It's Ryuhei Kitamura's contribution to the Duel Project, in which Kitamura and another director (Yukihiko Tsutsumi) each accepted a challenge to make a movie in a week. Yes, alcohol was involved. These were the rules:
1. only 2-3 characters
2. a duel to the death
3. low-budget and shot in seven days in a single setting
This might not sound auspicious, but both films turned out far better than you'd think. They're short, but that's not a problem. Tsutsumi's 2LDK
involves two flatmates and is all the more brutal for them being girls. Kitamura's, on the other hand, unfortunately has samurai. I'm not much of a samurai fan, but to my surprise, this is great.
The secret ingredient, of course, is Kitamura. This is the director of the insane action film Versus
, after all, except that I far preferred Aragami. Versus
is berserk non-stop mayhem. It's a laugh, but it never lets up and it's meaningless except in proving that the Japanese film industry can do action like Hong Kong if it really wants to.
Here, though, Kitamura's being forced to be more focused. Everything takes place in a single location and there are only two combatants, so he can't get too self-indulgent with zombies, explosions, thousand-strong armies, etc. This makes the film far stronger. We begin with two samurai (Takao Osawa and Hideo Sakaki) taking shelter at a temple in the rain. Unfortunately for them, they also have arrows sticking out of them. On getting inside, they immediately collapse. One of the two (Osawa) later wakes up, surprisingly, and finds himself being offered food and courteous conversation by the temple's inhabitants: Masaya Kato, a samurai, and Kanae Uotani, a creepy woman who doesn't talk.
This is where I started getting nervous. I knew what I was watching, you see. I knew that Osawa and Kato would soon start hacking each other to pieces, but I couldn't see for the life of me how Kitamura was going to make this happen. Kato is urbane, forgiving and the perfect host. Osawa is a bit short of social graces, but he's honest enough. I liked them both. I didn't want to see this pleasant situation turn bad.
The weird thing though is that it doesn't turn bad. The big game-changer in the conversation made me laugh out loud, but the best part is that nothing in the world can dent Kato's friendliness. He wants Osawa to attack him. He's happy to give advice on weapons and how to use them, e.g. pulling back the hammer on the gun. He'll call a drinks break in mid-battle and use it to offer Osawa yet more exotic foreign beverages (if you're a samurai). Last time, he got out French wine. This time, it's Russian vodka. Of course he warns Osawa that it's strong, but it's still a very funny moment when Osawa tries to gulp it down in one.
Osawa, on the other hand, is a simple soul whose head can't handle this. He quite likes Kato, despite the "duel to the death" bit, but he's going to end up thinking him a monster.
This is a movie of two layers. The first is a controlled, subtle film of restraint, conversations and character work. Tarantino would recognise this. These scenes are the ones that get internet idiots saying "if they had just tore into each other in a brutal show of skill the film would have been so much better". These dark, strange and often very funny conversations are what makes the film live and breathe, putting meat underneath the action when the swords come out.
However, at the same time, Kitamura lives and breathes action. It's in his bones. He knows when to get the music thumping and the blades swinging. What he's doing here will make you laugh out loud just as hard the conversations did, unless you're some kind of freak who thinks violence is wrong.
I'm a fan of the cast. Osawa, Kato and Uotani all have the perfect faces for their roles, if that's not a shallow comment. They're great at the action stuff, but at the same time these are huge, intense roles that keep both actors centre-stage throughout and give neither of them anywhere to hide. Both more than live up to the challenge. There's also a Tak Sakaguchi cameo, although not a big enough one for him to use his martial arts.
I'm half-expecting this to be Kitamura's best film, although there's still plenty of room for him to surprise me since all I've seen of his filmography so far is Down to Hell
(1997) and Versus
(2000). I love what the enforced tight focus has done for him as a storyteller. I love this film's charm and good humour. I love its wit. Osawa and Kato are spot on. The fantasy elements work. It's one of those rare perfect films, in that I don't think there's a single thing I'd change about it. Of course it's still action nonsense, but it's a classy example of the genre.