Posts Tagged ‘Uzumaki’

Think of every childhood monster you thought might be in your closet or under your bed or anywhere else a monster might hide during the day. What did your child-self know about the monster? Probably only that it was big, that it only came out at night and wanted to eat/kill you, and that maybe only the nightlight kept it away. Perhaps there were certain details, like fur or scales or whatever, but that was the extent of it. You didn’t know if the monster had any weaknesses, or where it came from, or why it chose your closet/bed/whatever. The monster just was, it wanted you, and you were only able to keep it away during the day. And it terrified you.

Now perhaps as a young child, you simply weren’t capable of thinking that any of that other stuff might exist for your monster. But if you confronted a creature like that as an adult, a monster where all you knew about it was its location, its active period, and its diet of humans, but nothing else, you’d be freaked. Because a monster is scary, but a monster that you don’t know how to fight is even scarier.

And that can be applied to nearly any antagonist in horror. The less is revealed about it, the scarier it is.

Case in point: vampires. When I first learned about vampires, my knowledge of what they were was limited to that they came out at night and didn’t like the sun, that they drank human blood (which could sometimes create other vampires), and that they could turn into bats. For a few years, that was all I knew about vampires, and they terrified me. If I ever came upon one, the only recourse I had was to try and survive till daylight, or I was dead! But when I found out that vampires were susceptible to stakes, garlic, crosses, and required invitations into private residences, they became a little less scary. Why? Because they were easier to deal with, and things that are easy to deal with are less terrifying than those that aren’t easy to deal with.

Contrast that with many of the works of the manga artist Junji Ito. I’ve had the opportunity to look at a bunch more of his work since reading his masterpiece Uzumaki (read my review of the manga here, as well as my review of the film adaptation here), and his works rarely tell us the hidden history or how to deal with the monsters featured within. He only gives us enough of a look to get the modus operandi of the monster, and then weaves the story around that. One of his works, Tomie, revolves around an immortal girl whose beauty often drives people to murder her/for her, and who keeps coming back to life no matter how much you kill her. We never get a full explanation of how she is able to do that. Is she some sort of genetic aberration? An undead creature brought back by a grudge? Ito doesn’t tell us, and forces the reader to wonder at the possibilities, as well as how much is being kept from us about these mysterious monsters.

Tomie, one of Junji Ito’s signature characters.

And that is terrifying. And Ito is well aware of that. He knows that the less you know about an antagonist, the more possibilities there are, and that makes the horror more effective. And not just Ito: HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, Adan Ranie, and other horror authors, including me, are well aware that adding a bit more mystery to our horror stories, and not letting the readers see beneath the proverbial hood of the monster, heightens the fear the reader will feel.

And this is the main reason why I was disappointed with Alien: Covenant this past weekend, as well as the catalyst for this post. Granted, that movie had a number of problems, but one thing that Covenant and its predecessor Prometheus both do is try to give an origin story to the films’ real stars, the Xenomorphs. When it comes to antagonists in horror getting origin stories, it’s on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of the Xenomorphs, I’ve actually come to dislike the idea of giving them an origin story. Part of their power is that, even for man-eating monsters, they’re so divorced from what humans perceive as normal. In fact, the name Xenomorph means “strange form,” and it’s that strangeness that makes them so terrifying and iconic.

So when Prometheus and Covenant try to explain them to us in origin stories, they put them in contexts that we can understand, robbing Xenomorphs of what makes them so amazing. Granted, it’s a question everyone who’s seen the original films has asked at some point: “Where do the Xenomorphs come from?” But it’s not a question that has to be answered. The fact that they had such a shady origin to them was part of their mystique, causing our minds to wander and wonder if maybe, somewhere in that until origin story, there’s a dark truth out there waiting to make us wet our pants. And now, that sense of wonder is gone, because these movies have given us an origin that, rather than being dark and terrifying, is at times confusing and at other times lame.

What I’m trying to get at is that sometimes–not all the time, but a significant portion of the time–you don’t need to reveal everything about your monster. Sometimes, keeping some mystery around adds more to the story, and keeps the source of our terror effective. And in a horror story, keeping things terrifying is one of the most important aspects of horror storytelling.

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Back in January, I read and reviewed Uzumaki, a Japanese manga by Junji Ito about a small town that comes under a curse centering the idea of a spiral. It was as scary as it was out there (see my review here), and I had mentioned that I would like to get my hands on the film version and see how that compared. Well, some Amazon gift cardd money and a lost package later, I finally watched Uzumaki today. So how does it compare to the manga, andd how does it hold up as a film in general?

Well, it definitely ties down the strangeness of the manga. Uzumaki, like I said, is an out there story, and the film does a very good job of bringing that forth, using odd camera angles, weird visuals, and strange little special effect touches to really add an atmosphere of unreality to the film. There’s this one moment where two characters are walking down a hallway, and they pass a bunch of people standing against the walls just staring at their shoes, and neither character notices the people on the walls, or vice versa. It’s very odd, and kind of unsettling.

I also thought the actors did a very good job. The characters aren’t that multifaceted, but for an hour and a half movie, they work.

Unfortunately, that’s where the film’s biggest problem is: time. The film is an exact 91 minutes, and that means there’s only so much room to tell a story. And unfortunately, with a large story like that of Uzumaki, there’s only so much material that can be done. The end result makes the film feel kind of lacking. In the manga, you get the full scope of this curse. In the film, it feels more like a weird series of events with only mild connections, like walking to work everyday and seeing someone different each day do a dance at a different part of your walk. You might think it’s a weird and there’s a common cause, but your might not go out of your way to find out why this is happening. And that’s where the film ultimately fails.

I also found that some of the edits to the film are a bit more distracting than they should be. There’s one moment where they do a transition that looks like someone’s spray-painting a new scene into the film, and they use a cartoon-y sound effect to go with it. Not that scary. There’s another moment where a girl puts out a cigarette on a wall, and there’s a mini-explosion from the crushed cigarette’s tip. Um…why? It makes no sense. I know this film is going for that surreal sense of horror, but there’s a limit to what you can do without going into goofy territory.

I honestly think that if you’re going to adapt Uzumaki, you should do it as a TV miniseries rather than a movie. That leaves enough room for not only all the material that was cut from the film for time, but gives us more opportunity to get to know the characters and see them react to the strange events going on around them. And you know, I honestly would like to see that. With TV miniseries making a comeback on cable and series with shorter episode orders like American Horror Story being so successful, I honestly think an Uzumaki adaptation for TV would do very well.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Uzumaki‘s film adaptation a 3.2 out of 5. Great at atmosphere and creating a sense of unreality, but too short to really leave a lasting impression. Honestly, you’re going to be better off reading the original manga, so go check that out and get lost in the spiral there instead.

I love manga and anime, but I often have trouble getting my hands on horror manga and anime that is actually scary. I’ve found plenty with ghosts, zombies, homunculi, serial killers, and death games, to name a few, but often they’re mixed with other genres to make them more palatable for non-horror fans. Other times I have heard of a scary one, but I can’t get my hands on it (still trying to get my hands on Corpse Party), and other times I just don’t know of some series that I should. So when I actually hear and find some manga or anime that is actually scary, I rejoice. Case in point, Uzumaki by Junji Ito, who is considered one of the greatest horror manga artists from Japan, and it shows in this series.

Uzumaki literally translates into “spiral,” which is the essence of the manga. The story follows Kirie Goshima, a teenage girl living in the town of Kurozou-cho. One day, her boyfriend Shuichi tells her that his father has become obsessed with spiral shapes, to the point that he is losing his grip on reality. This leads to a gruesome series of events that reveal a curse upon the town and the surrounding area, a curse involving spirals, spirals that hypnotize and entrance, spirals that terrify and excite, spirals natural and unnatural. And once the curse sets in, it doesn’t let go.

From the very beginning, Uzumaki is quite extraordinary. Ito illustrates with  incredible attention to detail, which in a horror manga  is necessary if you really want to convey a sense of terror. I mean, look at the imagery below.

Holy crap, that is both well-drawn and scary! You can see every detail, how much  work is put into each stroke of ink to make the imagery look realistic despite being an illustration. And the best part is, Ito is not concerned with aesthetic beauty. You look at most animation, and it’s meant to be pleasing to the eye. To be cool, or pretty, or adorable. Ito doesn’t concern himself with that. He’s concerned with just making you squirm, and he does that so well with his illustrations.

And on top of that, his storytelling abilities are great. Unlike other horror stories, the horror is based on abstract concepts. A geometric shape, the spiral, is what we’re supposed to be afraid of. You’d never think a spiral shape like the one below would be scary, but Ito uses his illustrations, storytelling, and the turn of a page to weave this frightening tale where we’re forced along to find out what happens, fining stranger and stranger things on the succeeding pages. And best of all, Ito just takes things in the most unexpected directions, inserting the spiral into strange places we normally wouldn’t see it. I won’t say what happens, but things like snails or pregnant women get matched with the spiral, and it becomes terrifying. It’s made even better that you don’t actually get a lot of explanation. With ghosts or vampires, you get a mythology on how they work and how to deal with them. In Uzumaki, Ito leaves it up to the imagination as to what’s happening. It’s very unnerving in a Lovecraftian sense to see how this town becomes part of some strange curse around a geometric shape, and never get an explanation.

Doesn't look scary at first. Wait and see.

Doesn’t look scary at first. Wait and see.

If there is one criticism I have, it’s that the people of the town don’t really come to terms with what’s going on as fast as they should. At a certain point, it becomes impossible not to face what’s happening in the town, but up until then, there are plenty of signs that something’s up, and not one of the main characters realize they have to get up and get out before it’s too late. Even the guy who’s constantly saying they should leave doesn’t. At least make an attempt!

But other than that, Uzumaki is a terrifying story of cosmic horror that takes something harmless and give it a weird, disturbing form that will surely stay with you for a while after you finish reading it. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Uzumaki a 4.8 out of 5. If you enjoy horror and don’t mind visual reading like comic books and manga, definitely check out Uzumaki. I’m glad I did, and I will try to track down the move version as soon as possible. Because after seeing these sorts of pictures, I’m curious as to how they’re translated into the cinematic world.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear. Pleasant nightmares.