Friday, 15 April 2011

Uzumaki (2000)

Country: JAPAN


For many J-Horror began with the investigation into a certain cursed video tape, and the cycle of death and tragedy that followed a viewing of it. Although Hideo Nakata’s low budget Ring (1998) exposed the limitations of modern technology through the incursion of the supernatural, it overflowed with the signifiers of past traditions. Nakata was essentially telling a very old story, and it was only correct that the narrative should have the cautionary quality of a fable or fairy tale. For several years the long haired avenging ghost girl was the trans-national symbol most associated with the Japanese film industry, but few horror films produced during this period offered anything new or original. Their success in the west was almost certainly due to a carefully constructed and self-conscious depiction of a Japanese culture that appealed to a western conception. By the year 2000 I for one was sick to the back teeth of long haired ghost girls, and if derivative Japanese product wasn’t enough, even South Korea got in on the act with their own brand of imitative celluloid waste. With the bubble well and truly burst on this form of cultural expression it’s easier to look back now and see that Higuchinsky’s peculiar feature film debut Uzumaki was one of the most distinctive and original productions of this cycle.

This is almost certainly down to two important factors. The first is that the source material was a cult Manga comic written by Junjo Ito, and the second was that Higuchinsky brought with him a visual sensibility honed in the hyperactive field of the music video. These two creative elements give Uzumaki a wild and inventive freshness that is lacking in the more pedestrian efforts of contemporary productions. Ordinarily a background in either advertising or music video sets alarm bells ringing with fears of style over substance, and this is still certainly the case here. But when the style is so appealing and the premise so outrageously idiosyncratic one should just allow oneself to enjoy the trip. The small town setting is at least a recognisable staple of horror, but the town of Kurouzucho is like no other. This is a town under siege, but instead of marauding monsters or vengeful spirits Kurouzucho is under attack from spirals. The screenplay by Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo situates these odd events within a recognisable framework; broken families and high school, but the off kilter colours employed by the director give even these token concessions to normality an alien quality. The teenage protagonists must not only deal with their own isolation and alienation within an increasingly fractious home environment, but they must also investigate the reasons for this spiral invasion.

This discombobulated world is mostly created however by the director’s formal trickery and visual flourishes. The green and yellow colour pallette imply a sense of collective sickness, and those who catalogue the spirals do so to the point of obsessed insanity. The filmmakers make ingenious use of snails, tunnels, a cracked windscreen, the drum of a washing machine, fingerprints, the interior of the ear, and most memorably a schoolgirl’s hair to show the steady encroachment of the spiral apocalypse. While clouds and vapours keep the viewer on his/her toes looking out for subliminal spirals. The filmmakers extend this climate of circularity to the plot itself, and the director regularly employs 360° pans to create an atmosphere of spherical doom. Part of the pleasure of Uzumaki is this sense of playfulness, and the audience are in on the joke as they join in looking out for patterns and shapes. This is in marked contrast to other contemporary films which were utterly humourless and exacted their absurd narratives with a completely straight face.

For most of the films running time the high school protagonists Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) and Shuichi (Fhi Fan) are able to separate themselves from the odd events besieging the town and their families. They manage to begin a rudimentary investigation with the aid of local journalist Kyoko (Hinako Saeki), but it never really gets going due to the forces tearing apart their families. Shuichi especially suffers at the hands of the spiral apocalypse; firstly he witnesses the slow insanity of his father, then his mother becomes infected by the same obsessions, and his own death sees his body revolt against him and mutate into a spiral. If the film has any message other than the destruction of the world then it lies within the bosom of the family unit and ineffectual parental figures. This is a town in which the older generation are the first victims, and this is as much to do with their own selfish preoccupations as it is the invading forces. The attempts of the screenplay to develop a backdrop of myths and legends centring on a lake are perfunctory and vague, and seem only to be included in order to develop the detection subplot. But meanwhile the clichéd high school setting is given a novel twist when pupils transform into grotesque human snails and start slithering up the walls of the school.

At times the visual pyrotechnics of Higuchinsky come perilously close to unbalancing the film, and while we are afforded some wonderfully comical death scenes, at times the CGI is extremely unconvincing. But then this is a problem that has generally plagued J-Horror over the years. The sensation of apocalyptic doom works hand in hand with absurdist comedy, this gives a refreshing levity to the proceedings, but the ultimate result of this is an unevenness of tone that is at times confusing. It never damages the film fatally though because the oddball plot always retains interest and intrigue. It is perhaps slightly more instructive to place Uzumaki within a tradition of apocalyptic cinema rather than as an example of Ring inspired J-Horror. Once placed within that sub-genre it’s audacity and odd brilliance can be fully appreciated.

© Shaun Anderson 2011

First published in an abridged form on Lone Wolves and Hidden Dragons


  1. Extremely nice review of an awesome film. In case you are not aware of this, the reason to why the myths and legends about the lake never really goes anywhere, is that they started making the film before the Manga had revealed the solution to the riddle of the spiral and what lies beneath the lake. You really should read the Manga if you haven't done so. It's a terrific read and while the ending of the movie was OK, the ending of the manga goes all out and really delivers.

    Anyway, great blog. You've got yourself another follower.
    Please take a look at my own blog at for more musings on rare movie gems.

  2. Many thanks Tiger - No I wasn't aware of that narrative fact, I thank you for letting me know. I have yet to read a single Manga comic, and have watched very few Manga films. It's such a large cultural phenomenon that is quite daunting to approach. Where exactly do you beging? Thanks again for the kind words, and I shall certainly be taking a look at your site.

  3. well, I'm not a big manga reader myself, but I basically had my debut with Uzumaki, after seeing the film. It should still be pretty easy to find as a torrent.

  4. The death scenes are wonderfully grotesque, I remember one about a father who gets his guts sucked into a washing machine...the movie is just nuts all the way, but I love it. Havent seen it in a while, but Id say its about freaking time!

  5. 'Wonderfully grotesque' I couldn't have put it better myself Franco. The washing machine death is a highlight, as is the kid who gets wrapped around the wheel of a car!


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