Uzumaki (2000)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 29, 2009  | 
Universe (Hong Kong). Region 3, NTSC. 1.85:1 (Non-anamorphic). Japanese DD 2.0. English, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese Subtitles. 91 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Higuchinsky
Starring: Eriko Hatsune, Fhi Fan, Hinako Saeki, Keiko Takahashi, Ren Osugi
Screenplay: Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta, Chika Yasuo
Country: Japan
External Links
IMDB YouTube
In the wake of Hideo Nakata's masterpiece Ringu, real J-Horror seemed to firstly undergo a brand new lease of life (well, besides the underground gore-fests such as the Guinea Pig or All Night Long films, which kind of kept the dream alive, or the simply unclassifiably weird shit like Rubber's Lover, Naked Blood or Pinnochio 964), and secondly, introduced it to a wider audience around the world – mainly due to Gore Verbinski's surprisingly adept re-interpretation of The Ring. All of a sudden people were sitting up and taking notice - films where curses, scary girls with long black hair and seriously weird imagery were genuinely frightening without having to fall back on buckets of blood to chill the audience – Ju-On, Kairo, Kourei, Dark Water; these were films that people had started hearing about, and seeking out. And in some cases re-making into vastly inferior films that were about as scary as the average episode of Buffy. That's a bad thing, by the way.

Uzumaki (Vortex) is a film that tended to slip through the cracks of the Western consciousness somewhat, even for those who actively search out J-Horror (I only heard about it through posting on the Thomas Ligotti On-line website – if you're familiar with Ligotti's writing, this film really is for you). I'm not calling it a B-grade film, but I am saying that it didn't reach into the horror community's awareness the same way some J-Horror did, and I would eat my boots if it received the indignity of a US re-make – the sensibilities seem far too Japanese for me – so it'll get to keep its identity just fine, with any luck, and not be judged by what some down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer makes of it.

Kirie, our school-girl narrator, is running late for class – after an encounter with Yamakuchi, a disturbingly old looking high school class-mate. Her home-town is a quaint little place, and not one where you'd naturally expect weirdness to occur. Certainly not weirdness like her effeminate male friend Shuichi's father video-taping a snail climbing up a wall; but it's the first spiral, or vortex, image that we get to see on the critter's shell – look out for these signposts as the film progresses. Their sinister nature increases throughout the run-time, and there are few shots they're not in. They become positively insidious, whether overt or implicit – as for what they mean – ah, well...

Kirie returns home; her father who's recently received a prize for pottery is making a pot, describing it as "the art of the vortex", in the basement, talking to a video camera for Shuichi's father, who's recording him doing so, referring to the art of the vortex as the highest kind of art. Kirie sees this and is a bit perplexed, but thinks nothing of it, going back to her dreamy-dreams of running away with Shiuchi and his plucked eyebrows. The vortex hasn't claimed her...yet. But the weirdness escalates wildly, and the oddly genial whimsical good humour of the film is suddenly shattered by an oddly uneasy scene of Kirie and her gal-pal Ishikawa walking down a corridor flanked with silent students who simply stare at the floof, and then Yamakuchi hurling himself down the middle of a spiral staircase to smash his brains out on the floor below. It's like a bucket of ice-cold water hitting you in the face. And as the camera zooms out from the horrific act, guess which shape we see from the spiral staircase's architecture...

Kirie, after being confronted by some sinister classmates, seeks out Shuichi's sage-like advice; he tells her, "Vortex patterns have a puzzling power. Those attracted want to attract others as well." Kirie ain't buying it, seeing the whole thing as either harmless or merely coincidence, but Shuichi's seen his father becoming obsessed by the vortex pattern to the point of being unable to do anything other than examine things bearing it's mark. Now while that sounds patently ludicrous, it's weirdly unsettling to watch, as the film's tone shifts on a dime; sure, the silly nature of what I've just written is there, but there's also some very odd feeling of dread that's also present. After all, what does a vortex represent? It's a spiral spinning ever-downwards into an ineffable darkness, as well as a shape you are locked into and can't escape, spinning in forever. In this instance, that could even represent madness; the interplay between this twee comedy and bleak existentialism powers Uzumaki – it creates a terrible unease.

It is also at this point of the film where the special effects are outstripped by what the storyline is trying to do – trust me and watch it, you'll see what I mean – as well as the budget, and a scene that I think is meant to be scary becomes ridiculous in the extreme. Bad CGI is truly awful, and this film is my exhibit A – by trying to display what the vortex does inside the human form, the film overplays its hand, badly. There must have been a better way to make its point.

The film is divided into a number of ennumerated segments, all linked and with none of the intertirles subtitled (annoying for thise of us who can't read kanji), and number two starts quite bizarrely, with student Katsuyama turning up to a lesson in the rain, and covered in some thick, glutinous substance, the only time he ever turns up to school, late and picked on by the other students, such as thin and popular bad boy Tsumura, for his obvious difference to them. Yet again: fat=funny and weird. For the huskier gents among us, I find that a tad insulting. For those of us that got ridiculed for being overweight at high school, I found it a little too familiar.

Kirie's dad has finished a vortex plate for Shiuchi's dad and wants it taken to him. Given some of the recent happenings at Shiuchi's place, I don't think such a gift would be welcomed with open arms, but Kirie is a dutiful daughter... But something that we never see in possibly the most incongruous, and yet not, of places makes us flinch at her reaction – badness has happened, but what is it? Use your imagination kids – I used mine, and believe me, I did NOT like what I saw; the reactions to it from the characters were just too strong. A clever idea on the director's part to keep some things hidden.

Mind you, some are played explicitly to the hilt as well, and you may well be left rolling your eyes at some of the more shoddily crafted scenes, in terms of their CGI – I know I was; talk about being jarred out of a movie... Regardless, Shiuchi is completely convinced that the town "is under the curse of the vortex", and urges Kirie to leave as soon as possible. But the two of them are kept in the thrall of a local newsie, who also believes the town to be cursed, and that the vortex is responsible. Honestly, I mean the lengths some folks will go to to get closure...

Shuichi's mother has been hospitalised (and given her current set against spiral shapes, think what she might have violently removed – here's a hint; look at the ends of your fingers) and Kirie's father has gone completely barking mad, so things aren't really looking too good for a happy ending at all. Matter of fact, they're looking pretty fuckin' lousy for all players concerned. The no-pun-intended spiral into madness has begun, and it's all looking increasingly grim.

Spun on by the machinations of newsie Tamura, Shiuchi and Kirie head off into the wild blue yonder in search of the answers to all of their problems. This is sure to end in horribleness. The sudden reappearance of Yamakuchi isn't exactly pushing any of the right buttons; when dead guys end up to re-attach themslelves to the life-styles of the living, then badness will occur, and no mistake. And so we enter the third and final section of the movie. Yes, Kirie and Shuichi are still our main focii, but oh, you'd better believe that some very bad things will happen. I actually don't want to tell you what's going on, and so here's the last act for you to watch unassisted; I think you'll enjoy it – and I hope it disturbs you.

And so the humour. Well, I don't like to use the word "absurd", because it's rarely used correctly, but the banality of the dialogue versus the weirdness of the situations kind of makes it inescapable – and when I use it as a descriptive tool, I'm asking you to think of it in terms of Eugene Ionescu or Samuel Beckett, filtered through some of Takashi Miike's weirder films – Gozu is one that springs pretty readily to mind, although without the more obviously slap-stick moments. Yes, there are some funny moments, but nothing worth laughing out loud at; it's more the raised eyebrow or bemused smirk school of comedy.

The editing in the film is an odd one, too. At first I thought it was merely inept, but as the film progresses you get a sense that the director knows exactly what they're doing, and that the sometimes comedic nature of the effect, or of the noises that go with them are definitely meant to be there. In terms of purpose, well, I'm not sure I can explain that, although it does draw your attention to the fictional nature of what you're watching, and its artificiality, which is a bit of a dangerous thing for a director to do, if they want their audience to maintain the willing suspicion of disbelief. Yet given that there's a bit of a strain of odd humour running throughout Uzumaki's weirdness, it did kind of make sense. Hopefully you'll see what I mean.

This is not a standard J-Horror film. Don't go in expecting any of the cliches, because you quite simply won't get them. What you will get with Uzumaki is a slyly entertaining film, one that is at times subversively funny, at others corrosively unnerving, with all of the logic of a Dada painting. I can't tell you why certain parts of the film are uneasy, they simply are, and you'll have to take my word for it. I'll bet that you could show this film to ten different people and get ten totally different opinions on it, ranging from "it's stellar", to "it sucks". Me, I'm pitched midway between the two – while I found that there was a lot to like about Uzumaki, I think that it aimed well beyond the limits of its mediocre budget, as well as the talent of its cast and crew, and that in the end this tale of forces that we cannot understand let alone contain creaked heavily at the seams. Not exactly a noble failure, and yet by no means an inspired success. I'd be very interested to see what you made of it.
The picture, though non-anamorphic, is pretty top-notch in terms of clarity, and a lot of the image seems to be filtered through a slightly greenish/yellowish tinge to accentuate the weirdness. The camerawork itself seems to be a bit forced in terms of shot type and angle, but it seems to have been very deliberately chosen by the same token. The director seems to have wanted a certain kind of effect, and even if at times it seems a little pretentious, it kind of suits the tone of the film.
Again, there seems to be a bit of non-diagetic sound that intrudes upon the experience of watching the film, but I'm absotively posolutely sure it's meant to be there. It does jar you out of the film a little bit at the same time, however.
Extra Features
All you get is an unsubtitled trailer. I watched this before I watched the film, and it hit me between the eyes with its cavalcade of weirdness. You'd better believe I put the film on straight away.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
A movie of ideas and style over events, Uzumaki is one to watch and puzzle over. It's got elements of the Lovecraftian and the Ligottian about it; the sort of sense of terrible nihilistic dread that characterises the work of both authors, as well as the weirdness that personifies both their repsective works – and like both it doesn't answer any of the questions you might have. Like Marebito, I can't say it was an entirely satisfying film, but I can't say I didn't enjoy it either. I like being challenged by a film, and I like a film that uses black humour in such a subversive way. When I say this is a re-watcher, I'm saying it because this needs to be watched more than once to make any kind of sense out of it. As much an existential art-film as it is a horror film, Uzumaki will keep you thinking long after you've whacked it back in your collection – just be sure that you do actually take it out and give it a pretty thorough second watching; I think you'll be rewarded.

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