Saturday, February 8, 2014

#175: Uzumaki (Akihiro Higuchi aka Higuchinsky, 2000)

Uzumaki is a difficult film to write about. The movie is very strange in most of the ways it's possible for a film to be strange (plot, characters, tone, narrative structure, camera movement), but having to explain why it's such an odd film requires me to reveal too much about what happens. My advice to anyone reading this who loves cult films and Japanese horror and has never seen Uzumaki is to watch it, then come back and read this post. The less you know, the better.
Uzumaki, which means "spiral" in Japanese, takes place in a small mountain town. The main character is Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), a relentlessly upbeat and childlike teenage girl who lives with her pottery-making father. Her mother died when she was young. She has a complicated relationship with a male friend, the deadly serious Shuichi (Korean model Fhi Fan, in his only film role to date), a lifelong friend who has always looked out for her. The androgynous Shuichi asks Kirie to elope with him, and the two have plans to spend their lives together, but the relationship is platonic, not romantic, at least at this point. Shuichi's formerly happy home is starting to come undone. His father has stopped going to work and instead become obsessed with spirals, walking the streets collecting and filming with a camcorder anything with an uzumaki pattern and bringing it back home. Anything that distracts from his obsession with spirals makes him angry, causing him to be cruel to his wife and son.
Soon, the spiral obsession becomes a town problem, not just a difficulty for Shuichi's family. Spiral shapes start appearing all over town, more and more people become obsessed with spirals, some people develop severe spiral phobias, others seem to become possessed by a spiral-shaped supernatural force, warnings of a major typhoon start appearing on the news, a few people turn into giant snails, a girl's hair becomes a huge, flowing mane of spiral shapes, and death, insanity, and surreal spiral lunacy become the normal way of life for this small town. The plot is not the only part of the film that's spiral-obsessed. The filmmakers hide spiral shapes in many shots, and the camera occasionally moves in a spiral shape. This is never obtrusive or discombobulating. It just adds to the atmosphere and the bizarre, unsettling feel.
Uzumaki is an adaptation of a manga by Junji Ito, and director Higuchinsky accomplishes the neat trick of evoking the feel of a manga without making the film too cartoonish. Some of the transitions between scenes have the feel of changing from one panel to the next, and the camera sometimes moves from right to left. Small moments of comic-art surrealism are present throughout, as when a teenage girl puts out her cigarette on the wall of the bathroom and the lit end explodes as it is extinguished or when Kirie and a friend walk through the halls of their high school and the other students stand perfectly still against the walls with their heads bowed down. The film's colors are artificially heightened as well through the use of green filters. All these elements help create a self-contained world operating by its own internal logic.
The actors do a fine job capturing the film's strange tone. Though the characters are one-dimensional, they aren't cliched, and the actors play these heightened, odd people without going over-the-top or winking at the audience. They commit to the strangeness by playing it as normal. They leave the strangeness to the film's plot and formal style, and a tone that manages the neat trick of transitioning from goofy comedy to unsettling weirdness to dark horror without any jarring awkwardness. The ending is extremely dark, but, in the style of recent Japanese horror, the closing credits tune kicks in immediately after with an uplifting, cheesy piece of teen pop. This is a beautifully strange film.
Director Akihiro Higuchi, who works under the single name Higuchinsky, has a remarkably mysterious online presence in this privacy-free era, at least in the English language. Finding information about him is a difficult task. He hasn't made a feature film since 2003, though a few online comments suggest he primarily works in music video and directed some episodic television in the late '90s. Besides Uzumaki, IMDB lists only two other films: a TV movie adaptation of another Ito manga, Long Dream (also released in 2000), and 2003's Tokyo 10+01, a Battle Royale/The Most Dangerous Game-style scenario about humans being hunted for sport. His scant biographical details also show he was born in Ukraine, but he has no Wikipedia page. I'd like to know more about him, but I salute his absence from the 24-7 public display of private life that is the 21st century.

1 comment:

Matthew Bey said...

Junji Ito has a manga series at the Austin library which does for smells what Uzumaki did for spirals. I definitely recommend checking it out.