed himself into the washing machine to turn his body into a spiral shape.

The spirals don't cease from that point--the smoke from the chimney at the crematorium when Saito-san's body is cremated drifts up into the sky to form the inevitable spiral shape, a funnel of smoke reaching down to the ground towards the nearby Dragonfly Pond. The shock of seeing the uzumaki shape in the sky puts Shuichi's mother in the hospital and while sitting in the hallway after visiting hours Shuichi again tells Kirie that they should leave town before whatever's going on takes them over or gets them killed. The conversation is disrupted by the arrival of a news reporter who wants to know what happened to the crackpot that came to the newspaper office asking about the history of Kurozu-cho. Specifically, why did the man kill himself in the way he had (the reporter even says he just wants to know; he's got no intention of publishing anything about it in the paper). What follows is the first-person video that Saito-san shot as he decided to cram his body into the washing machine. The sounds of his bones and tendons cracking is much worse than whatever the film could afford to show; it's also horrible to realize that Kirie calling inside the house to see if anyone is there makes it onto the tape--she had to be thirty feet away from the suicide as it was happening.

Kirie and the reporter talk for a little while as he drives her home from the hospital; she worries that there's nothing she can do to help Shuichi (though the reporter says her mere presence will be comforting to him). Numerous point-of-view shots through the car's windshield build up an ominous feeling until they see Kirie's father standing in the literal middle of the road, his clothes and skin covered with wet clay (and in the split-second shot of him standing there before the reporter hits the brakes, it looks like Goshima-san's tongue is sticking out of his mouth about a foot, curled up into a spiral). He says everything's fine; he just went for pottery clay over at Dragonfly Pond and heads back home. Kirie must be thinking that whatever curse or supernatural entity is affecting the town just drew a bead on her father, and also has to realize that so far nobody's been able to resist the effects of whatever it is that's manifesting itself in spirals.

At the hospital, Shuichi discovers too late that his mother has been obsessed with spirals herself. Realizing that she's bearing ten of them on her fingertips, she's terrified about having them on her body. But there's plenty of scissors and knives around her at the hospital, so she can make short work of them. What a relief (where "relief" is interpreted as "sign of encroaching madness"). At about the same time Kirie has a nightmare about finding Saito-san's body in the washing machine that turns into a view of her father covered in clay with a spiral tongue. And in the early morning she finds him argumentative and hostile when she expresses concern that he'll catch cold staring at his kiln at two in the morning in his shirtsleeves.

Well, everyone's got to keep a brave face on when things are going horribly wrong, so at school Kirie has to act like everything's copacetic. As far as anyone else knows, her big concern ought to be upcoming tests rather than creeping doom manifesting in her family. But during a gymnastics class, the pre-eminent Mean Girl starts to display her own symptoms; her hair is bouncy and curly far past what one would expect from even the most stylish hair and the most sumptuous of products applied to it. Oh, and that kid growing a snail shell out of his back spends the entire outside boys' gym period drinking water from the fountain. And as we all know, first it's just the little things that look strange at first but that's just like saying first you get a nagging cough and then your lungs are full of soot-spawned tumors.

Meanwhile, that reporter is going through a stack of books and trying to see what's going on in Kurozo-cho. As one would expect in a film about investigating supernatural horrors, the spirals and weirdness have been going on for a long, long time and he finds plenty of stuff that I don't understand because I can't read Japanese. And at the hospital, Shuichi and Kirie wind up having to dress in a manner that conceals any spirals on their bodies as well as anything that might look like that pattern on their clothes (it's the only time I've seen either one out of a school uniform, I believe). Shuichi gets called to the reception desk just after he and Kirie go into his mother's room and find out that she's not only sliced off her fingertips, but that somehow or other she's plucked out all her hairs. That's got to be awkward for Kirie, but she's stuck there smiling nervously while Shuichi returns that reporter's call (on a rotary phone, the sound effects of which are chilling because every viewer sees the dial spinning in their mind's eye). 

The reporter just tells Shuichi that he's found some important information and that he wants to check something out at Dragonfly Pond; Shuichi says he'll meet the man there but tears down a poster in the hospital hallway first (it shows the inner ear, which is spiral-shaped; if his mother sees the image, the best-case scenario is a permanent handicap). While going to Dragonfly Pond, the pair runs across Yamaguchi, who gives the standard Nice Guy complaints about how Kirie never returns his pure and noble love. To ensure that he stays in Kirie's memories, Yamaguchi runs into traffic, getting run down by the reporter's car (his body gets dragged into the wheel well, forming a spiral, of course) and killing the reporter when the man's head collides with the windshield. Just guess what pattern the cracks in the windshield forms.

So in the third act, when normally the fightback against the forces of evil would begin in earnest, the two protagonists of the film don't know what's going on or how to fight it. It's a daring move by the filmmakers that strands the two perfectly nice people who don't deserve anything that's been happening to or around them in Hell.

Then comes the final section of the movie, where things go from chaotic to utterly doomed. While she sleeps in her hospital bed, an eight-inch-long millipede crawls into Shuichi's mother's ear (eww eww eww eww eww). The sounds are worse than the visuals in that scene, but she is able to flick the thing to the ground and kill it with a pottery vase. But while looking to see if the bug is still alive, she has a hallucination telling her that there's a spiral in her inner ear; it's the first diegetic sense that the audience gets of what's happening to any of the victims of the spiral. The scream from Shuichi's mother as she tries to get rid of that last spiral in her body is one she won't be able to hear.

At her funeral, everyone watches the clouds over the crematorium to see them form a spiral; Shuichi also gets a good long look at his parents' faces in the clouds, both of them screaming in torment. Whatever the spirals are doing to people, it's at least a working hypothesis that death won't be an escape. And the effects are getting weirder and more noticeable--among other things, a Japanese "news of the weird" style television show comes to town in order to point out that a couple of the local high school students have turned into snail creatures that are climbing up the walls of the school (!). There's also a typhoon on the way, which is represented on the weather map as, of course, a spiral. 

Also, that Mean Girl at school's hair is now five feet long, waving like Medusa's tendrils above her head (and each lock curling into a spiral, of course). Shuichi decides (belatedly, if you ask me) that the town is doomed and he and Kirie have to try and escape before they wind up insane, mutilated, dead or turned into something inhuman. Back at the Goshima place Kirie finds that her father has been making spiral shaped pieces in his kiln by the dozens but he's nowhere to be found. When Shuichi walks in to see what's going on he gets trapped in a spiral himself, his body contorting and twisting like taffy as the effect takes hold. Kirie stays with him, deciding that they'd run together or not at all, and holds her lifelong friend as he dies.

And that's not the end of the horror, as the force that works through spirals animates Shuichi's corpse to embrace Kirie and turn her into a spiral as well. The final images of the film are of various people in Kurozu-cho dead or mutilated, spirals evident in every instance. The doomed protagonists are just the people the movie followed into oblivion, not the first or only or even the most significant ones to fall. Bodies are deformed (and a self-inflicted gunshot would leaves a neatly spiraled track into the police officer's eye socket and skull), the sky shows black spiral clouds over Dragonfly Pond, and the entire population of the town died or was warped into hideous new forms without ever comprehending what was going wrong. And then instead of a spiral, the film turns to a loop as Kirie's eye fills the screen, just as it did in the first shot as she tells the viewer that something happened to her home town. The spiral has corrupted even the finality of death, with no escape from its manifestations forever.

Which is, as I mentioned earlier, just a tiny fragment of the hellacious weirdness in the manga that this movie is an adaptation of (this flick never would have had the budget to show the entire town being rebuilt into a single massive row house in a spiral shape, packed with human bodies that press together wall to wall and floor to ceiling). But on its own it's a stark portrayal of influence from beyond destroying everything in its path, either out of malice or simply because being exposed to it causes insanity and death as surely as sinking underwater causes drowning. If you have a chance, check out the book as well as the movie. Both are horrifying in their own ways, but the book is enthusiastically disgusting in a way the filmmakers could never afford to be, either financially or artistically.

"Well, if I wear these sunglasses I won't be directly exposed to any spiral patterns that show up, and...oh. Oh, dang."


  1. I need to check this out, the manga was amazing (the final reveal, which I won't spoil, was one of the most jaw-dropping things I've ever seen). It's also one of the best depictions of Lovecraftian horror I've seen, a truly alien presence intruding into the human world.

    Junji Ito is truly one of the great masters of horror, though its perhaps for the best if his work remains largely unknown outside Japan. I'd worry about any country where Uzumaki and Gyo are truly popular (Japan is already hopelessly weird, so no biggie).

  2. I love how little information there is in the manga and the movie (the journalist may find something out but he dies before he can give that information to the protagonists). Kirie and Shuichi are just aware enough to see the doom rushing at them but can't get out of its way. And maybe that's what is happening to everyone in town, but the movie just tells us about these two poor doomed suckers.