Director: Ryûhei Kitamura
Screenplay: Ryûhei Kitamura, Yudai Yamaguchi
Starring: Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka, Kenji Matsuda, Minoru Matsumoto, Yuichiro Arai, Kazuhito Ohba, Takehiro Katayama, Ayumi Yoshihara, Shôichirô Masumoto, Yukihito Tanikado, Hoshimi Asai
Running Time: 120 mins (theatrical) / 131 mins (Ultimate Versus)
Though coming out at the time of the big Japanese cinema boom in the late 90s/early 2000s, when there was a glut of ‘Asia extreme’ releases making their way West, Versus didn’t quite fit with the rest of the crowd. Although filled with gore and violence, it was an adrenaline-fuelled action movie more than a horror film or disturbing thriller.
There were very few flat-out action movies coming out of Japan back then, in fact. When shopping the idea around, producers told director Ryûhei Kitamura Japanese action movies could never be as good as American ones, due to budgetary constraints, and didn’t make money, so they wouldn’t back him. Undeterred, Kitamura just went and made the film independently instead.
Originally intending to make a sequel to his 45-minute award-winning low budget film Down to Hell, the idea spun off into its own film and became Versus. I can’t find precise details on how successful the film was at the box office, but it got noticed at film festivals and word of mouth spread, leading to Versus becoming somewhat of an immediate cult favourite among genre movie fans.
I was among those fans back in the early 2000s. The 21-year-old me that first saw it loved its non-stop carnage and stylish presentation. Fast-forward to 2020 and Arrow Video are releasing Versus in a 2-Blu-ray set. Now middle-aged and mellowed, I wondered if I would still appreciate the film, so I requested a copy to review.
Versus is not a film too concerned with plot, but there is one buried in amongst the violence. Supposedly there are 666 hidden gates on Earth that link our world to the afterlife and the 444th is situated in the ‘Forest of Resurrection’. Two escaped convicts (Tak Sakaguchi and Motonari Komiya) find themselves there, awaiting pickup by a mysterious yakuza boss (Hideo Sakaki). His goons arrive first, with a kidnapped woman (Chieko Misaka) in tow, and a standoff between the group ends in one member being shot. When this gangster soon rises from the dead, the motley crew find they are surrounded by the living dead in the forest and fight to survive.
Also adding fuel to the fire is the fact that one of the gang members has hired a trio of elite assassins (Takehiro Katayama, Ayumi Yoshihara and Hoshimi Asai) to kill his boss. Later on, we also meet more zombie-fodder when the two policemen (Yukihito Tanikado and Shôichirô Masumoto) who had been transporting the convicts appear on the scene.
Everyone spends the film either fighting each other or the zombies and we eventually learn why the boss brought the girl and one of the prisoners there, leading to an epic face-off.
Although I’d seen Versus before, I hadn’t seen Ultimate Versus, which Arrow have included in their 2-disc set. After the film was quite a big success, Kitamura, despite being busy with other projects that came in the wake of Versus, decided to polish up the film four years later.
There have been many cases of directors re-editing their films after release or using CGI to tweak them, but here Kitamura went back and shot a fair chunk of new footage to add to the film and amend poorly-done sequences, as well as altering the grade, effects and music. There’s even quite a lot of added action, which you wouldn’t think was necessary, due to the amount already in the original, but an extra scene with the assassins helps develop their characters a little more. The lead actor became the action choreographer in the reshoots too, bringing in more hand-to-hand martial arts sequences to the otherwise gun and swordplay-heavy film.
This tinkering with a film afterwards is often viewed as sacrilegious by fans, but with Versus’ original budget being pretty low and the shoot plagued by weather problems and other issues, I can understand Kitamura wanting to soften some of the rough edges. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the theatrical cut (sorry, I didn’t have time to watch both for this review) but I liked the additional scenes. The choreography in the fight scenes is more polished and the general production quality a little higher (which does make the scenes stick out a bit).
I think the tweaks help the pace a little too, though it didn’t totally remove one of my main issues with the film, in fact probably adding to it. As exciting and fast-paced as it is, Versus is too long. With such a lightweight story, the film plays out basically like a string of fight scenes and that’s not quite enough to keep you engaged. I’d never say the film was boring and Kitamura goes some way to try to make each action scene notably different from the rest, but it does get a little much after about an hour and a half.
There’s a coda at the end, in particular, that could easily have been left out. Without wanting to spoil things, it’s a big slap in the face for the audience who’ve watched the lead character develop, and is totally unnecessary to the central narrative.
There’s also too much macho posturing, particularly in the first half, so with a few less posing shots, the film could have easily lost a couple of minutes. I guess this might have made the action scenes too intense though.
However, despite the extended running time, I still enjoyed the film almost as much as I did back in my early twenties. The action is extremely well handled. Once or twice the editing gets a little too frantic, but overall there’s great energy to the fight scenes. The camera is frequently moving, even away from the action, and interesting angles are often used, to keep the film looking visually as exciting as the violence.
Speaking of violence, the film also piles on the blood and gore. Opening the film with someone getting sliced in half, lengthways, the tone is set for a cartoonish explosion of the red stuff. With a highly comic tone, the film plays its gore for laughs rather than repulsion. The special effects make-up is pretty good though, considering the budget. It’s not always realistic but looks suitably icky. Ultimate Versus complements this with a couple of CGI blood splashes, but these are thankfully fairly imperceptible and not overused.
What helps Versus stand out from the action/zombie movie crowd is its blend of styles and influences. As Kitamura puts it in one of the commentaries, the film “is made up of a lot of different spirits”. It has the spirit of a samurai film, particularly the Lone Wolf and Cub series, a Hong Kong martial arts film, yakuza movies and Hollywood action movies, in particular. Kitamura says he was influenced by 80s movies from the likes of John Carpenter, James Cameron and Sam Raimi, but wanted to inject a bit of the new millennium on top of these. There’s certainly a bit of The Matrix in there, which came out during the production. There’s even a clear nod to it in a gag near the end. You could argue The Matrix was heavily influenced by Asian cinema, but Kitamura definitely paid the film some attention.
Versus became quite influential in itself though, not only proving Japan could produce great action movies but paving the way for the splatter comedy boom that was soon to erupt, with the likes of Battlefield Baseball (also starring Tak Sakaguchi) and Machine Girl.
The cast are a bit of a mixed bag. Though Sakaguchi has the right look for the role and certainly knows how to swing a punch, he’s a little lacking in the charisma department. The gangsters and assassins are hit and miss in particular, with a mix of uninteresting stony-faced ‘cool’ characters and wildly over-the-top caricatures. I found the latter worked best for the most part, though Kenji Matsuda perhaps takes things a little too far. I really enjoyed Minoru Matsumoto as the simple-minded, animalistic member of the group though. Reportedly, Kitamura freestyled the shoot a bit, killing off the actors he wasn’t impressed with as they went along. He must have been as impressed with Matsumoto as I was, as he seems to survive for most of the film (possibly all, but it’s hard to say amongst all the carnage and I wouldn’t want to spoil it anyway). Kitamura went on to work regularly with him, Sakaguchi and another couple of members of the cast.
I’m rambling on far too long now though. Versus is not a film to analyse in depth, it’s one to simply sit back and enjoy. Though running a little on the long side and having a few issues here and there, it’s a wildly entertaining ride. Deftly blending multiple genres like no other, it still remains unique too. Genre movie fans owe it to themselves to check it out, if they haven’t already.
Versus is out on 7th December in a 2 Blu-ray set, released by Arrow Video. The picture quality is a tricky one to rate as it was shot very cheaply so some weaker visual elements are to be expected, though IMDB lists it as being shot in 35mm. I watched Ultimate Versus on my projector and I found the picture quality noticeably variable. The new sequences shot in 2004 are clear when they crop up and look great. I expected those to look better than the original footage, but some of the original footage varies too. A couple of scenes, largely those with a heavy colour cast like the red/orange-tinged climactic showdown, look terribly soft, almost like a DVD conversion, but in other places the original footage looks fairly sharp and natural. I imagine this might be something to do with how the film was produced or graded, but it’s certainly not a demo-quality transfer you’ll be testing your HD system with.
I’ve used screen grabs from Ultimate Versus in my review as examples. They’ve been compressed a little for filesize, but they still give a good idea of what the transfer looks like.
Audio is decent though, with multiple options available. I opted for the 6.1 mix and the music and effects are powerful. The dialogue is perhaps a little low at times, but I imagine this was how originally mixed.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements by Arrow Films, approved by director Ryûhei Kitamura
– High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray™ presentations of both versions of the film: the original 2000 cut and 2004’s Ultimate Versus, featuring over 10 minutes of new and revised footage
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon
DISC 1: VERSUS
– Original lossless Japanese 5.1 and 2.0 stereo audio and English 2.0 stereo audio
– Optional English subtitles
– Audio commentary by Kitamura and producer Keishiro Shin
– Audio commentary by Kitamura and the cast and crew
– New visual essay on the career of Kitamura by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp
– Behind Versus, a two-part behind-the-scenes documentaries exploring the film’s production
– First Contact: Versus Evolution, a featurette exploring the film’s origins
– Tak Sakaguchi’s One-Man Journey, an archival featurette on the actor’s visit to the 2001 Japan Film Festival in Hamburg
– Film festival screening footage
– Team Versus, a brief look inside the Napalm Films office
– Deep in the Woods, an archival featurette featuring interviews with Kitamura, cast and crew
– The Encounter, an archival interview with editor Shûichi Kakesu
– Deleted scenes with audio commentary by Kitamura, cast and crew
– Nervous and Nervous 2, two “side story” mini-movies featuring characters from the main feature
– Featurette on the making of Nervous 2
– Versus FF Version, a condensed, 20-minute recut of the film
– Multiple trailers
– Image gallery
DISC 2: ULTIMATE VERSUS
– Original lossless Japanese 6.1 and 2.0 stereo audio and English 6.1 and 2.0 stereo audio
– Optional English subtitles
– Audio commentary by Kitamura, cast and crew
– Sakigake! Otoko versus Juku, a featurette on the newly shot material for Ultimate Versus
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film and a
reprinted interview with Kitamura by Tom Mes, and notes on the making of the film by Kitamura.
It’s an awful lot of material, but it’s all entertaining so easy to get through.
There’s a banter-filled party atmosphere on the two cast and crew commentaries, for instance, as well as over the deleted scenes. It makes them a lot of fun, if not particularly illuminating.
The commentary with Kitamura and producer Keishiro Shin is in English, which is handy for someone like me that only has time to listen to commentaries whilst doing something else. That track is mediated by someone outside the circle of filmmaking friends, so the conversation is less wild and tangential. This is the track to listen to if you want production facts. The others are just a laugh.
The interview with the editor is quite interesting, delving into his technique and how he got involved in the film. He comes from an animation background, which is interesting as the film has an anime feel at times with all its posing and OTT action.
There are some short throwaway features like the making of Nervous 2 which is a little over a minute long and much of that is taken up with text graphics. The look inside the studio is very short too, though it’s an amusing piss-take.
The video diary with Tak Sakaguchi is very funny. As with a lot of the features here and the film itself, it doesn’t take itself seriously, so is a step away from the usual handful of clips of people applauding and being polite at festival premieres.
Nervous is a fun little low budget short. It’s nice to see the director forgoing his OTT style and action for something a little more simple, though there are bodies around and threats of violence. It also helps explain a gag with the cops in Versus. Nervous 2 provides a goofy follow up to some of the characters too, a couple of whom had been blown to pieces in Versus, but who needs logic?
Jasper Sharp’s piece gives a dense whistle-stop tour of Kitamura’s career and describes how fresh Versus was when it came out. It’s one of the more vital pieces in the set.
The various ‘making of’s are great too. The on-set footage is pretty raw and fly-on-the-wall, offering a fairly unfiltered look at the shoot. There’s plenty of humour and camaraderie too, suggesting it was a fun process.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to look at, unfortunately, but there’s so much material on the disc it’s easy to recommend to fans of the film, even without a booklet.