Uzumaki and Horror Technique

I’m nearly done with my next editorial, but I just got to see Uzumaki last week, and I just had to do a quick review, with a gaming tie in.

Uzumaki, for those not interested in checking out the link, is a Japanese horror film with surreal, almost Lovecraftian undertones. Based originally off of a manga, and directed by music video veteran Higuchinsky, Uzumaki is the tale of a run-of-the-mill small Japanese town, the population of which is gradually developing a sense of obsession for spirals. (For those, like me, who don’t sling the lingo, “uzumaki” is Japanese for “spiral”.)

The tale centers around two close friends and would-be lovers, Goshima Kirie, and Saito Shuichi. Shuichi’s father has turned his back on his family, friends and job to pursue his collection of spirals in their many forms. Ultimate he ends his life in a spectacularly spiraled fashion, and that seems to be the triggering point for the infection to leave his body and spread throughout the town. People manifest the spiral manifestation varying ways, from those who simply like to stare at the spirals, to those who style their hair to be a mass of living spirals, to those who become strange man/snail hybrids with spiraled snail shells.

I’m of mixed opinions about what I thought about the movie. On the one hand it had a lot of good mood. The acting was decent. (Or, at least, it seemed decent. Hard to judge when you don’t speak the language.) But the pacing was very slow. It was like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in half the time. Also, there’s no explanation about what’s going on. I thought I’d figured it out at one point, but they killed off the only character pursuing that story arc, it was never really picked up again, and then the snail people showed up and shot my theory all to hell.

The other big criticism for the movie is that this is the director’s first movie. Prior to this he’d been doing music videos for years, and it kind of shows. Every scene has about fifty different unusual camera angles used in it. Some of it is really cool. Some of it is just a little excessive.

However, the one thing that kept coming to mind as I was watching this movie was, “Man, this has some great seeds for a Cthulhu adventure!” They play around with some tricks and ideas that I thought really work well for horror, and managed to suitably freak out my girlfriend.

The first is the use of the horribly mundane as a tool of evil. They certainly aren’t the first to use it, but they highlight it pretty well. When you have something very everyday being the instrument of evil, it starts to make the players a little twitchy. Whether it’s spirals in the case of Uzumaki, a static-filled television in Poltergeist, or a telephone in Scream, you become conditioned to connect the object with something bad, and even benign instances of the object contain a certain degree of menace.

Here’s an example you can use in a game: Citizens throughout a town are being found in a catatonic state in front of their televisions, their eyes rigidly locked open and staring at the screen. The players don’t really know why this is happening, simply that there’s this point of commonality.

As more people find themselves in this situation, have the investigators begin to notice TVs more. Point out every time a television is on in a room they enter. It doesn’t matter if there’s anything creepy happening on or with the TV. Simply comment on it. Point out when they pass stores with televisions in the display windows. Have TVs turn on randomly. It could be for any reason, whether it’s a cat accidentally stepping on a remote control, or a neighbor’s remote accidentally controlling the TV without the neighbor realizing it.

If they don’t get creeped out by that, if they choose to just ignore it and go on with their lives, figuring (rightly) that you’re just doing it to mess with their heads, have bad things happen when they don’t pay attention. Have one of the players come to his senses in a hospital, after spending time in catatonia. Give him post-hypnotic suggestions, or strange memories of a life spent in an ancient and cyclopean city.

Another interesting aspect from Uzumaki is that they never really explain what’s going on, outside of the rather unhelpful comment that a spiral is taking over the town. Not a spiral shaped monster, but just the concept of a spiral. No explanations of why a spiral is taking over the town, or anything like that. Simply that there’s a spiral taking over. And while it was frustrating as all hell, I thought it was kinda neat as well: Sometimes there just aren’t any answers. Or if there are, you’ll never find them out.

And that just messes with your head. In many games you expect to have stuff revealed to you. This moment of enlightenment when the plot clicks together, and you know what’s going on. Scooby and the gang unmask the creepy ghoul, it’s Old Man Cruthers, and all the clues fit.

But what if nothing fits? What if the investigators go through all this peril, escape with their lives, and come out of the situation no wiser than when they went in. In fact, they’re even more confused. They thought they had clues to what was ultimately going on, but then new facts come in that either contradict, or have no relevance to anything else they’d thought of.

As a creative exercise, run a game where stuff is just freaky, scary, and you have no central story. Just random and creepy events. It’s surreal, the players barely survive with their skin and minds intact, they are certain that there must be some central thing behind it all, but in the end, it was designed solely for the purpose of warping their minds. Let them pursue it all they want, but just never give them any reliable answers. See how nuts the players go.

If you’re interested in seeing Uzumaki, you can try a big Web site like MoviePhone, or you may try checking out independent papers for your area. The theater we saw it at was too small to be on the big movie listings, and we only knew about show times because we picked up a free publication about show times for small artsy theaters. For the manga, you could pick it up at Powells and maybe give The Shoggoth Network some kickbacks.

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