Japanese cinema at the beginning of the 21st century was fun. There was an explosion of cinematic talent coming from the V-cinema scene (direct-to-video genre movies) and making a mark on the rest of the movie world, and it seems every week there was some new crazy trend or wildly prolific director that was coming suddenly to the fore. In those days before the great geek leveling of the mid-’00s to the ‘10s, where everything that used to be a geek concern suddenly stormed into the mainstream, it was wild to have genre mashups and crossovers.
So while the idea of a yakuza zombie movie with samurai doesn’t seem all that crazy to a world where everything has been crossed with everything else, in 2000, this was a pretty wild concept, and it’s the one that drives Versus. Written and directed by Ryuhei Kitamura, Versus is a wildly energetic film with, even for a Japanese genre the film, a tiny budget that works to make up for its shortcomings in money, locations, and even film stock (it was shot on 16mm) with squeezing out every yen’s in dynamism and weirdness.
After a brief scene of a samurai slashing up zombies and facing a staff-wielding mystic, we open on a pair of prisoners running through the woods after escaping the police. One’s still got a handcuff on one wrist. The other cuff still has someone’s severed hand in it, dangling there and bouncing off him as he runs. They’re supposed to meet a group of yakuza who will be getting them out of there, but when their would-be rescuers arrive, it’s clear they have other plans. The prisoners aren’t going to go, and in fact, the gangsters brought a kidnapped girl as well. All they have to do is wait for The Man.
The main prisoner is having none of it and promptly shoots a hole through one of the yakuza. The gangster drops down dead and, moments later, is back up again, a shuffling zombie. He kills, gets killed, and the prisoner takes off back into the forest, dragging the girl along with him.
This leads to the next two hours of people finding zombies, fighting zombies, the humans finding each other, fighting, more humans arriving, more zombies fighting, more people fighting. Versus is a rare movie where it’s fair to describe it as non-stop action. There’s some story that ties things together. We know from the opening crawl that the forest is one of 666 gateways to other worlds, places of power, and this one resurrects the dead. But that’s just an excuse for fights and gags and gag-filled fights.
The characters are broadly defined: the prisoner, apparently in jail for multiple horrible murders, is arrogant and selfish but still decides to drag the girl away from the yakuza. The four yakuza are as follows: a guy with glasses, a guy with a ponytail, a short guy, and a weird guy in a suit. The weird guy in a suit is the most incorrigible ham in the film, in a way that could be terribly annoying, but I found it wildly entertaining, and he just gets weirder as the movie goes on.
The limitations of the budget are obvious throughout the film, but so is the inventiveness that was used to overcome them. Kitamura’s primary filmmaking influence seems to be Sam Raimi, particularly Evil Dead II, though there’s some inevitable Matrix influences apparent – the film was shot in the fall of 1999, months after that seminal film had come out. So though he had very little money to work with (Wikipedia says 10,000; Kitamura in the liner notes to this release says it was more like 50,000), he knew how to make that little it look as amazing as possible. The camera is rarely still. It swoops in and out of the action. More than that, Kitamura knows how to use close-ups to cover up what his budget wasn’t possible of producing.
This is very much a film that was made in the editing booth. For anyone who watches a lot of low budget movies, shooting in the woods is the obvious symbol that the filmmakers have no money and no locations. Unfortunately, they usually also have no imagination, and the films make absolutely no use of their surroundings. Versus uses every angle and camera movement possible. Which is good, since all the film has to offer, by design, is the style of its making. The story is mostly perfunctory, about resurrected warriors fighting throughout the ages or something. There’s some magic, and the prisoner and the girl turn out to be connected by The Man, who eventually arrives in the forest for his epochal evil deeds. Whatever, the important thing is shooting, kicking, punching, and looking good doing it.
And taken on that level, Versus works pretty well. It’s fun, and for its copious gore and spraying blood, the tone is mostly silly. Each character has a gag that they pretty much stick with, but they’re usually good gags. The short yakuza gets sprayed in the face with blood at the beginning of the film and never gets a chance to wash it off. At least half a dozen scenes are introduced with someone rolling head over heels through the hill covered in leaves. The cops who the prisoners have escaped from are in pursuit, one of them mighty annoyed that the prisoner ripped his handoff. Versus is a silly horror action movie. The first time I watched it, I found it tedious. For some reason, I revisited it and found its charms had worked on me. This time, seeing the film for the first time in more than a decade, I can understand both reactions. There’s not a lot of story or nuance. The style of action is obviously cheap and corny. And it seriously does not need to be two hours long (plus another 10 minutes in the Ultimate Versus version.) But after a decade of the most expensive, choreographed, and meticulously produced action movies in history with the rise of the comic book movie, I found myself far more engaged in the little but organic punch-outs in Versus than I am by most Marvel monstrosities.
Versus has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. This release contains two versions of the film: the original theatrical release and Ultimate Versus, which had new scenes shot in 2004. Each disc has its own extras, the bulk of which accompany the original film. First, that disc has two archival commentaries: one in English by the director and his producer, the other in subtitled Japanese with the director, his producer, and members of the cast. Video extras on the disc include: “Body Slamming Body Horror” (16 min), a new video overview of Kitamura’s career by Jasper Sharp; “First Contact: Versus Evolution” (10 min), an archival featurette; and “Tak Sakaguchi’s One Man Journey” (15 min), an archival featurette about actor Tag visiting a film festival.
“Team Versus” (1 min), an archival featurette about the film production office; “Deep in the Woods” (25 min) is an archival French featurette about the making of the film; “The Encounter” (13 min), an archival French featurette interviewing the editor; Deleted Scenes (22 min); “FF Version” (20 min), which is a heavily edited version of the film; “Behind Versus,” a two-part set of making-of featurettes: “Part 1: Birth of a Dark Hero” (27 min) and “Part 2: Versus the Legend” (46 min). “Festival Screenings”, which has about six minutes of clips from festivals. “Versus Side Stories”, mini-movies with characters from the films, and shot apparently on video: “Nervous” (7 min), “Nervous 2” (16 min), and “The Making of Nervous 2” (2 min). There are also trailers and image galleries.
The second disc with the Ultimate Versus version contains yet another commentary by the director and cast, in Japanese, and an archival video feature, Sakigake! Otoko versus Juku (19 min) about the shooting of new footage for Ultimate Versus. There is also a booklet with an essay by Tom Mes, an interview with Kitamura by Tom Mes, and an essay by the director.