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SPIRAL (UZUMAKI) (director: Higuchinsky; screenwriters: story by Junji Ito based on the manga “Uzumaki”/Takao Nitta; cinematographer: Gen Kobayashi; music: Tetsuro Kashibuchi/Keiichi Suzuki; cast: Eriko Hatsune (Kirie Goshima), Fhi Fan (Shuichi Saito), Hinako Saeki (Kyoko Sekino ), Eun-Kyung Shin (Chie Marayama), Keiko Takahashi (Yukie Saito), Shin Eun Kyung (Chie Maruyama), Ren Osugi (Toshio Saito), Denden (Officer Futada), Taro Suwa (Yasuo Goshima), Masami Horiuchi (Reporter Ichiro Tamura), Sadao Abe (Yamaguchi); Runtime: 90; Viz/Tidepoint; 2000-Japan)
“A somewhat satisfying, because of its uniqueness, but ultimately empty horror chiller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A somewhat satisfying, because of its uniqueness, but ultimately empty horror chiller. It’s set in the Japanese small town of Kurozu-Cho and is based on the Japanese manga (Japanese for comic book) by Junji Ito. It’s a strange little tale about a town invaded by uzumakis or in the English translation spirals, where an innocent and unreceptive typical high school girl is witness to the destruction of her town and the people either vanish or go insane. The girl tells her story as a survivor, as the film is divided into four chapters entitled: Premonition, Erosion, Visitation, and Transmigration.

The former video music director Higuchinsky, makes his film debut a splashy thriller. He does it with style and cheesy special effects, though the story lacks substance. He just doesn’t give any details about the mystery, except to show it has something to do about spirals possessing a town. The film is one big setup for its final apocalypse, but that comes disappointingly with some more gore amidst some more spirals. What remains to hunger over is the bizarre and distressing mood this film provokes through its surreal fairy tale images. And that will have to do!

Cute schoolgirl Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) is beginning to attract boys, though she hasn’t as of yet acted on her romantic impulses. She lives at home with her pottery-making father Yasuo (Taro Suwa), who just won a prize for one of his spiral works. A socially maladjusted nerdy teen, Yamaguchi (Sadao Abe), tries to get Kirie’s attention by stalking her and jumping out at her in the street in surprise. She’s not too pleased, and turns down his offer to be her boyfriend. Next she runs into her childhood friend’s father, Toshio Saito (Ren Osugi), who is completely absorbed in videotaping a snail trying to crawl up a wall in the street and fails to even notice Kirie. She next gets a bicycle ride from his son, Shuichi (Fhi Fan), who tells her his father is losing his mind and has become so obsessed with spirals that their house is filled with them. His father even stole the beauty salon sign because it had a spiral design. Kirie is worried about her grades in school, while the laconic, depressed and intense looking Shuichi is a top student and therefore according to her reasoning he shouldn’t be worrying about anything. Though, he seems to be brooding about something. He comes out of that saddened state to surprise her by showing a romantic interest, as he asks her to elope. It seems he also wants to get away from town, and since he’s the brightest and most sensitive one around he senses something has gone terribly wrong here. But Kirie is not quite ready for that, but she has always looked upon him as her protector and her chief cheer leader since her mother died when she was a young girl and is seriously considering him as a husband.

The spiral action thing really takes off after Saito’s suicide, as he stuffs himself in a washing machine and swirls around until he’s as clean as a whistle. His mental deterioration is caused by his brain filled with spiral images, as his mania becomes infectious. It unlocks the whole towns’ subliminal unconscious impulse to be possessed by the spiral-pattern. At his cremation, there’s a spiral cloud hovering above with what looks like his face on it. This freaks his widow (Takahashi) out so much so, that we next see Shuichi and Kirie visiting her in the mental ward. She’s so nutty by now that she’s cut off her fingertips, as she aims to eliminate all spirals in her life. At last she discovers her inner ear has a spiral and shortly comes up with a grossly novel way to dig it out with a jagged broken piece from a vase. There are numerous other spiral depictions taking place all over town. The more comically graphic scenes are reserved for the high school. There’s Kirie’s biology classmate, who only comes to school when it rains, walking at a snail’s pace and dripping from slime. We also have snails the size of humans climbing the walls and attacking the student body. These were once humans, in fact they are the slime kid from the science class and the class bully.

Credit for these effective visual effects must go to artists Kenichi Kobayashi and Issei Oda.

The film never tries to be frightening. Its aim is to stick with being amusingly weird and “hip.” In that it succeeds. The price it pays for having it that way, is that there’s no rhyme or reason given for a town to become possessed by spirals. The one mature person who tried to get at the cause and give this film some help explaining itself, was the reporter Tamura who sensed there was a story here someplace (just as I sensed there’s a story somewhere). But just when the reporter was about to spill the beans he researched in the library about uzumakis, a possessed Yamaguchi runs in front of his car to get noticed by Kirie in death and the reporter gets crushed in the process as a spiral forms on the cracked windshield. The filmmaker seems to have a morbid curiosity about still-life deaths in crime scenes, that gives his visual scenes a curiously ghoulish look.

This could have played as a television episode of the X-Files and would have been well-thought of. Though enjoyable in a silly and childish way — it lacks weight to go with its slick visuals to carry over into a feature full-length film. It follows along the same thin psychological lines as other recent Japanese horror films: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” and Hideo Nakata’s “Ring.”

REVIEWED ON 7/28/2002 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”