Kirie is a young high schooler in the small Japanese village of Kurouzu-cho, a quiet little place where nothing much happens. Until it does. It all starts when Kirie stumbles upon her friend Shuichi’s father intently videotaping a snail climbing up a wall. Kirie chalks it up to harmless odd behavior, but according to Shuichi, his father has become unnaturally obsessed with spirals, to the point where the obsession has taken over every aspect of his life. What’s more, Shuichi is convinced that the entire village is also under the curse of “the spiral”, and it’s only a matter of time before the curse consumes the whole area. Naturally, Kirie is highly suspicious of this claim, but sure enough it’s not long before bizarre things start happening and people begin dying in grotesquely horrifying ways. Kirie and Shuichi try to enlist aid to help get to the bottom of all these unnatural events, but by the time they start getting some answers it may be too late to stop what’s going on, and it may be more prudent to just try to save themselves.
Uzumaki, or Spiral, is a Japanese horror film from 2000. The film is based on the serialized comic of the same name by writer, Junji Ito, that was published between August of 98’ to September of 99’. But while the comic has received a number of accolades, including being nominated for an Eisner Award, and being chosen by the Young Adult Library Association as one of it’s “Top 10 Graphic Novels for Teens” in 2009, the movie version hasn’t received nearly the same response. And to figure out the main reason why, one has to only look at the publication and release dates to realize a glaring issue.
I mean, other than Kirie’s boyfriend is criminally dull.
Anyone who’s familiar with Japanese manga knows that a lot of Japanese filmmakers, and animators in particular, have a persistently obnoxious habit of going into production before the source material has finished publication. Which makes sense with popular properties, cause you gotta strike while the iron is hot, and all that jazz. But this means that depending on the publication schedule, more often than not, the adaptation usually ends up catching up to the source material before the story has been finished.
Now, as far as anime adaptations are concerned, that little issue is usually solved one of two ways. The first is by really stretching out a plot point so that it takes up several episodes instead of, say, the five minutes it took to read it. Of course, when you’re making a movie you can’t really do something like that (unless maybe your name happens to be Peter Jackson and you have enough clout to needlessly stretch one book out into three movies), so the filmmakers went with option B, which was: let’s make shit up. As you can imagine, this causes a lot of issues to the plot, especially later in the story. Because while the beginning is rather solidly put together and sets up the story quite well, bizarre though it may be, in the end the filmmakers just didn’t know how to conclude the tale. The whole set-up of the film starts to lead the viewer towards possible answers as to what is happening in this small town, but that particular plot point ends up abandoned near the end, leaving the viewer with no explanation whatsoever of what’s actually going on. What’s even more puzzling about this choice, is that the explanation that the film starts to give the viewer is an invention of the filmmakers own choosing. It’s not even really related to the explanation given in the comic. Which means, for some reason, that the writers working on the film couldn’t even follow through with their own story choices, leaving the film with no explanation, no real ending, and a big gaping plot hole. After such a strong opening, it’s really quite the bummer. Maybe the filmmakers were trying to channel J. J. Abrams before anyone knew who J. J. Abrams was.
On the bright side, however, the film is filled with some pretty impressively weird visuals, which is something that has all but become expected from Japanese horror. Many of the deaths are twisted and gruesome. Gore hounds in particular should be quite pleased. Students fall from tall heights to predictable results, people mutilate themselves, eyeballs pop out of heads, and individuals are literally warped into spiral-like shapes. Much of it is very creepy and inventive, even if it often veers into the realm of the ‘over the top’ on more than one occasion, thanks in part to the inclusion of things like Snail People. But odd additions like that are also something that’s become expected from Japanese cinema, so the inclusion of the really out there visuals shouldn’t be all that surprising.
And the way the film is shot also helps add to the interesting visuals. The movie almost feels like a Japanese version of a David Lynch film. Everything from the angles used, to the camera movement, to the exaggerated expressions, almost makes the film feel like a surrealist fever dream. So depending on your preferences, the methods used are either going to add to your enjoyment, or your confusion.
Another thing the film excels at is the atmosphere. Overall the film is muted by a rather appropriately dreary color palette of greys and browns, to the point where it almost seems like the village is constantly under threat of an imminent downpour. But there’s also the occasional pop of color, either bright or muted. It’s a big help when it comes to highlighting interest or to keep things from looking too depressing or dull.
Overall, I ended up liking Uzumaki, but even I’ll admit that the film is a bit of a mixed bag. The characters are believable enough, the atmosphere is on point, and the visuals are fascinating to look at, even when they skew a bit too much towards the cartoon-y. Sadly though, the film’s biggest flaw lies with the story. It starts off super strong and builds up the tension and mystery, but by the end the filmmakers couldn’t follow through with what they started, and odds are the viewer is going to end up feeling irritated. And to be clear, it’s not that the film was given an open ending that annoyed me. That I could deal with. No, it’s that they dangled the explanation carrot before the viewer then dropped the plot point and let it die like a spiraling hot potato that vexed me the most. And I assume that that’s what’s going to also bother a lot of other viewers as well. I won’t say that it’s something that ends up ruining the film, because it doesn’t, but it’s definitely a facet that brings it down a notch. It’s the kind of thing that really makes you wish the filmmakers had waited to go into production, because then that whole issue could have been avoided. Though, knowing how the comic ended, I’m not sure how well using that ending would have landed either. But that’s all hindsight. In the end, the film is still a pretty fun, and definitely unique, horror outing. So if you like Japanese horror, or just odd horror films in general, then feel free to give this one a go.
Uzumaki is currently available on a variety of streaming services.
Uzumaki is also available on DVD.