Today we tackle one of my most beloved of Japanese cult films, Ryuhei Kitamura's Versus. Kitamura went on to direct some other very cool films (I happen to love Sky High--and no, that's not the film about the superhero kids at school...) and is best known to American audiences for his work adapting Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train a few years back. However, amongst hardcore splatter fans and cult Japanese cinephiles, I think Versus is his most revered work.
I first stumbled on to it back in late 2000 or early 2001. I was a frequent customer at San Francisco's Le Video (one of the greatest video stores on Earth...) and the guy behind the counter saw me walk in and immediately told me I had to watch this movie. What he handed me was a bootleg version of Versus (because we were still a ways off from Tokyo Shock getting around to releasing it on DVD at that point--hardly anyone here had ever even heard of the film). I took it home, popped it in, watched it all (and you know it's a great bootleg when the movie runs just over two hours and someone dubbed it at SP speed and it cuts off the last minute or so of the credits) and was immediately in love.
Jump past the break, where I'll regale you with tales of why I was so smitten.
Versus was like the films I used to think about making when I was a younger guy--movies inspired by Hong Kong action cinema merged with Japanese culture and featuring samurai, yakuza gangsters, zombies, gore and the supernatural filmed in a hyper-stylized fashion that made you not care that sometimes the plot veered off course because you were too busy having a blast. Kitamura's film is easily at least twenty minutes longer than it needs to be--but it doesn't matter because I'd rather have too much of a good thing than not enough.
The film's got an odd story that spans centuries (but is almost entirely set in the present) about two men (Tak Sakaguchi and Hideo Sakaki) who meet up to do battle over a woman in the Forest of Resurrection (one of the 666 portals to Hell scattered across the Earth). Humanity's fate hangs in the balance as Sakaguchi must protect a girl (Chieko Masaka) from Sakaki and his band of resurrected yakuza zombies. What ensues is two hours of over-the-top gore and action featuring katanas, guns, martial arts, and a cast of unforgettable characters (particularly Kenji Matsuda, who plays a wacked out yakuza with a penchant for butterfly knives).
Versus has no shortage of scenes worthy of discussion in a "Death Scenes We Love" piece (Sakaguchi slaughters a horde of zombies with a katana in the opening scene, Sakaki devours a human heart later), but my favorite happens at around the one hour mark. Sakaguchi and Masaka are on the run in the forest. Sakaki has unleashed his band of super zombies (they're stronger than the normal zombies wandering around the Forest of Resurrection) and our two protagonists run into one of them. Sakaguchi and this crazy-haired zombie battle it out hand-to-hand. Sakaguchi emerges victorious, but things get way worse for his opponent when Sakaki shows up...
Displeased with his minion's performance, Sakaki punches the zombie in the head, his fist going cleanly through and out the back of his skull. He then yanks his hand back out, peers through the hole in the direction of the camera (in something straight out of a Sam Raimi film) and then notices that the zombie's eyes are still stuck between his fingers. It's a memorable sequence because the special effects work is well-executed (as it is in all of the film. Versus didn't have a large budget and relied on practical FX work and lots of wires for stunts as opposed to elaborate--and hokey looking--CGI) and suitably gross, but the scene is also funny in a dark way. Watching the stoically cool Sakaki have to shake his hand to dislodge the eyes is an amusing change of pace from what we've come to expect from him this far in the film. It's sort of a subtle way of showing that while his character is very powerful, things still might not go the way he intends them to go.
If you've never seen Versus, I really can't recommend it enough. It's got everything I look for on movie night here at Casa de Bracken--gore, action, yakuza, zombies, badass characters, swords, guns, samurai, and more. Check out the clip below (which starts at the Sakaguchi/zombie showdown and goes past Sakaki's classic headpunch before it ends) for a taste of Versus' considerable charms.