Screenplay: Kengo Kaji, Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo
Based on a manga by Junji Ito
Cast: Eriko Hatsune as Kirie Goshima; Fhi Fan as Shuichi Saito; Hinako Saeki as Kyoko Sekino; Eun-Kyung Shin as Chie Marayama; Keiko Takahashi as Yukie Saito; Ren Ôsugi as Toshio Saito
Synopsis: In the small town of Kurouzu, things are becoming weirder around Kirie Goshima (Eriko Hatsune). Her childhood friend and crush Shuichi Saito (Fhi Fan) is becoming isolated and morbid, his own father (Ren Ôsugi) becoming obsessed to a disturbing level by spirals. Shuichi himself believes the town itself it cursed by the spirals, something Kirie is quick to react to with bafflement until the first death, a student falling down a spiral staircase at school, acts as a catalyst to bizarre and horrifying things. Where Shuichi's father twists down into an awful path, bodily and even follicle mutation is taking place amongst the populist and the wind's moving in spiralling gusts ominously.
Junji Ito is a legendary figure in horror manga1. His work is also one, whilst adapted to cinema a lot, that would also be difficult to get right. Practicality in adapting their cosmic and horrifying content, with their surreal panels of bodily and physical mutation, it's going to be nigh on impossible to do some of them accurately unless animated or if you had the kind of budgets an adaptation of his work would never get. Tomie (1987-2000) has had a lot of films, nine in fact, and that's probably because barring an anti-heroine who regenerates even from death, and can split into duplicates if chopped up into pieces, it's as much a work about the pettiness and worst in human desire as it is the physical horror. Gyo (2001-2), about undead nautical creatures like fish on robotic legs invading the land, had to be adapted into animation in 2012 but that film, which drastically altered characterisation by following a female lead instead of a male one, also showed another potential issue with Ito that, whilst he has main characters, they are bystanders to their worlds and the horrors, undercutting a safety net for viewers to experience the horrors he depicts but also jarring against the desire for narratives film productions usually want for adaptations. Uzumaki (1998-9) would be the toughest of the entire lot, his most well known work and also one whose growing level of spectacle and weirdness could only be possible with a large budget, and is also affected by the fact that until the halfway mark it's a series of separate segments which just have to have the same protagonists involved.
And yet Higuchinsky, a Ukrainian born Japanese music video director, took the challenge as his debut feature no less. And while it's not to its level, I'm willing to comparing the result to how experimental filmmaker and commercials director Nobuhiko Obayashi threw every technique he knew at his debut House (1977) and concocted a one-off experience. Likewise Higuchinsky throws everything he can at Uzumaki just in the first ten minutes before anything sinister fully happens. Unconventional camera shots. An obsession with sickly green lighting. Characters speaking directly to the camera for conversations with other characters. Higuchinsky manages from then on, in spite of the issues the adaptation has eventually, to actually turn this adaptation into something entirely of his own. The one glaring issue which does undercut what feels like an entirely unique film is that Uzumaki abruptly ends. With its segments in chapters - using film celluloid textures for added effect to place this all in its own hazy, hallucinated dream - the last of them is just a series of still shots of the gruesome body horror that takes place later in the manga. The problem was clearly that, due to the large scale of the events that take place in the original manga, including the town itself completely changing in form let alone anyone in it, there was no possibility on this film's particular budget in depicting it even in CGI. Unless Higuchinsky and the screenwriters, in their one major flaw, actually took advantage of this issue or rewrote the ending, than Uzumaki would've been a much more successful creation. It does technically have an ending, but it's the one thing that jars badly. When I first saw the film years ago without reading the manga, I found it an issue, and now having fallen in love with said manga it's still a shame.
What Higuchinsky succeeds in, having also to truncate chapters out of the original or blend them into others, is an atmosphere completely different from the source. He has scenes play with a slower, growing sense of dread that turns Uzumaki less outright weird horror but a bizarre supernatural story which grows and grows into that strange body horror as it goes along. (Not to mention, especially with certain uses of CGI, managing to evoke the Black Hole Sun music video by Soundgarden of all things). It's here, with a drastically different pace, that you also see how genius the original source material is. Whilst so much of his work can seen absurd, including the elaborate facial expressions of horror the characters have, he takes weird ideas which however touch upon primal fears. The symbol of the spiral is not that absurd as a force of evil as the notion of a symbol, even words, illicit abomination emotional or physical reactions is found in horror and even myth. Symbols were used as signifiers for greater meanings and with a spiral there's so many unnerving connotations you can think with them. Usually viewed going into the centre rather than outwards, a vortex or a black hole that's synonymous with dizziness and disorientation that one is pulled into. Seeing spirals in everything - how tap water goes down the drain, food, snail shells, springs etc. - was just ripe material for Ito to work with, emphasising this fact with a hilarious (and fake) writer's commentary imagining himself as a deranged manga creator researching the true nature of the spiral as reference material for Uzumaki, playing the genesis as a little weird horror story like the others he's written in the past and emphasising how even the simplest of things like a mere symbol is potentially frightening.
This gives Higuchinsky a lot to work with in terms the material he does use - the spin of a pottery wheel, the way of a character obsessed with wanting Kirie to date him springs out to scare her like a Jack in the Box, the snails which some classmates start to mutate into - which he takes advantage of. He also has the advantage of what you can do differently in cinema compared to the page and various details you don't get in illustration, such as those who begin to become snails speaking slower as well as having wet, dripping slime dripping off them. Even when some sequences are just non sequiturs - like the entire chapter from the manga about a girl's hair becoming living curls reduced to an odd image - it all has a delirious effect of interest. The director has no qualms either, after the slow mood is breathed in for some scenes, in showing gore and gruesome effects like Ito does. He retains Ito's power of suddenly showing the freakish but done in entirely his own style. If it's sad that Uzumaki the film sadly needed more of an actual ending, that doesn't detract from the eccentric imagination that had been shown from before. The result of which is definitely memorable and is one of those rare feats, in spite of that major flaw, where a director manages to take a source material from a very idiosyncratic and unique creator, and produce an adaptation only they could've made. Something that has to be applauded even if Higuchinsky's career after has sadly never punctured the West as it should've done after this.
(1) Finally having his work easy to acquire in English as well in the 2010s has been a vital way of bringing more attention to Ito. Mainly the work of Viz Media but even smaller companies are releasing stuff like his biopic manga about raising cats with his wife, with material still planned to be released in Christmas 2017. This availability and how eclectic its been beyond his major work builds up a reputation for him and shows how distinct he is as a creator in general.