Friday, June 13, 2008

REVIEW: Uzumaki - Higuchinsky (2000)

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Strange things are afoot in Kurozo-cho. The small, isolated, mountain village is trapped in the grips of an ever-growing plague of insanity. Kirie Goshima watches helplessly as those close to her descend into a vortex of madness. It starts small. A fellow high school student leaps to his death down a spiral staircase. Then, her boyfriend Shuichi’s father begins obsessively documenting spirals with his camcorder. Spirals, as he says, are the purest art form. Soon everyone in Kurozo-cho falls before the madness of the spiral, including her own family.

Ukrainian born Japanese director Higuchinsky, aka Higuchi Akihiro, faced quite the monumental task when he decided to adapt Junji Ito’s mammoth manga masterpiece, Uzumaki. Not only is it Ito’s longest work, spanning three volumes, making it virtually impossible to effectively condense it into 90 minutes; but, at the time production began on the film, Ito hadn’t even finished writing the series. The studio, trying to capitalize on Ito’s ever growing popularity, pushed production forward so that the film could be released as a double bill with another Ito adaptation, Tomie: Rebirth. Maybe adapting a still incomplete work gave Higuchinsky inspiration, knowing that as long as he captured the spirit of Ito’s work, he would be doing it justice. Having already adapted Ito’s Nagai Yume aka Long Dream for TV two years prior, Higuchinsky seemed in tune with the kind of ever-spreading madness Ito is known for.

Uzumaki is the cinematic equivalent of an acid trip: strange, twisted and at times horrific. Made at the height of the J-horror boom, Higuchinsky seems content avoiding all the pitfalls that befell any Ringu imitators, creating what is one of the most original horror films ever cast onto celluloid. While he still uses some common themes that have dominated modern Japanese films, such as the conflict between the modern and natural world, it is still wildly different from anything you’ve ever seen. Higuchinsky creates a loony-toons style horror film, where everything becomes increasingly wild and over the top. While Eriko Hatsune’s performance as Kirie is somewhat restrained as she remains seemingly untouched by the madness, giving us someone to relate to, pretty much everyone else gives an outrageous, yet convincing, performance of lunacy. Everything in the film feels a little off. The camera work is both surreal, dizzying, and at the same time breathtaking. Higuchinsky comes off as the bastard love child of Tim Burton and Darren Aronofsky. The editing is at times jarring, and at others perfectly rhythmic. A ‘green’ filter was used for much of the shooting, something Gore Verbinski did a few years later with The Ring, creating a queasy, unnatural look to the film. And the spirals. Oh, the spirals. Higuchinsky creates an almost Where’s Waldo type game, sneaking spirals into almost every frame, some very subtle, some not so much. Were this any other film, it would probably fail under its own weight of creative audacity, but for a film that depicts one town’s descent into madness, it works perfectly. It fully captures the spirit of Junji Ito’s work, even while it is forced to omit large parts of the saga for the sake of running time.

Ito offered no real answers as to whom or what is behind the madness. It’s a cyclical phenomenon based around an ancient city made of spirals, but it all becomes mere speculation on the behalf of the characters. In Higuchinsky’s version, he retains the same ambiguity, hinting, again through speculation by the characters, that it revolves around an ancient form of serpent worship. While not being able to reach the same scale as Ito, Higuchinsky makes what is probably the perfect 90 minute adaptation of Ito’s work.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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