Imagine Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only a series of never-ending spirals are swirling up a small town's minds instead of pod people. Now, picture it as the brain child between Tim Burton and experimental Japanese filmmaker Takahiko Iimura, collided in a slimy, spinning, green-drenched package that's as dementedly indulgent as it is ridiculous and stupefying. That's Uzumaki, for better or worse, a quirky oddity from Higuchinsky that's a hive of creativity -- as well as a rat's nest of gothic exaggeration.
Adapted from the serial-style novels from Junji Ito, it concentrates on Kurozu, a small Japanese town, and the people within it. As high school student Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) makes her way from school one day, she sees her boyfriend Shuichi's father photographing a snail to extremely close degrees. As it turns out, it's only the beginning of an obsession; soon, he's commissioning an artisan pottery maker to throw together an uzumaki bowl, all while collecting every spiral he finds in the town and tormenting his family when they run out of "spiral fish cake" for their soup. His unhealthy obsession doesn't seem out of control until a student dies in a very peculiar fashion at Kirie's school, all while the malignant spirals continue to crop up everywhere.
Filled with complex, disquieting images involving just about every manipulation of the swirling symbol imaginable, it'd be quite a feat to pack the original material's intricacy into a live-action film. Higuchinsky, surprisingly, has found a way to best the graphic novel's peculiarity, putting production design, hand-drawn animation, and computer-generated artistry to work in Uzumaki to create something eerily complex. It's able to run the gamut with its visual style, spinning down staircases and marveling at giant curly-cue locks tumbling from a popular girl's hair as she treks into the spiral's curse. And the strangeness never halts, drenching students in slimy goo and forming mammoth swirl growths on their back as the town's curse really grabs hold of its people.
While Higuchinsky get caught up in his smattering of psychedelic, terrifying pop art existing much like an extension of Alex Proyas' universe in Dark City, he strays from constructing a mystery compelling enough to give the uzumaki the same maddening effect in story as they have with visceral construction. It takes us swirling into a green-tinted nightmare amid brash visuals and exploding sound design, yet its Lynch-like obscurity lacks tactile thought or a grasp on sensicality. We're caught in a fantasy world where a symbol takes over both the minds and bodies of a town's denizens, and it's powered only by the steam behind the countless sightings of spirals. The phenomenon's "origin" lies in humanity's fascination with the bewilderment of nature's structure, similar to mathematicians being driven wild by the numerical tumbling of π (3.141592654), the Fibonacci sequence, or the dreaded number 23. That aspect of the spiral's allure makes sense, yet it soldiers forth as an apocalyptic occurrence within Higochinsky's manga-minded direction without a grasp on conclusive answers as to why it starts or finishes.
The curse is just, well, plopped there, and the film's snail-like pacing of its ominous domination reflects on style-heavy aims. As Uzumaki approaches its climax, like a devilish little rollercoaster, it builds momentum and contorts further by ramping up the strangeness mounting in the town's vexation with the spiral. At first, Kirie, Shuichi and the townspeople/students were charming in a '50s to 60s drive-in horror kind of way, similar to the entrancement with the blob in the classic Steve McQueen version of The Blob. As it progresses and the uzumaki grow more virulent and outlandish, these inane yet wooden characters surrender to the design of the film's bizarre universe -- barely leaving us with a scant amount of surface-level substance to grab a hold of amid this green tornado. We're not made to care about Shuichi's crumbling family dynamic or Kirie's pass-outs and empty-eyed glances at the swirls, instead remaining more focused on the lavish experimental nature of its architecture.
Maybe Higuchinsky thought that the spirals clapped onto a second purpose with an effect like The Penguin's umbrella in Batman Returns, entrancing us into only focusing on its construction by darting our eyes from curly-cue to curly-cue. Still, it's hard not to look at Uzumaki as a pure piece of obscure artwork, effective for its twirling bizarreness that overcomes a lack of substance. Its tricks are sly and compelling, with a visual style creeping up on being thoroughly innovative, while epitomizing the style over substance sect of cinema. Are we left entranced by the spirals in the way that Higuchinsky would've wanted? Probably not, but at least it's compelling enough to be considered an ambitious piece of peculiar yet cohesive artwork instead of a hodgepodge of misfired ramblings.
Taking over almost exactly where Elite Entertainment's disc left off, Eastern Star's presentation of Uzumaki comes with surprisingly similar cover artwork to the previous, now out-of-print edition. However, the menus have been jazzed up with some animated scenes from the film and the disc has received a new design, though that's about all the upgrade you're going to see between the two presentations.
Video and Audio:
Both Elite's 2004 and Eastern Star's 2009 discs were on hand for this comparison, ready and willing to reveal a quiet upgrade to the now five-year-old transfer of a strange, avant-garde picture. However, several comparison shots reveal next to no difference between the two 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, both sporting the same grain levels, contrast fluctuations, and scattering of print damage. That's not to say Uzumaki looks bad, which it doesn't. Details in several scenes -- like the close-up on the snail and the slicing of a spiral fish cake -- showcase a breadth of detail and splendid depth, while many of the visually complex sequences preserve the intricacy present in the image rather well. It's still a transfer that needs some help with graying (greening) contrast levels and overall visual depth, but these are negligible points that shouldn't prevent a purchase of this abstract visual fantasy.
Audio still comes in a Japanese 5.1 track that's tough to monitor. It carries rash of blasting sound effects, from punchy, clash-worthy musical cues to heavily-manipulated sound effects, all of which are preserved in a fashion that befits the strange visual style. However, delicate elements, like footsteps along a dirt road and gusts of wind accompanying them, showcase the track's ability to handle light sound design as well. Some surround activity trails to the back, but it's mostly for precision than any real scare factor, while the lower-frequency only gets to kick here and there when the time's right. Optional English subtitles are available in discreet white text, while the Japanese 5.1 track is the only sound option available.
Exactly the same as the Elite disc, Eastern Star's DVD comes with a decent Behind the Scenes (10:43, 4x3) featurette that blends interview time with off-camera shots and snippets of the film, a string of Camcorder Footage (5:15, 4x3), and a Trailer (1:10, 4x3 Letterbox) for the film -- though some other Eastern Star film trailers have been added.
Uzumaki's an odd, slimy, dizzying slice of Japanese horror, a piece of work some will find fault with due to its waning storytelling and often inane splattering of spirals everywhere. As a piece of morbidly contorted artwork, however, it's hard to deny Higuchinsky's dark vision at least a bit of credence for its eye-straining complexity and apocalyptic dread. Eastern Star's presentation mirrors that of the now out-of-print Elite Entertainment disc, taking its place as a Recommended slice of strangeness that's worth the time for its visually bleak achievements.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site