One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead was a highlight of the recent Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne, and possibly my favourite film of the year. It’s a budget horror flick, a movie about movie-making, and a sweet story about the shared love of things that can bring people together.

Opening with Director Higurashi making a low budget zombie movie in a spooky abandoned facility, the film quickly takes a turn as the cast find themselves under attack by “real” zombies. He sees this as an opportunity to get genuine emotion and real horror from his cast so he will not stop shooting and actually pushes the actors into more peril. Bloody, profanity laden, decidedly B movie, unintentionally funny, the story speeds to its conclusion. All in one epic 37 minute take. But then the clock winds back and we get to see how Higurashi and his crew came to be in this place, all the planning and preparation for their movie, and what motivated them to do it. And finally, Ueda takes us back to the day of filming, but this time we see the things happening on and off camera and what that means for Higurashi and co.

The director Higurashi is completely over the top, threatening his performers and demanding they keep filming even when their life may be at risk. He has one shot at making the film and will do what it takes to deliver. I really enjoyed Takayuki Hamatsu’s performance as he would swing from politely earnest to literally spitting with rage and back, all in the service of his film. His relationship with his sulky teenaged daughter Mao (played by Mao) and retired actress wife Nao (Shuhama Harumi), who are both on the set, gives the film an unexpected sweetness amidst all the gore and dismemberments.

Akiyama Yuzuki and Nagaya Kazuaki play Chintatsu and Ko, the stars of the film. I enjoyed their deliberately bad acting in the movie within the movie, and the contrast with their vacuous celebrity sides. When things started to go awry they were the least prepared and therefore, among the funniest. Shuhama Harumi’s Nao is a walking cliché in some respects, intoning warnings and urban legends straight out of every other horror movie. Her hobby and practical application of her skills almost brought the house down, and her character really comes to life in the latter part of the film. The rest of the cast includes stock types like the has-been actor who drinks to steady his nerves, the goofy AD who never challenges an order, the finicky cameraman, and his enthusiastic assistant who just wants a chance to try her style.

Things move at a frenetic pace but there are beats where you can simply enjoy what’s going on before plunging back into the thick of it. I was constantly delighted by small details like the appearance of a hankie wiping blood spatter off a lens as the cameraman gamely ran in pursuit of a screaming actor and zombie.

The narrative structure is brilliant and the editing is timed to perfection. Things that looked like bad acting or glitches in the movie might later be seen in a different light and instead make you want to cheer for this game little bunch of movie crazy people. The jokes were sometimes funnier from the second perspective too, which is quite an achievement. Dolly Parton once said it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. Ueda Shinichiro has managed to make a highly technical and polished film look like it was made on a shoestring, but in a good way. It’s a tribute to the spirit of making do.

I flinched, I groaned, I cheered, I laughed so hard I cried. If you can stand a lot of swearing and fake blood splashing around, see this.

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Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

The Japanese Film Festival is on in Melbourne and I’ve found lots of gems to enjoy in this year’s programme.

Yamazaki Takashi’s adaptation of Saigan Ryohei’s manga, Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari, is beautifully odd and charming.

Akiko (Takahata Mitsuki) moves to Kamakura after marrying Isshiki Masakazu (Sakai Masato), a popular author. The town is unusual, and there are supernatural creatures living alongside the human residents. Akiko is a high spirited and curious young woman, and she generally enjoys her new home and the strange goings on. However an entity from the underworld takes an uncomfortable interest in her, a bad luck god sneaks into the house, and things start to go very wrong. She is separated from her husband all too soon. But Masakazu is Kamakura born and bred, is matey with a grim reaper, and he finds a way to travel to the underworld to rescue Akiko’s spirit.

The film is as much a rom com as it is a fantasy. Akiko is quite a bit younger than her husband Masakazu, and she is worried she won’t be able to be a proper wife to a fancy author. He is a little worried about his precarious work situation, how she will settle in, and if she will be able to deal with the supernatural. They are both quirky characters and the actors sometimes go for energy over subtlety. But I was won over by their mutual affection and sense of fun. Sakai Masato is wry and charming, unless Masakuzu has a deadline. Then he becomes a panicky work avoiding child, obsessed with toy trains. Masakuzu also has a side line in helping the police with hard to solve cases, and they act as small episodes within the story, showing more about the village and how things operate between the communities.

Akiko learns some household tips from elderly and enigmatic Kin (Nakamura Tamao) and finds out more about the mysterious side of Kamakura. She is generous and impulsive, and that is both a curse and a blessing, quite literally. Takahata Mitsuki plays Akiko as wide eyed and a bit too perky, but she has an endearingly goofy energy that plays well off her co-stars. I particularly enjoyed the quieter scenes between the couple when they were just happy to be together, and the warm contentment was palpable. She wants to do the right thing for her husband and that gives her strength to make some hard choices. And when they are separated, she stays strong because she has faith in their love.

I liked Ando Sakura as the administratively overwhelmed and under-resourced grim reaper. It’s quite a change of pace from her amazing performance in Shoplifters (the film that had me crying in public at MIFF earlier this year). This grim reaper is kindly disposed towards humans, fancies clothes at the more garish end of the all black wardrobe spectrum, and seems to enjoy having local celeb Isshiki Masakuzu as a new friend. Masakuzu’s mate Honda (Shinichi Tsutsumi) strikes a deal with her and his story takes quite a turn. Again, his story is about family and regrets as much it is about magic or gods. The bad luck god Binbogami (Tanaka Min) is loud and blustering but develops a soft spot for Akiko who treats him like a welcome guest. Guests are god, after all.

The visual effects are often jawdroppingly lovely, and I think anyone would want to go to Kamakura as a result. Every shot counts, and some things that seem to be a bit of whimsy become more meaningful later in the film. Scenes at the Goblin Market were both magical and relatable, with a blend of real world and supernatural. Little creatures scuttle in the background, or ramble around in Akiko’s garden apparently unnoticed and unremarked. The yokai can look very elaborate and non-human, but some blend in quite well unless they choose to reveal themselves. The underworld is where the effects skills get a serious work out, creating a vast expanse of structures and landscapes with incredible detail. I love that they catch a train to get there, and the journey on the way in was gorgeous. Getting out was a bit less relaxed!

I was in the right mood for a feel good film with tons of charm, and this was perfect.

Branded to Kill (1967)

Made on a low budget and in no time at all, Branded to Kill (Koroshi No Rakuin) is a delirious and highly stylised gangland film about a killer who has a seriously bad trot at work. I was lucky enough to see this at one of the free screenings of classics at the Japanese Film Festival in Melbourne. And in a world going mad, why not add a bit more madness!

Funny, vicious, and daft by turns, Suzuki Seijun’s make it up as you go direction, the input of eight co-writers who all seem to have Ideas (the Hachiro Guryu), and Kimura Takeo’s strong visual sense make this a gripping and yet incredibly silly B movie. Some scenes were instantly recognisable due to homages in more recent films, and a little bit of creative license with the Bond franchise.

The film jolts along in a series of episodes to tell the story of Hanada (Shishido Joe), the Number 3 hitman. He would like to be Number 1, and is generally quite efficient and creative. But one day he is distracted by a butterfly landing on the barrel of his gun, and accidentally shoots an innocent bystander. He goes on the run, sometimes aided by death obsessed Misako and sometimes hindered by his wife Mami (Ogawa Mariko). Eventually Number 3 kills many other numbers, Number 1 is sent to kill Number 3. Number 1 must not take a lot of contracts. He likes to spend a lot of time on destroying his target’s spirit before he kills them so he moves in with Hanada. A ridiculous and suspenseful game of cat and mouse ensues.

The characters live in funky modern apartments and dress in conservative but very 60s fashion. Except Mami who is usually naked. I actually didn’t recognise her at first when I saw her with clothes on. They drive cars with fins and hang out at nightclubs. Misako (Mari Annu) is obsessed with death and fills her apartment with dead creatures, especially butterflies and birds. Hanada’s methods are effective and surprisingly entertaining. There’s a cool trick with shooting up a drainpipe and some nice work making his escape on top of a miniature hot air balloon. When Hanada has a breakdown the screen dissolves into stylised animated graphics showing his confusion and panic. And the music is jazzy and sometimes incongruously chipper. It’s a decidedly modern film, with the endless ranking of hitmen and underworld niceties one of the few nods to tradition that manifests.

Hanada is not a good man, or a particularly likeable one, but I found myself cheering him on at times. Shishido manages to be lugubrious and comedic at once, largely due to his chubby chipmunk face. He is obsessed with sex and the smell of boiled rice is his aphrodisiac of choice. Hanada and Mami seem to share a penchant for uncomfortable sex in precarious locations, and that is about it. She hooks up with his boss Yabuhara (Tamagawa Isao), and eventually tries to kill Hanada. She was probably cold and tired of shagging while dangling off the top of the staircase. And some of his habits were gross. That crop top may be one of his worst decisions among so many other really bad decisions. Hanada knows someone will come to kill him, but he isn’t Number 3 for nothing and he managed a spirited defence. Even in the midst of all the impending doom there are moments of bright joyfulness as when Hanada starts playfully chasing a balloon, and a few “ew!” moments like Number 1 going Number 1 because they hadn’t yet worked out a toilet protocol, or Misako basically being flame grilled. It’s quite a rollercoaster.

Misako is the opposite of Mami in many ways. She is passively waiting for death, and wants Hanada to kill her. She sleeps with him to seal the deal but he then decides he loves her so he won’t kill her even though she only submitted in order to get him to kill her. I tell you these people have issues. Misako’s apartment is littered with dead butterflies and birds, in a kind of goth twist on crazy cat lady syndrome. Mari Annu is deadpan and her eyeliner game is strong. She drifts through scenes as though she already knows how everything will end and doesn’t care. Ogawa Mariko is passionate, fiery, and always wanting more. They are so completely opposite that neither character seems at all real.

In a film made from improbable and inadvisable actions, I still have some questions. I can accept that perhaps a belt buckle may stop a bullet. I could just about accept that a ladies hairband might perhaps deflect a bullet. But I cannot accept that firing a gun from inside a car will not break the windscreen but still kill a man on the outside. And, if you were hiding from a hitman, would you drive a convertible with the top down? Was Hanada dangling upside down from the ceiling trying to shoot a sniper? Some things really deserve to be explained. But you’ll need to see it to believe it when it comes to the ending.

The film is bordering on insane and I can easily believe nobody knew what they were about to shoot. It’s such a mess but it is oh so assured, stylish, and bleakly funny. 3 ½ stars!