Uzumaki (and the Problems with Adapting Junji Ito)

Uzumaki, the movie, will no doubt be many people’s first foray into the twisted mind of Junji Ito – so does it do him justice?

Few names spring so immediately to mind when discussing horror manga than Junji Ito. While he isn’t the only big name on the scene, sharing the spot with other top authors like Kazuo Umezu and Go Nagai, he is arguably the most recognisable and recognised both in Japan and abroad. It’s no surprise, then, that several adaptations of his work exist: as live action films such as his Tomie series and animated, like the disappointing Junj Ito Collection. And then there’s the most popular of the films: the 2000 movie Uzumaki.

Based on the manga of the same name, Uzumaki tells the story of the town of Kurouzu and its citizens, who are all slowly turning crazy, possessed with the concept of spirals. Kirie Goshima (Eriko Hatsune) is our point of view character and she along with her boyfriend Shuichi (Fhi Fan) witnesses the town’s slow decline to insanity and spiral deaths. It’s a simple story, but an effective one that uses the typical J-Horror curse trope to maximum effect. The idea of an entire town succumbing to the allure of the spiral has a lot of potential, and raises the stakes in a way that films like Ju-On and Ringu cannot.

But all of that comes down to the source material, which is hugely worth a read if you can get a copy. Originally this was just a simple review of the film, but while it will still be for the most part, the more I thought about it the more Uzumaki shared the same flaws as many of his other adaptations. The first and most egregious problem with this is that it’s just not scary. In the frankly terrible Gyo animated adaptation, they replaced Ito’s iconic heavily-contrasted black and white drawings with dull CGI and bad textures. In this, someone thought it would be a good idea to do that thing every J-Horror from that period did and bathed the entire thing in green to hide the fact that it looks extremely silly, and also load the film with unconvincing CGI and bad textures.

Ito’s art is one of the highlights of his work – arguably his most defining feature – and while that art does make for some wonderfully spooky imagery out of context, the best stuff is meant to relate something else; something deeper about the characters. The intricate linework and the insane levels of detail relate a madness that still images often struggle to express. The anime adaptations of Ito’s work, such as in the Collection series, suffer doubly from this. The budgetary and time constraints of anime mean that we see neither Ito’s absurd levels of detail, nor the subtle performances of a live action cast. Uzumaki, the film, seems like it wanted to go all in on being weird, so spent most of its runtime on stuff it should have cut out: ignore the crazy filler stuff from the second volume and focus instead on the ways the spiral affects the people in town in a psychological way. The snail people and the sentient hair were silly in print, and even more so on screen. At least in the manga they played a part in the final act.

Junji Ito’s original manga isn’t that big, at least not compared to the scale of other live action adaptations (it’s still baffling how they were able to cram 250 chapters of 20th Century Boys into a trilogy and have it come out as decent as it did), so at least it doesn’t need to do much trimming. The problem is more that Uzumaki is more episodic than anything else, which is fine for its initial format but results in a movie that’s quite choppy. Simply put, his work isn’t extremely well suited to the fast-paced, story-driven and often over-the-top world of moving pictures and Uzumaki as wonderfully entertaining as it is, is one of the biggest offenders. Occasionally director Higuchinsky does something very good visually – the scene of Shuichi’s father with all his spirals is wonderfully creepy – but Uzumaki, like many others, just ends up feeling like a drunk guy describing this crazy weird comic he once found at his local library.

Is there a fix? Strangely, despite everything I said about the films and anime’s lack of visual fidelity, an adaptation might have more success by not trying to replicate the manga all that much. Like I mentioned earlier, Ito’s style does more than provide spooky imagery: it gives us a sense of the madness, shock and horror that permeates each character’s life. Every line, every piece of intense shading can be channelled in soundtrack, performance and cinematography. I’d like to see Uzumaki, or anything by Ito for that matter, be done in the style of Hereditary or Us. Or maybe they can try to fully recreate the style. There’s a new adaptation of Uzumaki coming soon, and the trailer’s combination of music, motion graphics and mood has made me somewhat optimistic. Maybe it’s possible to do Ito right, without bringing in Toni Collette.

Verdict: Uzumaki is a fun, weird time, but it’s a bad Junji Ito experience.

Uzumaki (2000)
Also known as: Spiral, うずまき

Director: Higuchinsky
Writers: Takao Niita, Junji Ito (manga)

Eriko Hatsune – Kirie Goshima
Fhi Fan – Shuichi Saito
Keiko Takahashi – Yukie Saito
Ren Osugi – Toshio Saito
Shin Eun-kyung – Chie Maruyama
Hinako Saeki – Kyoko Sekino
Denden – Officer Futada
Masami Horiuchi – Reporter Ichiro Tamura
Taro Suwa – Yasuo Goshima
Toru Tezuka – Yokota Ikuo
Sadao Abe – Mitsuru Yamaguchi
Asumi Miwa – Shiho Ishikawa

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