Sunday, March 21, 2010

Uza-Makin' Me Dizzy

Last week I did something for the first time in about 18 years, an activity many fine fellows I know are required to make an annual requirement. 
I had an eye exam.
Strange setup, eh? Stare at pointy objects as they move towards your nose. Put your chin in a weird dipped bowl slightly reminiscent of a baseball player’s cup. Feel as though someone is staring into your eyes without actually looking you IN the eye. Be told that you process stress too intensely and need to change your lifestyle...of vision.

As a person whose previous experience with glasses was getting a headache from Avatar’s 3D, this was odd. Naturally, the best possible followup was to watch Higuchinsky’s 2000 surreal J-horror Uzumaki (aka Spiral). Appropriate since my eyes were already looped out. Also appropriate because with my newfound soon-to-be four-eyes nerddom, it was time to turn in a makeup assignment for Stacie Ponder’s Final Girl Film Club .

Quick Plot: In residential Nagano, sweet teenager Kirie and boyfriend Shuichi (although I prefer Netflix’s description, paramour) begin to notice their increasingly wacky neighbors. Shuichi’s father spends most of his time videotaping anything with a slight spiral shape, from snail shells to pottery bottoms and washing machine spin cycles. Classmates act out in other ways, like grooming themselves with Bridgett Bardot sized hair curled like a French Poodle on steroids or stalking crushes and committing suicide when spurned.

You know, it’s just another cutting edge trend, like Giga Pets or The Jersey Shore.
Except this one is slowly dragging an entire town into a puce-hued purgatory of eery imagery and increasingly nauseating camera angles.
Kinda like The Jersey Shore.

Uzumaki is based on an epic manga (to the non-nerds, that’s, to my understanding, a medium more respected than comic books but less esteemed than graphic novels) and was considered fairly groundbreaking for its modern surrealism. Ten years later, it’s...damn creepy.
I often find myself in trouble for not praising the work of David Lynch. While I run hot and cold with his films, I’ll easily concede that Inland Empire is a strong example of dream cinema. Which is fine and not nearly as important as its three hour running time wants it to be.
Uzumaki is a perfect nightmare, from its oddly distant non sequitur dialog to random spurts of overanxious gore. Moments of horror--like a well-directed millipede and an open earlobe--mix well with eerie weirdness, including a haunting, humorously awkward scene where a slow moving high school outcast moves like a gooey snail. The result is incredibly distorting.
Something is happening in Korouzu because something is happening in 1999, or Japan, or the world in general. Like another avant garde Japanese horror Suicide Club, Uzumaki throws a lot of smoke (literally) and mirrors at its audience while casually capturing a little real world horror. High school students want to fit in. High school students want to stand out. Small towns slowly eat up the ambitious young who are dying to escape. We want nothing more than to help out parents and are horrified and disappointed when we can’t.

And so on.
There are a lot of themes floating (or spiraling) throughout Uzumaki, whether fully intentional or not. Some viewers may find the film to be an empty exercise in visual experimentation, while others could interpret the story as human and deep. What’s great about the film is that it works either way.
High Points
Kirie doesn’t have much more depth than your average final girl, but newcomer Eriko Hatsune is a sweet presence that helps to give what could be all style some heartfelt substance

Though it wasn’t the most pleasing sight to my already strained eyes, Higuchinsky’s camerawork--from upside-down surprise entrances to slight swirls spinning nearly out of frame--more than succeeds at pitting the viewer smack in the middle of a nightmare
Low Points
Don’t, as I did, take a 20 minute break from Uzumaki to make some dinner and answer the phone. This is a film meant to be absorbed in one unsettling sitting and I do worry that my failure to do took something out of my experience.
Lessons Learned
Not all girls are charmed by jack-in-the-boxes being thrust in their faces
Good hair makes a good gymnast

The best way to divert an uncomfortable conversation is to eat some very goooooood melon
Keep all power tools away from the insane
This is definitely a film worth seeing for any genre fan, and one I’ll eventually add to my collection as its rewatchability is high. That being said, I imagine its oddness and atmosphere are fairly polarizing and could prove annoying to a lot of viewers. Try it out first and go from there. 


  1. A quick note as I'm reading this when I should already have gone to bed. Thank you, and snails are gloopy.

  2. Ugh, you know my feelings about this movie...I watched it before reading the majority of the manga and even then I couldn't stand it. Glad you liked it, but it fell short of its admittedly brilliant premise for me. The boy turning into a snail made me physically ill when I read the book, but it's glossed over in the movie and the overall effect simply didn't work.


  3. I haven't seen the movie, but the comics were among the few I've that were genuine horror stories. But your review makes me want to seek it out. Thanks!

  4. Having never read the manga, I can't really comment on how it compares. There's so much potential in the graphic format, although I generally have a really hard time figuring out how to read them (do I look at the pictures first? Read the text? Do it at the same time? I'm only HUMAN!). I found the film really unsettling, but it's also only about 90 minutes so I assume fans of the manga could easily be disappointed. I really liked how the filmmaker (whose name I'm too lazy to figure out how to spell again) used every piece of filmmaking to get the surrealism across, both in character, sound, and visuals.

    Let me know your thoughts if you get around to seeing it, Steve. And Miles, you are fawwwww-given. And Damocles, gloopy, gooey, slimey, and slow.

  5. I think the film did a really good job - the manga goes places you definitely couldn't go with a film. It is worth seeking out the manga if you're interested - it's only 3 volumes and it's incredibly disturbing. But I definitely enjoyed the film too.

  6. I watched this one a few years ago and really enjoyed it, but then promptly forgot about it. :P Your review brings some of it back to me, particularly the nightmare logic and the spectacular visuals.

    BTW, I also agree that the word "paramour" should make a comeback. So much more expressive and elegant than "fuck-buddy." ;)

  7. Hm. Maybe I'll attempt to make Uzumaki my first ever manga read. Chris, you've almost convinced me to return to the dizzying confusion of how to read pictures and text together. I just need to think of it as a subtitled film, perhaps.

    Hell yes Vicar, paramour is way classier than any term coined by Sex & the City. I will now refer to non-married couples as paramours and engaged as future husbands and wives (in honor of The Room). Now we just need a catchy name for married folks.

  8. Reading this made me realize I have only seen half of this. I forgot I never finished it and now I am sad :(
    Great review though!

  9. Turn that frown upside down and finish your spiral missy!

  10. Excellent review, its coming next via Netflix.

  11. The first time I watched Spiral/Uzumaki was about five years ago and I really enjoyed it, but what I really enjoyed more was how the film stuck with me for the years following that initial viewing. It stayed with me like a bad dream and did so for years, until I decided to buy it on DVD so I could watch it again. My second viewing didn't even live up to my bad dream memory of it, but it is still a strong film that sits with it's viewer well after seeing it. Great review and I'm thrilled that you enjoyed it!

  12. I was thrilled too! It totally made me feel uneasy and had me looking for spirals way too much (particularly dangerous as there are a lot of images of coil stoves in my place of work).