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Uzumaki (Higuchi Akihiro 2002)



Genre: Traditional Superstition Horror

review in one breath

I had a good friend who during his youth enjoyed consciousness expansion through the use of hallucinogens. I remember the day he ran up to me and still with a bit of panic in his eyes told me of his previous night's adventure. It seems that in the midst of chatting with some friends, he came to the realization that his arms were getting longer. "Out of the corner of my eye I could see my arms becoming rubbery and elongated, drooping nearly to the floor!". Convinced he was merely hallucinating, he looked directly at his arms, expecting a reassuring snap back to reality by the sight of their normal length. No such luck. Looking down he was terrified to see that his arms were rubbery straws now defying those physical laws he had heretofore taken for granted as governing normal bodies. "It was as if I were coming undone at the molecular level." His strange story stuck securely in my head and I often found myself trying to imagine what it would be like if the world suddenly unbound itself from the way it has always been. I mean, why couldn't someone's arms and legs suddenly become spaghetti-like through some sort of cosmic hiccup. Someone will claim adamantly "this doesn't happen", but by this is only meant "this has never happened before". What if the rules governing the world suddenly changed?

Uzumaki convincingly introduces you to a world undergoing such a change in fundamental rules. We watch as the bodies and minds of its occupants undergo eye-opening changes and as the natural world literally changes into what it was not. The world of Uzumaki is indeed a world within a psychedelic nightmare. Run as fast and as far as you may, every path you take, every corner you round, every horizon you reach will produces ever-greater mind-boggling transformations.

This movie is based on the manga (comic) of the same name by Ito Junji (also creator of the "Tomie" character) and is directed by Higuchi Akihiro (aka Higuchinsky). Uzumaki is Higuchinsky's first video feature and stays true to the mind-bending nightmare conjured up in Ito's original comic version. The movie itself is visually stunning, and I was impressed from the very first scenes. I quickly realized I was in for a visual ride down a strange and dark vortex.

In addition to its almost overwhelmingly surrealist flow, Uzumaki summons a few basic Japanese intuitions. Interestingly, these are utilized to attempt an explanation of the otherwise inexplicable nature of the bizarre vortex phenomena. In the opening scene Kirie, our main character, is walking along a mountain path. From behind we are made privy to a supernatural wind which overtakes her amid flashing visions of omens to come. As the movie pans back, we see that the path Kirie treads upon passes through a Shinto shrine and immediately before her are several looming torii, traditionally understood to be gateways to the spiritual realm. Of course, Shinto spirituality is an animistic spirituality, not confined to tales of angels and demons as in the West, but encompassing and permeating all natural phenomena. And it is precisely upon the natural world and its inhabitants that this portentous wind unleashes the vortex nightmare.

The earliest and most affected victim of the vortex phenomena is the father of Kirie's childhood friend, Shuichi. We follow Shuichi's father as he descends into madness via an increasingly obsessive fascination in spiral designs. At first, he merely stands fixated, gazing at spiral patterns. He then begins to collect, even steal them. As time goes by he retreats completely into his darkened room filled to the ceiling with spirals. When Shuichi discards all the spirals out of concern for the waning psychological health of his father, the father demonstrates that he has internalized the principle of the vortex and commences to completely freak his entire family out with a trick involving his eyes which viewers should not attempt at home. Even the father's eventual (and self-videoed) suicide is an act of vortex worship in what can only be described as death by Maytag. At his funeral, while family and friends are gathered at the crematorium gossiping about the untimely demise, the smoke from the furnace inevitably climbs high into the air in an ever-widening vortex, implying a message which will subsequently infect his wife with a fatal paranoia of spirals. Well beyond the sight of the funeral attendees, we see the smoke determinedly descend into DragonFly Pond. We are later informed, through newscasts and newspaper clippings, that an archaeological excavation near DragonFly Pond unearthed an ancient Shinto site related to serpent worship dating back to the Yayoi (ie, most ancient) Period. The excavation discovered various religious or superstitious artifacts depicting coiled serpents. The coiled serpents, of course, were drawn by the ancients as spirals.

Thus, the Vortex Nightmare is in fact an ancient spiritual phenomena which apparently every now and then sweeps over the land in its unrest. This clash between a more ancient spirit and developed "civilization" appears frequently in contemporary Japanese manga and anime. It is, for example, the over-arching intuition of Akira, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. In all of these, including Uzumaki, the earth is reclaimed, for the better or worse of humanity inhabiting it, in what amounts to a cleaning of the evolutionary slate. Utterly unique to Uzumaki however is the very bizarre manifestation of this ancient order in the form of nature and mind bending spirals.

I like to consider myself visually sophisticated, weened on the very finest visual effects film (and big budget) has to offer. And so I sat down to watch this with intentionally lowered expectations. However, as I stated above, from the very first scenes, I recognized the quality of imagery and creative visuals. I must admit I was suprised. And the sense of visual satisfaction only increased as the story continued, and as the manifestations of vortex became more and more bizarre, more and more terrifying. This truly is a psychedelic nightmare drawn in comic book proportions which will leave you wondering if in fact your arms might not someday wobble spaghetti-like toward the floor.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness

This is a truly unique film. Shinto intuitions set amidst the bizarre imaginations of comic-book worlds. Imagine karma as a huge blender, and our beloved characters as the furry little gerbils tragically thrown therein. (The result being... RED SPIRALS!) No sex. No nudity. Only spirals. Few movies you will ever witness tread such a tightwire as this, stretched between bizarre on one side and plausibility on the other, and nothing but the chasm of madness beneath.


I love this movie to no end. Then I became obsessed with the Manga. I'd have to say this movie and Ito Junji's works have profoundly affected me. In an awesomely strange way...

i hear you hezaa, love this film, the ending felt very rushed though, but i guess it would have been far too complicated to copy the ending of the manga, which is just so incredible :)

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