A “Giesha of Gore” Review
By Colleen Wanglund
Directed by Higuchinsky (who only has two other feature films to his credit), UZUMAKI (2000) is based on the manga of the same name by Junji Ito. Ito also wrote the manga TOMIE that would later be adapted into a series of horror films from 1999 to 2011. The film’s English title is SPIRAL, though VORTEX is another translation.
The film stars Eriko Hatsune (APARTMENT 1303, 2007, NORWEGIAN WOOD, 2010) as Kirie Goshima, and Fhi Fan as Shuichi Saito, two teenagers living in the small, crumbling town of Kurozu-cho, which is sandwiched between the ocean and the hills. Shuichi’s father Toshio (Ren Ohsugi, who has also appeared in AUDITION, 1999 and SONATINE, 1993) becomes obsessed with spirals—collecting anything with spirals and even filming hours of a snail with a spiral shell. His wife, Yukie (Keiko Takahashi), throws out his collection, hoping to snap him out of whatever has gripped Toshio, but he tells her he doesn’t need any of his collection because the spirals are inside of him. Toshio then commits suicide using the family’s washing machine and, while his body is being cremated, his ashes form a spiral in the sky and land in Dragonfly Pond. Yukie sees his face in the ashes and is horrified. She then develops a phobia of spirals.
While in the hospital after her collapse at Toshio’s funeral, Yukie shaves her head and mutilates her fingers and toes to remove the spirals. This is followed by one of the most cringe-inducing scenes I’ve ever experienced, in which a giant millipede attempts to crawl into her ear. Yukie sees the ghost of her dead husband telling her that there is a spiral in her ear, specifically the cochlea, so she stabs herself in the head with a conveniently available pair of scissors. The same spiral of ashes happens when Yukie’s body is cremated and they also spiral into Dragonfly Pond in the center of town. Plenty of other weird things are going on in Kurozu-cho—a girl’s hair turns into spirals that eventually kill her by draining her life energy; people who only come out when it rains, covered in slime and then turn into giant snails; and when a boy is killed by a car, his body spirals around the car’s tire and axle. Eventually Kirie’s father becomes obsessed with spirals after using mud from Dragonfly Pond to create his pottery. It seems the entire town is cursed by the spiral.
What’s interesting about UZUMAKI is that production on the film had been completed before Ito actually finished writing the manga, so the endings are very different. Wait, I take that back. The film’s end isn’t so much different as it is completely ambiguous, which is standard for Asian horror films. While a lot of the main storyline from the first few chapters remains relatively intact in the film, there are stories in the manga that are barely touched on here. This by no means detracts from the film, however. UZUMAKI, the film, is a fantastic mix of horror and the bizarre, as is the manga. But the ambiguity of the film is what makes it so fun to watch. We never know why, exactly, the spirals are affecting everyone. There is no answer as to where this supposed curse came from (there isn’t much of one in the manga, either).
A reporter is introduced who does not appear in the manga and he provides some speculation to the origin of the spiral curse through the research we see him doing. It is an old curse that affects the town every few hundred years—maybe. Before he can meet with Kirie and Shuichi with what he has uncovered, he is killed in the same car accident that takes the life of Kirie’s classmate. We, and our main characters, are left with no answers. We experience the film’s story the same way they do, which gives this film its appeal. It is the ambiguity that lends UZUMAKI its creepiness. And it’s one hell of a creepy film. The curse does different things to different people. Some lose their minds, like Shuichi’s parents; some turn into giant snails; while others’ bodies are contorted into some form of spiral. And it’s all random. The spiral wants your attention; it appears everywhere and it hypnotizes you. That is a scary concept, and it is played up well in the film. This is accentuated by a quick but effective scene involving reporters that have come to cover the strange happenings in Kurozu-cho. As they drive through the tunnel out of town, the spiral curse stops them from leaving. No one can escape the curse, it seems.
There are attempts at comedy in UZUMAKI at a few points in the film, but instead of being funny, they’re actually disturbing, making for some squeamish moments, but wholly fitting with the rest of the film’s atmosphere. It builds slowly—but not too slowly—and gives us the sense that this spiral curse has been in effect for some time and escalating. The film is, at times, perplexing, but its mood is similar to a David Lynch film—disorienting but satisfying, nonetheless.
The acting is very good and the characters are believable, especially both Toshio and Yukie as their minds deteriorate, but for different reasons. Kirie is the standard Japanese schoolgirl, but you really connect with her and hope she can escape the madness overtaking her town. The special effects are a bit lacking, but the movie didn’t have a large budget. I appreciate the lack of CGI (which I’m not the biggest fan of) and the sparse use of gore. UZUMAKI is all about atmosphere and the feeling of dread that it will surely illicit. If you can, read the manga. It’s available online for free. But I don’t feel it’s necessary in order to watch the film as, in my opinion, the film stands alone in its own right as a weird and scary story. It’s one of those films I can watch over and over again. It never fails to draw me in. Maybe it’s the curse of the spiral….
© Copyright 2014 by Colleen Wanglund