Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Spiraling Out of Control

A tasty appetizer. A hearty soup. A perfectly nice salad that gives every indication that the chef knows what he’s doing. And for the main course? A large, flightless bird barges in from the kitchen, hops onto the table and shits all over your plate. No apologies. No explanation. You simply stare in horror at the steaming mess until you see yourself out, regretful that you ever set foot in this house.

That’s how I feel about a movie I watched.

A brief preface: Good endings don’t come easily, I’ve learned. Many books or movies or TV series begin with promise but end suddenly or strangely or just badly to the point that I think it must be easier for writers to think up beginnings than endings. I myself have begun many short or not-so-short stories but later abandoned them when I lost the path between start and finish. As a result of my belief about this aspect of writing, I tend to be lenient when judging the ends of things. (Think about it: Where was my post on the finale of Lost, anyway?) However, I recently watched a potentially good movie whose ending was so bad and strange and altogether poorly thought-out that I had to write about it, to vent my frustrations and spread the word against this film and attempt to regain some of the time I sunk into it in the first place. I found the ending such a let-down, in fact, that I now wish I had not watched any of this particular work. And coming from me — who considers even watching a bad movie worthwhile lesson in storytelling done wrong — that sort of outright condemnation says a lot.

The film is Uzumaki, a 2000 abstract horror-comedy from Japan. That description may be enough to turn many of you off, but for me it’s an incentive. I initially learned about the film when I read that James Gunn drew upon the comic book Uzumaki in creating his thoroughly awesome 2006 horror film Slither. One wikijump later, I learned that the score for the movie version of Uzumaki was done by Keiichi Suzuki, a talented musician who has been mentioned on this blog more than once as a result of his work on the Super Nintendo game Earthbound, which sort of made him the Beck of video game soundtracks. Furthermore, the Uzumaki trailer is a pastiche of that for Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, at least according to Wikipedia. A plus!

Compare for yourself. The À bout de souffle trailer:

And Uzumaki:

The tetricombo of Japanese weirdness, Slither, Keiichi Suzuki and Jean-Luc Godard was nerd’s delight enough to pop Uzumaki to the top of my Netflix queue.

How I would eventually regret that decision.

In the same way that the basic elements of Uzumaki got my interest, the beginning of the film itself led me to expect something good. Uzumaki’s first four-fifths work better than they should, blending a surreal creepiness with small town goofiness that recalls the better moments of Twin Peaks. The film centers on Kirie (Eriko Hatsune), a high school girl who begins noticing a town-wide obsession with spirals.1 She sees her boyfriend’s father entranced by a snail’s shell, for example. Later, she learns that the father has stockpiled anything with a spiral pattern into one room. The spiral pattern eventually dominates his life so much that he crawls into an washing machine and dies by wrapping his body around the inside like a coiled snake. Creepy? A bit. Surreal? Definitely.

by "medusa," i of course mean the marvel comics medusa

The spiral obsession spreads to others in the community. A vain classmate’s hair grows outward, curling into Medusa-like formations. The dead, when cremated, give rise to spiraling smoke plumes. The boyfriend’s mother, in grieving for her dead husband, removes anything with a spiral, including her hair, her fingerprints and — in her final moments of life — her cochlea, which he extracts from her inner ear with a broken shard of pottery. Another classmate begins showing up only when it rains. He speaks and moves slowly. He appears slimy. Eventually, he transforms into a grotesque human-snail hybrid, complete with spiraled snail shell on his back.

This, of course, is all very interesting if you think the plot is headed somewhere. However, it’s not. When the film was commissioned, the related comic book had not yet finished. And although the comic book did eventually reach an ending that at least attempted to explain the town’s spiralmania, the movie doesn’t event try.2 It’s as if the writers, who borrowed heavily from the comic to set up the film’s plot, simply realized that they couldn’t imagine a plausible conclusion and therefore simply did not bother. The film ends with Kirie’s boyfriend randomly twisting into a spiral-shaped monster… and then nothing, really. We see shots of various supporting characters, now dead. There’s the girl with the Medusa hair, shriveled and apparently drained of life as a result of her curling coif. A local cop mysteriously has a spiral-shaped bullet wound in his head. A TV reporter is dead on the grass outside her newsvan, her eyes protruding from her head on horrific, spiral-shaped stalks. And we’re never told if Kirie managed to escape her newly springy sweetheart, though if she did she would have presumably have had nowhere to run to.

This is where I fail to imagine a possible motive that would have led the filmmakers to decide that this non-ending would be a good or even acceptable ending for the film: no resolution for the heroine, all the supporting characters dying off-screen and finally no explanation whatsoever for the paranormal activity that constitutes the film’s plot. Had the lead-up to this ending been equally uninteresting, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this now. But I actually did like the rest of the film. It’s strangely funny and then suddenly mind-shatteringly horrific, creating a contrast that few other films can boast. But all those positives can’t make up for the colossal negatives presented by the ending, which seems to completely disregard not only the scenes leading up to it but also the viewer who sunk time into watching them.

Worst of all is that Uzumaki is a decidedly surreal film, a quality that allows for tremendous jumps in logic in the plot. Really, in the context of a film in which so many impossible things happen, any explanation would have satisfied most viewers, even if Kirie turned to the camera as explained “And then it turned out it was aliens.” The lovers of weird movies would say “How cavalier! How funny! I love it because I’m smart!” But Uzuamki offers nothing for even pompous art snobs to cling to. It’s literally a movie without an ending — and, if you believe me, it shouldn’t have a beginning either, as you shouldn’t waste time on it.

I’m all about the journey. The process matters so much more than the ending point. However, when the ending point amounts to cruel mockery aimed at those who embarked on the trip, I feel it would be better just to remain home. I do not understand the value of Uzumaki as either art or entertainment. Horror blogger Final Girl may have given the film a positive review, saying, “This is an imaginative, bizarre just take the ride kind of horror film, and as such it’s both unsettling and entertaining,” but I can’t enjoy this ride. I can’t excuse so much from a movie. And I can’t stop myself from thinking about a million other ways that this could have ended better.

Oh, am I in a downward spiral? Ha. Cute. Fucking cute.

  1. The Japanese word uzumaki translates as “whirlpool,” “eddy” or “vortex.” The Wikipedia page for the film translates the titles as “spiral.” Uzu means “swirl” and maki means “roll,” among other things. The word would seem to have some relation to another Japanese term that made an appearance on his blog, hidari maki, which I was told referred to people whose top-of-the-head cowlick went in the opposite direction of what most people’s does.
  2. From what I understand, the comic book gets apocalyptic, with the recent spiral obsession going back to the very foundation of the town. It seems the current residences were built on top of a spiral-shaped city and some mystical spiral-shaped stone that is affecting everything around it and curling it into its own shape. With the townspeople being transformed into stone shapes — part of the ancient city itself — it’s very Children of the Stones-like. And that’s odd because I just ended up watching Children of the Stones around the same time I learned of the Slither-Uzumaki connection, though I didn’t anticipate that there’d be any connection between them.


  1. Jason3:20 PM

    I, for one, love that movie and actually find the ending to be well executed. The film ends with a repetition of Kirie's first line because the story loops back onto itself. There is no resolution because the story simply starts over again.

  2. The author of the manga, Junji Ito, is very well regarded, and the Uzumaki manga has been highly recommended to me.

  3. Jason: See, that's the frustrating part. I usually love abstract films. This one just didn't do it for me because I think it just didn't give me enough to work with.

    Goofy: I have heard that the manga is phenomenal, and the panels I found online while researching this post made me think about ordering them myself.