I’m a Junji Ito fan. The mild-mannered master of horror manga has written and drawn some of my favorite graphic nightmares, series and stories that combine the unsettling with the over-the-top horrifying. I stumbled across a copy of Gyo at my local comic shop in the early 2000’s and just happened to flip open to a page with a huge shark on mechanical legs attacking a couple in a house.
Yeah, that’s the stuff.
Anyway, I bought it and looked around for anything else I could find by the same artist. Most of his output has been shorter stories, but I’ve got a few of the big collections – Gyo of course, as well as Tomie, a series about an unkillable schoolgirl who engenders jealousy and rage in those around her (you can see my review of one of the many film adaptations of Tomie here). My absolute favorite of his longer works has always been Uzumaki, though.
Originally published in Big Comic Spirits in Japan during 1998 through 1999, it’s a story about a small city in Japan that is cursed by spirals. That sounds incredibly stupid, but it’s a disturbing and fantastic story about people dealing with an unknown and unknowable force that warps and destroys the lives of the main characters and everyone around them. It’s one of the most Lovecraftian things I’ve ever read, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Because it’s Junji Ito, the comic is a series of increasingly disturbing events and actions punctuated by the occasional horrific body horror. You’ll get small elements, like a girl’s hair slowly getting more curly, and then it will become a large, draining entity that kills people. Or a man will be obsessed with spirals, filming snails for hours, and then he’s twisted into a tiny wooden tub, broken and disfigured.
The adaptations of Junji Ito’s work have, thus far, not been particularly successful as far as conveying that dichotomy of creeping unease and outright visceral horror. (The less said about the unsatisfying Gyo anime the better.) Ito himself has expressed a disappointment with the various films and shows made of his work, opining that perhaps there are some things that just cannot translate from one medium to another. (To be clear, the Tomie series of films has been financially successful – I think there are something like 9 films in the series.)
That being said, I’ve always wanted to see Uzumaki, anyway. It was released in 2000, right around the time that Ringu and The Grudge were redefining Japanese horror. The few images that I’ve seen from the film suggested some faithfulness to the manga as well. I hadn’t heard much about it, other than vague murmurings that perhaps Junji Ito’s work was unfilmable. (Actually, I think Sailor Monsoon might have said that out loud.) I haven’t been able to find a copy of the DVD release, though, and it’s been unavailable for streaming.
Uzumaki is available for streaming on Amazon Prime and only Amazon Prime. It’s free for subs and can be rented or purchased there as well. There was a DVD release of Uzumaki in the US, but it’s hard to find.
Note: There’s a 1998 Japanese film also called Spiral, but that’s a sequel (of sorts) to Ringu and has nothing to do with Ito’s work.
Uzumaki follows the general thread of the manga, with our main protagonists, schoolgirl Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) and her boyfriend Shuichi (Fhi Fan), dealing with the strange events that begin to occur in their hometown of Kurouzu-cho. First, Shuichi’s father Toshio (Ren Osugi) becomes obsessed with spirals, so dedicated to filming the complicated patterns of a snail’s shell that he doesn’t even acknowledge Kirie’s presence. His obsession progresses to the point of madness. A madness that seems to quickly infest the entire town.
So, the good news, this adaptation is pretty faithful to Junji Ito’s manga in spots. Some elements and imagery are recreated in exact detail. Individual moments of the story are also atmospheric and horrifying. The scene when Kirie finds Toshio in a washing machine is well done – delaying the horrific imagery for the reactions of the people involved. There are also scenes involving Shuichi’s mother, Yukie (Keiko Takahashi), in a hospital that dial up the tension. The director, (Akihiro Higuchi as Higuchinsky) also inserts some spiral distortions into the background of some scenes, a nice touch that makes it seems as if the film itself is becoming infected.
Despite that dedication to replicating elements of the manga, there are issues with the film that begin to overwhelm. The entire movie is suffused in a pallid green tone that seemed to be a staple of early 2000’s film making (at least since The Matrix used it as an indicator of the unreal). While it works okay at first, the de-saturated color becomes visually bland after a while, flattening all the scenes and rendering even the occasional moment of graphic body horror pallid and uninteresting. The CGI isn’t as unsettling as it wants to be, but that’s a limitation of the time. Editing sometimes becomes so frenetic as to lose the thread of the visual narrative, leaving you lost – but not in a good way.
There’s also a seeming unwillingness to completely invest in the seriousness and creepiness of the events. Scenes of strangeness and import will be punctuated by physical comedy or followed by a scene of a saccharine schoolgirl-in-love bike ride that seems endless (and reminded me in some ways of the early scenes in Hausu). This inability to take the horror seriously was pervasive enough that it began to spoil even the most effective scenes, as I began to wonder what sort of googly-eyed silliness was going to break up the mood.
That being said, there ARE effective moments in the film. Individual images, like that of Toshio sitting amidst his collection of spirals, are almost poetic and evoke the best of Ito’s work when they appear. Despite the occasional puncturing of the mood, the overall atmosphere of dread and horror is also well handled and the practical gore effects are well done – as when a suitor of Kirie’s throws himself under a car or when Toshio’s fate in the washing machine is finally revealed. Even the CGI has its moments, like the faces that animate in the smoke of the crematorium when Toshio’s body is burned.
The final, fatal, flaw of the film is that there’s nowhere for it to go. At the time of the adaptation the manga had not yet finished, but even that’s not an excuse for the rapid and unsatisfying conclusion. The manga is essentially a three part series, and either of the first two parts could have been pulled together into a decent finale. The film wants to dip into multiple stories, however, and present some of the most interesting images and sequences. As a result there’s no coherent narrative and the film ends with a series of static images that are intended to tie up the various elements, but haven’t had the requisite time or effort to develop them. It gives the filmmakers one last shot at showing us the horrific elements that make a Junji Ito manga so compelling, but all it does is remind us how good the original was in comparison.
The Bottom Line
Uzumaki has elements of a good horror film, and there are individual scenes that manage to approach the unsettling and terrifying parts of the source material. It’s hampered by an unwillingness to commit to the mood, however, and an editing style that undercuts some of the best moments. Add to that a lackluster color palette and a story that has no satisfying direction or conclusion and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I’m glad I saw it (finally), but I’m not sure I’ll need to see it again.
Note: Adult Swim is currently working on an animated adaptation of Uzumaki to be released sometime this year. The trailer looks good, and I have hopes that this might just be the adaptation to finally succeed in transferring that ineffable something from one medium to another. I guess we’ll see.