Uzumaki [Spiral]recommended viewing

Like a record baby, right round, round round
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2000
Director: 
Higuchinsky
Starring: 
Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Hinako Saeki, Eun-Kyung Shin
The Setup: 
Inhabitants of a Japanese town are slowly going insane.
Discussion: 

Someone recently wrote me and recommended this movie, saying it's about people turning into snails. I'm on board! So to me it sped, while I hoped it would be more like Pulse and less like Gozu. With snails, you know, you risk having to look at a lot of slime.

It begins with a quick voice-over saying "Let me tell you of a strangeness that happened here…" Then we see a guy kill himself, and this all twists into a spiral that forms the film's title. Then we meet out heroine, Kirie [you mean that Mr. Mister song was about HER?]. A strange ghost wind blows by her as she's walking one day, and then we get a title: Chapter 1: Premonition. She's a little spooked, and on her way happens upon her best friend / boyfriend's father. He is so intensely videotaping a snail on a wall that he doesn't respond to her. Then this guy, Yamaguchi, jumps out at her. He says "this is what I do." Well dude, get a new hobby. He then proceeds to ask her out, but she refuses. Soon enough she is on the back of the bike of Shuichi, her boyfriend who is also her long-time childhood friend. Then follows an OVER-THE-TOP romantic bike ride, as only the Japanese can do [lots of slow-motion, dialogue-free shots of Kirie smiling], and we find out that Shuichi's dad has been acting strange lately. Shuichi asks her to elope, and she's excited, but says she'll think about it.

When Kirie arrives home, Shuichi's dad is there, commissioning a bowl from her father, a master potter. He is fascinated by the spiral in the pot turning on the potter's wheel, and starts videotaping that, too. Kirie has come home with a melon that she is really, REALLY excited about, and she and her father, well, let's just say that those folks are not stinting in their enthusiasm for melon. And yeah, you know, melons are good. Maybe not THAT good, but…. She goes upstairs and reminisces about when her mother died, and young Shuichu said that he would be her mother for her. Okay, I'm dutifully writing all this down, as it seems like a developing subtext, but I regret to say it doesn't really coalesce into anything.

There is a spiral in the sky at the corner of the frame as Kirie heads to school the next day—there are lots of little spirals incorporated around throughout the movie, and I'm sure I missed a few even so. Yamaguchi jumps out again and she rejects him, then a guy at her school jumps down a spiral staircase and kills himself. Kirie is all upset in the bathroom when suddenly all the doors open and these threatening high school bitches come out, their leader snidely smoking in Kirie's face. Sorry, a clique of imperious high school bitches is ALWAYS welcome, and was quite a delightful and unexpected surprise here. That night Shuichi's dad really gets into his spiral shrimp roll, and WIGS OUT when there isn't any more. Then he starts madly stirring his miso soup to make more spirals. You gotta give the filmmakers credit for obviously having a multi-day offsite meeting to brainstorm every possible spiral imaginable. One also wonders if perhaps a Sprirograph embargo would be appropriate to this community.

SPOILERS > > >
Soon after, Shuichi's dad, who has amassed quite a large and varied collection of spiral-related objects, finds his wife has thrown them out. He is not pleased, to say the least, but then says it doesn't matter, you make your own spiral. Then his eyes start spinning in opposite directions and his face bulges out disturbingly! Then—Chapter 2: Erosion!

The next day this fellow shows up late for school. He is covered in clear slime, and is smiling and making happy little hums to himself. They make fun of him because he's so slow he moves like a snail, and we have a short little detour into Ferris Bueller-like lite high school humor. You know—the Japanese. They've got their own thing. Soon after, Yamaguchi jumps out again and Kirie tells him to fuck off once and for all, and he vows never to give up, making one wonder if this is going to turn into some sort of stalker triangle. Shuichi goes home to find that his father has killed himself by getting in the washing machine, which doesn't seem physically plausible, but we'll go with it. They cremate him and—his ashes make a giant spiral in the sky! Okay, now this is getting weird. They watch the father's videotape, which contains the footage of him getting into the washing machine [and then some bone-crushing sounds], and if you notice real quickly, in one short shot the ghost of the father is standing there in the room with them. Then Kirie has a vision of herself all twisted up in the washing machine, and Yamaguchi finds a way to express that he'll be keeping an eye out for her. Then—Chapter 3: Visitiation!

Now, Shuichi's mom has been going crazy lately, too, and cut off her own fingertips because the fingerprint is a spiral. She's in the hospital, where Shuichi has to rip down a poster showing the interior of the ear, because if his mom found out there was a spiral inside there, she would try to cut it out. Well, too bad he didn't check in her room for creepy vermin because what's this but a foot-long millipede creeping up her bedpost and making it two-thirds into her ear before she wakes up. That didn't bother me as much as her swatting at it, ripping off its last third and leaving the two-thirds in her head! Icky. Soon everyone is seeing crying, moaning faces coming out of the spiral in the sky. Next thing you know, people have turned into literal snails [you get the whole snail thing, don't you? Snail's shells are spirals…], and are sliming up the sides of the school. Okay, this is all weird enough, but for me the meter went into the red zone when the teenage girls start going on about how CUTE the snails are, as if they were pop stars, and start hyperventilating and saying "Omigod!" about how dreamy the slimy snail-people are. Woah! I thought we were going to veer off into a fascinating examination of the Japanese 'cute' culture, but alas, it didn't turn out this way. Soon we see that the snotty smoker from earlier has gotten QUITE a perm, and her boyfriend is getting himself all twisted up in knots, which involves his clothes twisting and extending along with him. He must be wearing those new stretch fabrics. There's a shot of Kirie at the end that might be considered a little bit disturbing.
< < < SPOILERS END

The deal is that this is adapted from a series of Manga novels, and apparently covers only half or less of the comics' story. I was glad to hear that no one else spotted an explanation for why this is happening either [because I sure couldn't determine one], and not only that, but the movie doesn't give one, and neither does the original comic. The only thing mentioned in the comic [not in the movie] is that the current city is built over an ancient city that was all arranged in a spiral, and maybe that the ancestors of that city are angry about being forgotten. Personally, I could have used just a touch of explanation, more because you spend the entire movie waiting for one, trying to put all the pieces together and paying attention to everything that might prove to be significant, only to find that none of it is really significant. Certain things call out as though they might become subtexts, most notably the love triangle or the way the parents start losing it before the kids, and all of it keeps you on edge, but none of it really comes together.

But in a way that looseness is a strength, for one because it lifts the burden of having to figure out the meaningful, meaningful meaning behind it all, and also because it keeps you on your toes. I liked how the phenomena became more and more real as the movie progressed… at first it was all winds and crazy individuals, but by the end we have masses of people experiencing the same thing—although I guess one could argue that they are entering into a kind of collective psychosis.

The lack of explanation also opens the movie up for one to project one's own meanings onto it, which can be a good thing. The Japanese seem to have a lock on this kind of horror in which a society as a whole is haunted, what with Cure and Pulse, but in each of those, there were clear pointers to what the problem was, whereas here… people are just going nuts, and it's up to you to think about what must be making them that way. I'd love to see a remake of this set in New York, if only they could resist the impulse to add an explanation and keep it as bleak and depressing as it is and not add redemption at the end or messages about the importance of integrity, education, believing in yourself, or family.

One other thing… I don't know whether this was a prestige picture or just a run-of-the-mill J-Horror release [it seems like the latter], but in either case, it's really remarkable the difference in the overall quality and care taken in the direction. This film is just so engaging and well-constructed all the way through, with several ostentatious directorial tricks, I really felt like I was in good hands that were guiding me through the story and telling me what to pay attention to. This is as opposed to most American movies, where it often seems like there isn't a director at all, but some sort of footage-generation machine.

Oh, and be sure not to miss the trailer, which starts heavy in the horror vein, then abruptly bat-turns into romance. Like I said, only the Japanese…

Should you watch it: 

Yes, if you like the creepy and unsettling, and especially if you like the Japanese way of doing creepy and unsettling…
RELATED MOVIES:
PULSE is another Japanese horror movie about a society as a whole experiencing horror, in this case from social isolation. DO NOT under any circumstances rent the American Remake.
CURE is another Japanese social horror movie, by the same director as Pulse.