By PATRICK BRENNAN
Twenty years ago, I was pulsating with anticipation while standing in line at the local multiplex to see the first showing of X-MEN. Comic-book movies still held some novelty back then; a few had managed to make the medium’s characters work (Tim Burton’s two BATMAN films, BLADE and THE CROW come to mind) but somehow, X-MEN seemed different. The live-action recreation of a comic that visually ambitious felt unattainable, but that assumption turned out to be wrong. After X-MEN, a new genre was ready to eventually take over the box office, owing that success to filmmakers finally being able to make impossible imagery a reality.
That same year in Japan, another comic (or in this case, manga) was ready for the translation of its strange visuals to the big screen. Horror master Junji Ito’s UZUMAKI series, telling the story of a small town’s descent into supernatural madness, had been captivating readers over the course of its run, but now the movie version faced some of the same challenges X-MEN had. Could Ito’s surreal, hyperdetailed signature art style be replicated for the silver screen?
The answer was: almost. A lackluster ending and dated stylistic choices keep the film version of UZUMAKI (also known under the English translation SPIRAL in the West) from completely hitting the mark, but it comes maddeningly close to capturing the weirdness of its source material.
Set in the small Japanese town of Kurouzo-cho, the story centers on two teenagers, Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) and her boyfriend Shuichi (Fhi Fan), as they try to figure out a terrifying hysteria that’s gripping the area. One by one, their classmates, neighbors and family members are all falling victim to an obsession with spirals. The pattern first manifests itself psychologically in the townspeople before becoming a physical supernatural force bent on devouring everything in its path. Can Kirie and Shuichi solve the mystery of the mania that’s destroying their home, or will they too be infected by the spiral?
If the plot sounds a little nonsensical, well…welcome to Junji Ito territory! His work is amazing, but you never read it expecting a story where everything adds up perfectly. Rather than 1 + 2 = 3, the mathematics of an Ito tale usually looks more like 1 + 2 = “Scaly Fish Monster With Biomechanical Legs” or 1 + 2 = “A Corpse Turns Into A Jack-In-The-Box.” This was one of the challenges supervising scriptwriter Kengo Kaji (TOKYO GORE POLICE) had to deal with when adapting the UZUMAKI series for the screen, and his work here is admirable. It focuses more on the first half of the series, and weaves many of those more memorable elements (the decent of Shuichi’s father and mother into madness, Kirie’s weird stalker, snail boy, spiral-hair girl) into a story that feels true to the manga’s pacing.
Director Higuchinsky (who had previously helmed a TV-movie adaption of LONG DREAM, another Ito work) does a fine job of matching Ito’s overall tone, utilizing shadow and dank settings to evoke the oppressive feel of his art. The filmmaker builds tension in some scenes very well, taking his time to set up the scares (in the washtub scene in particular) for maximum impact.
But what’s most impressive about UZUMAKI is how close it comes to bringing Ito’s bizarre and unnerving visual style to life. It’s evident from the beginning that the utmost care was taken in this area, as certain panels and sequences are recreated with meticulous detail. What’s more, they go huge with these attempts, understanding that Ito’s brand of craziness deserves nothing less. The spiral hairdo sported by one of Kirie’s classmates is a highlight, and while the CGI used to render those insane locks certainly looks of its time, they still pull it off.
Unfortunately, there are two things that hold UZUMAKI back: dated stylistic choices that appear to be thrown in at random, and the ending. There are moments, usually during a reveal of something horrific, where the camerawork and editing go absolutely nuts. It’s as if they’re trying to emphasize to the audience how scary something is, rather than relying on the imagery to speak for itself. We saw this technique a lot during the early aughts, and it only serves to pull the viewer out of the film. As for the ending, the deck was kind of stacked against the filmmakers to begin with. At the time of production, the manga hadn’t yet finished its run, so a rather abrupt and inferior ending was concocted for the movie. Just as the supernatural happenings in the town are reaching a fever pitch, the climax sadly falls off a cliff.
While it never fully gets under your skin in the manner of the manga, UZUMAKI is still well worth viewing. There are enough moments that come close, and there’s something admirable about a film that takes big swings like this one does, even when they don’t necessarily connect. Last year, Adult Swim announced a four-part animated adaptation of Ito’s classic, and if its teaser trailer (watch it below) is any indication, it looks like it will be a must-watch for horror fans. But if you can’t wait for it to drop and need more spirals in your life, you could do worse than revisiting the flawed but fascinating feature version.