I'm a fan of Ryuhei Kitamura. I'm not quite so interested in his films, but the man himself sounds mad, with strong opinions on filmmaking. As a child, he'd go to the cinema and watch movies all day from morning to night. After thinking about what he'd like to do with his life, one day in high school he stood up in class and told his teacher, "I quit. I'm going to be a film director. Goodbye." A week later he was in Australia, applying for film school. Today he's making movies both in Japan and in Hollywood, despite the fact that he had to self-finance his early movies and in particular spent two years making Versus with no other source of income. Time to quote the guy (who speaks fluent English, by the way):
"Until I made Versus I was so frustrated with Japanese films, because the industry didn't make entertainment movies anymore. It was always love stories, or family stories, or something about finding yourself. I don't deny them, they're okay, but there weren't any other options. Maybe there were a few edgy, violent movies, but nothing in the middle. The pure entertainment movies didn't exist until I made Versus. Especially action movies. Producers told me they couldn't make money with action movies, they felt Hollywood and Hong Kong were better at it than the Japanese. I disagreed and since no producers would back me up, I decided to make movies independently. I used my own money and took the risk of making Versus. [...] It was tough, but we were really happy to be doing it. I was really confident that by making the film completely my own way - I was writing, producing, in control of everything - Hollywood would call me. Even though everybody in the Japanese film industry ignored me, I had 100% confidence that Hollywood would call me."
I'd agree with all that, by the way. Japanese cinema in 2000 feels much more niche and narrow-casted than, say, Korean cinema. You've got (a) mind-boggling freakshows, (b) strange little straight-to-video films with very little plot and (c) sentimental nonsense. Admittedly they produced one insanely huge international hit that year, Battle Royale, and that's one of the world's films of the decade, but even that you couldn't call mainstream. Ten years later, today they're in much better shape.
Where I part company with him is in his assessment of Versus. Oh, it was a hit. It made a splash both internationally (which Kitamura had expected) and domestically (which took him completely by surprise). This film has a far higher profile than apparently similar contemporaries like Junk
or Wild Zero
. Three years later he'd shoehorned his way into the A-league, directing the biggest Japanese movie of 2003 (Azumi). It made his name and he earned it. However at the same time I can't see Versus as being less cult or extreme than the likes of Uzumaki
, Ringu 0: Birthday
or Takashi Miike. He'd hit the post-Ringu horror wave, after all. What makes Versus special is its influences. Kitamura's drawing on Hong Kong action movies, The Evil Dead, Mad Max, The Terminator
, James Cameron, John Carpenter... it's the 1980s all over again. It's everything Kitamura wanted to see in a movie, hopped to the eyeballs on adrenalin and busting its guts to be the most awesome thing you've ever seen.
For a start, it's not really horror. Okay, it is, but it isn't. It's got zombies, gore and a ton of killing, but basically it's an action movie. Imagine a Hong Kong kung fu film directed by Sam Raimi. We're talking raw young early-eighties Raimi here. Nothing as mainstream as Big Trouble in Little China, but instead a ton of energy and a willingness to goof off. Throw in also a dash of 1980s Peter Jackson. That's what Kitamura's aiming for. The cast are doing something between acting and posing, with deliberately ridiculous gunplay and cool leather trenchcoat swirling. Kenji Matsuda is going so far over the top as the yakuza with a butterfly knife that he enters that realm of Mega-Acting you normally associate with Nicolas Cage. Zombies can fly, do thirty-foot somersaults and use guns. It's so ludicrous that it's brilliant.
Over to Kitamura... "The inspiration for Versus came from the films of the 80s, Sam Raimi movies, John Carpenter movies, George Miller movies. Everything I like: zombies, gun fighting, kung fu fighting, sword fighting. I wanted to do car action too, because I love Mad Max so much, but I didn't have enough money for it (laughs). So aside from car action, everything is in there."
The cast and crew had so much fun making this that Kitamura deliberately didn't do a proper ending, hoping they'd get to make a sequel. (After a fashion they even got their wish, thanks to extensive reshoots in 2004 that produced a 153-minute extended edition called Ultimate Versus.) Instead the ending jumps forward 99 years to a Terminator-like future. When this film's on form, it's laugh-out-loud awesome. The FBI hunter fighter dog breeder is a scream. The title is perfect, since the film's at its best when it's nothing but Versus. 1. samurai vs. zombies. 2. samurai vs. buddhist priest. 3. yakuza vs. escaped convicts. 4. dead yakuza vs. living yakuza. You get the idea. It's silly, flamboyant, insanely macho and pure distilled entertainment.
That's when it's at its best, mind you. I didn't watch Ultimate Versus, but even so this is still a two-hour film. You can't keep that up for two hours. Specifically the second half's not as good as the first. We have a plot, a villain who's less silly than the earlier yakuza and a female character who isn't devouring chunks of the set every time she delivers dialogue. You start noticing that she's not a particularly good actress, whereas with everyone else that's an irrelevant consideration. Admittedly the movie remains watchable and often very entertaining, but it's a non-trivial problem to lose Awesome-Power since this isn't the kind of film you watch for plot, characterisation, themes, subtext or realistic acting.
That said, some of the actors here did go on to have proper careers. Kenji Matsuda can be seen in other films, although alas in most of them probably showing more sanity. Then there's our hero Tak Sakaguchi, who's done remarkably well for himself given that Kitamura first saw him beating someone up in the street and told him he should be in movies. (The second time they met, Kitamura was smashing a German's head into a table at a party.) Anyway, back then Sakaguchi was just a streetfighter, albeit a famous one who knows Bajiquan, Shaolin Kenpo, boxing, kick boxing and mixed martial arts, and has fought a crocodile, a bear and a bull. Three guesses as to whether he's ever needed a stuntman in his movies. However he's now also a writer-director.
It's a rough film. It's obviously just a bunch of guys with gore effects in the woods. It's got the same guerilla filmmaking energy as his 1997 Down to Hell
, to which it was originally going to be a sequel, although obviously it's also far bigger and more flamboyant. However it's got a sense of humour (e.g. the gag about Sakaguchi knocking out Chieko Misaka) and you certainly can't fault its energy.
Overall, I didn't love this as much as it probably sounds as if I do. The second half isn't as non-stop roller-coaster as the first half, although in fairness that's partly because Kitamura's starting to do classical chambara. Yup, we also have samurai. This is a very male film. It's trumping Hong Kong at its own game, while also being utterly Japanese. It's also pretty much an empty vessel, being the very definition of sound and fury. Don't expect to engage your brain. It's riding its own energy, basically, just about making it to the end of the film in spite of a complete lack of... no, that's unfair. There's some eye-catching camerawork, for instance, with a spinning camera that's effectively creating 3D out of nothing and some great-looking zombies coming out of the sunlit trees. You'll be dizzy, but you'll be impressed.
Stylish nonsense with outrageous non-stop action and mega-gore. Action film buffs should hire the DVD within the next thirty seconds. If nothing else, you'll see get to zombies with their arses on fire.