LIST CANDIDATE: SPIRAL [UZUMAKI] (2000)

DIRECTED BY: Higuchinsky

FEATURING: Eriko Hatsume, Fhi Fan

PLOT:  One by one the residents of a small Japanese village become “infected” with an

Still from Spiral [Uzumaki] (2000)

obsession for spirals, leading them to neglect their normal day to day lives and eventually to their odd spiral-related deaths.  Yes, you read right…spiral deaths!

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Movies that achieve a coveted final place on the List need to be really very good or really very weird.  Some will be great enough to score on both counts.  Much as I love Uzumaki, I have to say it should earn a place based on the sheer quality and quantity of the weirdness on display.  Viewers who like a neatly wrapped plot will be annoyed and frustrated that the nature of what’s going wrong in the village is never really explained.  There’s a breadcrumb sprinkling of just enough hints to allow you to ponder the cause yourself: is it an ancient curse, casually malevolent demons or something worse, rooted in the double helix of the villagers’ very DNA?

COMMENTS: This should be a pretty grim film.  An apparently innocent group of villagers are led to gruesome self mutilation and picturesque suicides by a strange infection, for which there is no cure, no explanation, and from which there is no escape.  It “should” be a grim film, and yet it’s charming, quirky and downright laugh out loud funny in parts.  Based on Junji Ito’s manga of the same name, it was made and released before the conclusion of the print version was released, so viewers coming to it via the books will apparently find significant differences.  I have only read a couple of chapters of the manga and therefore cannot comment on how the two compare, but watching the film it’s tempting to think that some of the stylization of the cinematography and acting draws on the original artwork.  Burtonesque spirals are so ubiquitous throughout the film, appearing in clouds, bushes and ceiling panels that it would be a rash viewer who launched into an uzumaki drinking game.

The story centres on schoolgirl Kirie and her solemn, androgynous boyfriend Shuichi.  It’s Shuichi who first realizes that all is not well.  His father has become so obsessed with collecting examples of spiral patterns that their house is full of curly bric-a-brac, and he’s not above stealing the wonderful op-art business sign from the local beautician’s salon.  What initially seems to be an amusing eccentricity quickly becomes more sinister, as he flies into a rage, lashing out at his terrified wife when they run out of spiral fish cakes.  When Shuichi throws away his father’s spiral collection, he announces that this isn’t a problem as the spiral is now “within him.”  To demonstrate this he provides a dramatic eye rolling performance that is both disturbing and hilarious.  His eventual death by washing machine is a tour de force; creepy, disturbing and ridiculous at the same time.  This event is beautifully filmed as well.  We follow Kirie as she goes to take a ceramic pot to Shuichi’s father.  Her journey with the beautifully wrapped parcel, containing a spiral patterned pot thrown by her own father, is slow and quiet.  She walks through the deserted village streets, odd spirals forming in the bushes around her.  Approaching Shuichi’s home no one answers her calls, all is quiet.  It’s not silent though, for in the background there is an odd muffled thumping noise; rhythmic and mechanical.  As Kirie goes inside to investigate the camera pulls away, slowly back and up (this reminded me of the shot in Hitchcock’s Frenzy where the camera draws away in horror from the scene of the murder at the dating agency).  Higuchinsky pulls back leaving us both relieved and disappointed, and Kirie’s terrified scream seems to take forever to arrive.

It’s not just Shuichi’s family afflicted by the Uzumaki curse.  Virus-like it spreads through the village, turning schoolboys into slimy snails, schoolgirls into medusa-haired sirens, hospitalizing Shuichi’s unfortunate mother and infecting Kirie’s loving father.  Helpful outsiders, such as a curious reporter investigating the deaths and a TV crew filming the giant human snails, all meet gruesome spiral deaths.  Even our young lovers don’t escape the terrible affliction, giving the whole film the feel of an inescapable whirlpool dragging everyone to a grisly and largely undeserved fate. 

Uzumaki is a lovely film to look at: skies are streaked with candy coloured clouds, slowly drifting into spirals in the background.  Throughout, there is a deep green cast to the photography that makes the red in the film really pop when it appears.  There are one or two very stylized sequences which bring to mind comic book paneling, but this is not continued throughout.  Some viewers will be sorry that there aren’t more sequences like the one early in the film where the green grocer gives Kirie a melon to celebrate her father’s victory in a pottery competition; others will be annoyed by its archness, quirky music cues and intrusive diagonal wipe.  Then again, you may just decide that’s a fine looking melon!

Uzumaki is flawed, certainly; the plot is really little more than an excuse to string together a series of outrageously over the top spiral related deaths, but magnificent spiral related deaths they are.  Any film that features death by washing machine, “cute” human snails, men with butterfly tongues, women cutting off their fingerprints with scissors, car tires surrounded by human fruit roll-ups and high school girls wired into the telephone lines by their parasitic hair deserves a place on the final list.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…things really get weird, though not particularly scary: the movie is all portent and no content.”–Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

One thought on “LIST CANDIDATE: SPIRAL [UZUMAKI] (2000)”

  1. This post was lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010. The following comment was recovered via Google cache:

    Goregirl says How could this film have evaded my radar? This sounds freaking fantastic! Great review…and I will definitely be adding this little nugget to the queue!
    October 14, 2010, 6:07 pm

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