There's a moment in Ryūhei Kitamura's Versus that encapsulates everything about the movie, and comes and goes so quickly you could miss it if you sneeze. Hero and villain, in an evil wood, duel with swords — then pause to whip out guns and blast at each other point-blank. (Ask not why they didn't start with guns and move to swords later.) Then comes a split-second shot of a dozen bullets dropping to the ground between them. They're all fused head-to-head.
Versus is assembled front-to-back out of nothing but moments like this, a machine-gun rataplan of jokes and shocks and stunts and weirdness and wildness, and yet somehow it's not just a demo reel. No, it doesn't aim to do anything profound; it has no mission to be anything other than a maximum thrill ride squeezed out of a minimum of resources. But it's hard to do any of those things well. Versus does all of them so well it's set a bar that others are still hurtling themselves at, no matter where they hail from.
The hills are alive (with the sound of zombies)
Walk into Versus cold and you're not likely to be sure even what kind of movie you're watching for the first scenes. It opens in a moody, gory flashback to feudal times — don't ask why, you'll find out — and then leaps forward to the present day. An unnamed criminal (Kitamura-gumi Tak Sakaguchi) and his cellmate escape from prison and tear through a forest somewhere in the Japanese countryside. They've arranged for a pickup by way of some criminal confederates, but when the gangsters show up, they've only brought one car with them — not enough to hold everyone — and a frightened, silent young woman who seems to be a hostage.
Things go south fast. An argument turns ugly, and soon Sakaguchi takes one of the gangsters hostage with his own gun before escaping. Bullets fly, and another of the gangsters drops dead. But not for long: barely seconds later, he rears back up on his feet and lurches after the others. He's been reborn as a zombie, and so is Sakaguchi's buddy after one of the other thugs plug him. Whatever's going on, only the dapper, smirking, knife-crazy leader of the gangsters seems to have any clue, and so he and the others give chase.
Takaguchi isn't interested in what happened or why; he just wants to get out of the forest with his skin still on. But then he blunders across a cache of crucified corpses (from whom he blags the movie's signature longcoat), right around the same time his adversaries stumble into the clearing where they once buried all the bodies that pile up in a criminal's line of work. Except now all those graves are empty, and so Takaguchi and the gangsters fight for their lives with fists, guns, knives, and everything else they can lay hands on against a zombie horde that still remembers how to shoot back.
Incredibly, all this is only the setup. The real story emerges in fits and starts over the remaining two-thirds of the film. Another man — hinted at previously by the gangsters — appears, with all the powers of the zombies and then some. Something about him, and in fact most of everyone else battling in the forest, triggers memories in the young woman. They've been here before, even if none of them know each other — not now, but in previous lives. Destiny has drawn them all here to fight again, the better to unlock nascent power within her that will give its wielder power over the living and dead alike.
Takaguchi, again, doesn't care about the details — no, not even when the woman primly explains to him how he's trapped in this cycle of gory karma with the rest of them. Ironically, his antihero, bad-boy attitude makes him best equipped to deal with the situation. He just fights, because anything else would be besides the point. But then he finds there's more to what's in him than just that — the way his karmic ties with this woman complicate things, for instance — and his battles go from just a way to prove he's the baddest one in the room to a struggle for a greater kind of survival.
Sometimes the reason a movie works, or doesn't, is nothing more than tone. Japanese films, and much of Asian moviemaking generally, have a knack for shifting tonal gears without grinding (I submit as evidence Takashi Miike's entire career). Something like Versus requires a tone with a very narrow window of safety, a landing zone exactly halfway between comedy and extreme action. Kitamura's influences for this project all stuck that exact landing: Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and especially Evil Dead 2, or Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (and later, Dead Alive) — slapstick comedies disguised as gore rollercoasters with hyperkinetic camerawork.
To that end, Versus is about comedic timing and attitude, not fright. When in this movie someone punches through someone else's head and gets the victim's eyeballs stuck between their fingers, it's funny precisely because it's so ridiculously over-the-top. That contrast — cartoonish gore vs. genuine horror — deepened after the torture-porn likes of Saw, High Tension, and Martyrs came along. Those movies make Versus and the Evil Deads look downright cuddly in comparison; they're about mortifying the audience, where this one's about ribbing it.
Much of a movie's tone, in turn, gets determined by its cast. Sakaguchi, here in his first real role, set the tone for just about all his future films with this one — all cock-of-the-walk and martial flash. What makes him even more fun to watch is how his attitude and the rest of the movie interact, as when he plucks a pair of shades from a dead zombie to amp up his cool factor ... only to have the woman think he looks lousy in glasses. Or how he has to fight all the yakuza henchmen twice, once when they're alive and again when they're zombies. Or the moment when he and his nemesis realize they've grabbed each other's swords by mistake, decide that's worth a try — and then switch swords again when going at it, in a moment Kitamura shows us at half speed because it's worth savoring. Kitamura also gives each of the rest of the characters a distinct, comedic flavor — e.g., the whacked-out gangster leader with his knife fetish, or his bespectacled right-hand man who seems more irritated that his glasses keep getting zombie blood on them than anything else.
Conjured from nothing
Versus was Kitamura's first feature-length film, and he made it with the same do-it-yourself, go-for-broke, everything-on-a-shoestring gusto that fueled projects like Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle and Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi. He and his cohorts opened as many credit cards as they could, cashed out, rented space in an off-season ski lodge for the cast and crew, and just filmed everything they could until they ran out of money. Then they went back to anyone who'd loan them a dime, show them what they had so far, and repeat. When they got thrown out of the lodge because ski season was opening up, they relocated and kept on shooting. They begged and borrowed resources, like the CGI system used to render the credits, or the time and expertise of veteran editor Shūichi Kakesu (Gojoe, Electric Dragon 80.000 V, Jin-Roh, Ghost In The Shell, et many al).
The success of Versus both at home and abroad brought Kitamura into the big time; not long after, he directed an entry in the Godzilla franchise (arguably the wildest, most unhinged one of the bunch, as befitting him). Success also spurred Kitamura to revisit Versus a few years later and touch it up as Ultimate Versus, included in the new Arrow Blu-ray Disc issue of the film. Those who cringe because of what George Lucas did to Star Wars with the same justification can breathe easy: the total changes amount to a few beginning scenes reshot to improve the quality of the footage (which Kitamura always disdained because it was done in such unplanned haste), some new CGI for the opening credits, and a tot more zombie-attack footage in the latter half. None of this changes the film overall; it's a few dents banged out and some paint reapplied, not a new body.
Many Japanese pop-culture creators of prominence are not shy of the debt they owe to Western creators. Osamu Tezuka started where Walt Disney's work left off. Some of Dai Sato's big influences were Aliens and Terminators I and II. Rei Hiroe's Black Lagoon mashes together Hollywood, Hong Kong, and Japanese action pictures in about equal measure. What matters is not what the specific inspirations are but where they chose to go with them. Kitamura's genius here is not that he created something new, but that he created something fun, added a rough flavor of his own to it, and essentially conjured it up out of nothing — and did that in a country where the deck has historically been stacked hard against indie filmmakers.
Jean-Luc Godard was reputed to have once said, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl." Versus starts there, then adds yakuza, zombies, swords, kung fu, black magic, reincarnation, and a few other kitchen sinks for good measure. Somehow, it all works.