Friday, 18 May 2018

The Question in Bodies #12: The Spiral Obsession

Junji Ito, Uzumaki (manga, 1998-2000); Uzumaki (film, 2000)

I've always had a horror of the dentist. Ever since I was a kid, the sense of discomfort inspired by even the most basic dental checkup, the body horror inspired by the thought of drills and mechanical polishing machines has been crippling; the agony of a week of dry socket following the ordeal of a wisdom tooth removal, the taste of corruption flooding my mouth when an abscess burst; the chair, the shining steel of the instruments, threatening intrusion, violation. I'm deadly serious. It's a genuine phobia. I'm getting anxiety just writing this.

Anyway. The point is that when, researching this piece, I read that Junji Ito was a dental technician before he drew comics full time, my immediate reaction was, well, the sadistic bastard would be, wouldn't he?

If you're reading this and you work in the field of dentistry, I'm sorry. It's not you, dentists, it's me.
Junji Ito is a significant figure in Japanese horror. His first horror comic, Tomie, about a woman who inspires people to murder her, over and over again, wound up becoming a series of nine movies. Uzumaki (Spiral or Vortex), which, reading around, consensus opinion seems to rate as his best series, hadn't even finished its publication run when production of the the film version started. I admit I'm not terribly familiar with Japanese comics, but I do own a copy of the Uzumaki collection, and let me tell you, it is the most disturbing horror comic I have ever read.

The premise of it is fairly simple: a teenager called Kirie witnesses a succession of weird, horrible events in the old seaside town she lives in; her boyfriend Shuichi is convinced that they're all linked, that the town is cursed by a spiral, the shape and the concept, and the abstract shape is indeed the one linking theme that each of these horrors share. Each episode is a self contained story, until about the last third where it all follows through into a cosmic horror apocalypse that is frankly the sort of thing Lovecraft could have written only if he'd been Japanese and possessed of a basic quantum of human empathy. The chapters remind me a little of the old EC comics too, in the way that they depend on visual shocks, but they go further, as if the EC twist were only the halfway point.
Human empathy, that most unLovecraftian of qualities, is at the heart of the manga Uzumaki. It has to be. Many of the episodic horrors are utterly absurd: Shuichi’s dad becomes obsessed with collecting things with spirals on them and then begins to take the form into his own body; a boy turns into a giant snail, and then the class bully and the equally bullying teacher do too; a girl’s hair grows into outlandish, hypnotic spirals that eventually suck the free will of the people around her and then all the life out of her; babies in a maternity ward grow new placentas that grow above their incubators like mushrooms, and the people in the hospital eat them; a girl's scar burrows into her face and then eats her whole body from the inside out, sucking her into a void born of her own flesh.
These things are grotesque and weird and potentially just silly, but Ito somehow manages to pull it off, partly through exquisite pacing, and partly with his breathtaking draughtsmanship. Uzumaki demands empathy for its victims, and aims for maximum distress. It follows through, every time. Each little story makes you wonder what the worst possible thing to happen would be, and then comes up with at least that, and often something worse still, and the snail episode and the maternity ward episode are especially awful, relentless, even sadistic in the way that they wring the horror out of you.
The film version of Uzumaki, filmed as it was before the final chapters of the source material were even published, draws heavily from the first half of the series and although it wraps things up with an ending entirely its own, and which can't possibly have the ambition of Ito’s. It mixes things up a little, and while they're still basically discrete, and limited by obvious budget constraints, the stories remain faithful to the visual shocks of the comic. The director, Higuchinsky, is one of those filmmakers who started out in ads and music videos, and you can sort of see that, since the visual element trumps things like plot and performance.

The soundtrack is all over the place: the music veers between Horror! Music! and Romantic Music and all the places inbetween, and it's intrusive and distracting. I can't speak for the dialogue; while textually the subtitles are pretty bland and declarative, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the translation of the version I have (the 2003 UK DVD release from Artsmagic/Eastern Cult Cinema) is quite bad. For example, towards the beginning, there's a part where Kirie (Eriko Hatsune, now something of a film heavyweight, in her debut) greets Shuichi (Korean model Fhi Fan, in his only film role) and she speaks for a solid three seconds, and the subtitle text reads only “Hi!”And that may be because there are certain things in context that you just can't translate... but I can't help thinking that the dialogue in the film Uzumaki is just a little... bland.
So many extreme closeups.
The whole film has this heavy green tint, which darkens the daylight horrors it depicts – the thing looks a bit like it's filmed through a day-for-night filter, even the daytime parts – but which also gives you an approximation of the experience of watching a black and white film without it being in black and white. I think that's deliberate, an attempt to get across the feel of the source material.

But notwithstanding the obvious fact that Uzumaki is a rushed, wobbly, inconsistently acted and cheap horror made to exploit a market, I think in terms of basic feel, it succeeds. My experience with Uzumaki at least speaks to that a little: I saw the movie once in about 2009, and first got hold of the comic in 2014, when I was working on a videogame project that used it as an inspiration. I remember reading it once, and thinking how familiar the snail boy, the girl with the hair, the horrendous death of Kirie’s stalker, and the terrible fate of Shuichi’s family were. Revisiting both for this piece, I realised I'd been fooled: the film had shown some of the gut-churning absurdities of the comic, certainly enough for me to recognise them a good five years later, but it had mediated them for the most part, either showing them briefly, filtering them through grainy in-film taped footage, or presenting them as still images, the better to disguise the film’s dependence on cheap CGI. Cheap CGI is the worst, most obvious sort of effect you can have, and anything to draw your attention away from it and highlight some decent practical effects is fine by me.
Mediation.
And the difference is of course that on the page, the image lingers as long as you look at it, and while Ito’s horrors make me turn the page as fast as I can, generally, they're there to be gazed at, pored over, and returned to. And there's the issue of representation as well. Most comics, even the most photorealistic and painterly ones, are drawn images: your brain tells you that this is a representation of the thing. Photography, especially moving photography, works differently, and we respond to it in a slightly different way, CGI and all, and while Uzumaki filmed is still the closest to a visual horror comic you'll get. It frames its images in the jagged, distorted way, with its asymmetrical compositions and deliberate lens distortion that doesn't so much look like a comic book as look like how filmmakers signify that they're representing a comic book. Uzumaki even uses a montage of stills at the end, which suggest the breakdown of film into the state of comic book, a collapse back into the source material.
It's full of image compositions like this.
Both film and comic are associative, they explore the idea of human identity and physicality being subverted by an abstract form without any concrete meaning. The manifestations of the spiral insinuate themselves into every place they can. The spiral is unlike other geometric forms: both looser, messier than other shapes, and yet present in the biology and physics of nature. You start looking for spirals, you begin to see them everywhere. It's in our DNA.

And this is why the absurdities of Uzumaki are so potentially disturbing. In Uzumaki, the shape of the world turns against us,even to the extent of making our own hair, fingertips and cochleas turn against us. I described Uzumaki as Lovecraftian, and I suppose that Lovecraft’s aliens work in a similar way to Ito's abstract horrors, in that Lovecraft assigns to his gods and monsters the twisted forms of nature (usually marine) – Cthulhu and company are all fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, marine invertebrates. The difference is of course that Lovecraft didn't care about people, and didn't have the empathy to see that human nature subverted is a terrible thing. In Uzumaki, human nature is the driving force, the focus. These are human horrors, and if there weren't people here, there wouldn't be a horror (as opposed to Lovecraft’s monsters who often just carry on regardless of whether people get in the way or not). The spiral of DNA, of the cochlea, of the fingerprint whorl, of curled hair, these things are in fact the access through which humans return to a nature that grinds them up, sucks out their life, twists them. It's a very Japanese apocalypse, in that kindness and decency don't avail us anything (see Ring).
In the later episodes of Ito’s manga, the spiral brings on a natural disaster and then a final apocalyptic erasure of human form and identity. We see people resorting to a sort of cannibalism – and even Kirie, who feels there is no other way, partakes – and others transformed into mindless animal forms or reduced to masses of tangled flesh. Finally, the only way out is surrender, surrender to the shape of everything. The film doesn't have the ending to work with, and couldn't have pulled it off anyway, so it just stops really, hinting at the apocalyptic but not really getting there. But the point is the same, that human identity is fragile, that we are at the mercy of nature, and nature has no mercy.

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