Thursday, February 3, 2011

Live Action Manga Blues: Starting On A Twisty Note [UZUMAKI]

Live Action Manga Blues is a look at ten years of manga/anime adaptations, and a look into the promise, and pain of bringing the drawn to life. (This post:A revised, extended version of a shorter originally featured in The Cortex.)

Made during the latter throes of the ever pilfered J-Horror boom of the late 90s, Higuchinsky's live-action version of horror mangaka, Junji Ito's Lovecraftian tale of surreal, unfathomable horror is one of the more notable titles from this time period. For me, it stands right up there with not only horror hits like Nakata's Ringu & Shimizu's Ju-On, but also over-the-top blockbusters such as Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale. For me, Uzumaki is even has enough cult clout to earn a special place in my heart as something closer to pure cinema. Films that are so unrelentingly fun, and creative, that they defy the audiences suspension of disbelief, and dare us to join in its madness. These are films that turn up in my player as a gathering or party's beginning to wind down, which usually ends with many folks bunching up around the set, curious and unable to turn away. (for the curious, others in this series include: Brain Dead, Evil Dead 2, Meet The Feebles among others)

As much as I would love to explain the film's storyline, I'm compelled to hedge around it this time, and just say that I envy those who do go in blind. To even describe this film would be to spoil the fun for many of those who've yet to experience it.

My first exposure to this film was through some friends whom were still a part of the older school set with armies of VHS in hand, and my unsuspecting brain their guinea pig. And once this landed in my domicile, it was an instant hit, eventually making me a devoted fan of Ito's inimitably realistic character & environmental designs, as well as his deliriously frightening ideas. To properly describe Ito's style of horror is to invoke not only decades of manga history( for the truly adventurous, I still truly recommend the works of Kazuo Umezzu), but various sources including the aforementioned H.P. Lovecraft and even early David Cronenberg material largely dealing with uncontrolled flesh, and our collective inability to come to terms with it. But unlike those and their use of metaphoric justification for the horror on display, Ito's stories almost exist on a bizarre nightmare plane where human rationale has no dominion, and we are left helpless to the nature of madness(or at the very least, to the mercy of the storyteller).

So how do I satisfy the curious? Brass tacks, I guess.

In a isolated village, young Kirie's life becomes a maelstrom of deep horror when not only certain members of her family begin displaying bizarre behavior, but her entire community is plagued by....spirals. Sounds benignly dopey enough, until you realize just how far you can take this simple idea, and Ito's chops are amazing in this capacity as events escalate into some of the most brain-bendingly bizarre images in all the J-horror canon. Higuchinsky's inventive use of the camera, surreal color palettes, and cartoony touches only multiply the weirdness factor, and what you eventually have is a wild ride borne out of Tim Burton's worst nightmare.The film's look is incredible despite it's reported budget of a million.

In fact, the closest film I can compare Uzumaki to is Obayashi's 1977 manic ode to childhood imagination & terror, HAUSU. Another film short on story and character(including the acting, which is by all means atrocious in places), yet rich in technique and boundless energy. The main contrast here, perhaps is that while HAUSU escalates in how crazy matters get, Uzumaki does begin to wear out its welcome by the last act. And a truly eerie finale isn't enough to make one forget just how cool the original manga became near its conclusion.

In the years since Uzumaki was released upon the world, I was naturally in baited breath for whatever Higuchinsky would crank out next, however his follow ups have only lived up to part of the promise that this film offered (Long Dream and Tokyo Eleven 10+01 were pretty lacking). Upon looking harder for anything else he had done, it turns out a lot of his output is largely in the J-pop world where he has directed many a music video(figures), as well as numerous concert videos for several major acts (including Go!Go!7188) This is a deep shame, as his quirky style was perfectly in sync with Ito's quirk-riddled style.

So in a way, 2000 was an interesting place for anime/manga adaptations to start appearing in the world consciousness. And for a short time, it felt like J-Cinema had a foothold in what could be a new hope for this type of filmmaking. More interesting titles would come in light of this one. But could it raise the bar for more than merely fans of the original work?

-Tune in Next Time, when we take to the halls of school once more, and talk gang wars, and a prince of J-cinema past.


  1. I remember reading Uzumaki a little more than a year ago. It was one of the most unique, poetic, and disturbing manga series I've ever read. When I say disturbing, I mean it fully as a compliment. The fact that the story and terrors within actually manage to linger in my subconscious.

    I have yet to see the live action film, but I would love to. From what I've heard, it focuses on the strangeness of the small town and how weird things can get and still keep things in a recognizable setting.

  2. And that's pretty much the brilliance of Ito in a nutshell, which makes Higuchinsky an ideal visualist for this film. And even if it sacrifices narrative for often molasses slow weirdness, it still retains much of that eerie feeling the manga emitted to me. Overall, it's a creepy good time, and definitely worth looking up.