The Offbeat Marquee #1: The Duel Project

The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.

This first installment takes on two films from the nation of Japan. Two halves of a friendly competition with exceptionally specific terms. Note that there shall be spoilers in the run throughs of the film.

Introduction

I count myself a fan of oddball filmmaking as it is through these filmmakers that you learn so much about the process. You’ll often find me perusing the annals of film history to find feats of movie magic on the cheap and some of the strangest methods used to achieve something. Little did I suspect that I would be gifted a sort of esoteric Holy Grail of such filmmaking early last year.

It started when I was growing obsessed with a video game called Siren, produced by former members of Team Silent of Silent Hill fame. The idea of being able to see through the eyes of enemies in the game sounded pretty awesome. One thing that I discovered was associated with the series was a movie tie-in, Forbidden Siren, released in 2006 for the second game. The director of the film: Yukihiko Tsutsumi. 

It was then that discovered Tsutsumi’s filmography. He has struck me the “jack-of-all-trades” type who can make whatever you need whenever you need it. One of his most popular titles was 2LDK, released in 2003. Apparently, it is one of his very few films that have made it here to the West, as a lot of Tsutsumi’s films haven’t been subtitled for the English language. It was through 2LDK that I discovered The Duel Project.

The Duel Project

The idea behind the Duel Project was devised by Ringu producer Shin’ya Kawai. Himself, Tsutsumi, and director Ryûhei Kitamura (Azumi, The Midnight Meat Train) were all fresh off of their work on the 2002 anthology Jam Films, with Kawai producing and the two directors having their hands on their own individual segments. Kawai proposed to them a challenge consisting of these conditions:

  1. Focus on two principal performers
  2. One character must die
  3. Set the action in a single location
  4. Principal photography should be done in a week’s time.

Terms devised under the influence of alcohol.

Indeed, this challenge came about during a night of drinking. And both directors accepted it.

What resulted was a playful warring of egos in interviews and the films’ promotional material, and two pictures that act as a dichotomy in more ways than one. Kitamura devised Aragami, a feudal fantasy where a samurai finds himself doing battle with a God of Battle. Tsutsumi created 2LDK, a cat fight to end all cat fights as two actresses vying for a role make the mistake of sharing an apartment and getting on each other’s nerves.

Aragami (2003)

Aragami is, above all else, a Ryûhei Kitamura film. He has a slick, fast-paced, often brutal approach to action that has become somewhat of a trademark of his. It brought him praise with his raucous zombie flick Versus and got him a few raised eyebrows when implementing it in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, melding kaijū battles with human action those of a quasi-Matrix variety.

Thanks in large part to his style of action and a humorful screenplay, Aragami is easily one of the most engaging, stylish, & fun films I’ve seen in a while. Takao Osawa’s “Samurai” & Masaya Kato’s “Aragami” have an incredible chemistry between one another. Their simple respect for each other grows in spite of the fury with which they spar, and it is this relationship that makes the film so much fun to watch. Add in the phenomenal set design of the temple, the wicked fight choreography from Yûji Shimomura, & slick scoring and cinematography, and Aragami is one of the most entertaining films to come out of Japan in the past few decades. There really isn’t much else to it, although the concept proposed by the film that Aragami was once Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most notable figures in feudal Japan and Japanese history at large, is a fascinating one to ponder.

2LDK (2003)

Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s half of the Duel Project is ironically, given the near anonymous status of himself and his work in the West, the better known of the two. Reportedly winning an audience vote upon its initial public screening by a single vote, the film’s basic idea of pitting two polar opposites in a single local with one goal in mind (that being a role in a film) works wonders when executed.

2LDK is one of those magnificently absurd films you may never forget. Tsutsumi dishes up pitch-black humor in terms of how excessive the fight becomes. The choice of weapons, the places from which our fighters will emerge from, the film goes from being a verbal warring of lifestyles and backgrounds to batshit insane duel to the death. Eiko Koike’s rural born-and-raised “Nozomi” and Maho Nonami’s jaded urbanite “Lana” are a blast to watch as they go all out in their deranged anger for one another near the end. Now this is the biggest spoiler I will give in this piece, but I wish to share this passage of dialogue to help understand what makes this film so magical, courtesy of IMDb:

(Lana and Nozomi have knives in each other’s throats)

Lana: That feels nice.

Nozomi: We’ll regret this.

Lana: What a relief. Good luck.

Nozomi: You too.

(both pull their knives out)

The only things I’ll add are the following: Hisao Inagaki’s production design is gorgeous. I really like the modernist apartment that the film takes place in. I also adore the music of Akira Mitake here. There is a tremendously lyrical and resonant piece that plays near the end of the film. Lastly, good God were Yûichi Matsui’s makeup effects solid, especially given the tight shooting schedule. A modern, humorous J-horror that contrasts Kitamura’s feudal action fantasy quite nicely.

Conclusion

So, which one would I say is the better of the bunch?

Honestly, I think both are equally fine. They are not the kinds of films you need to think terribly hard about. They are live-wire thrill rides with humor, style, and an economy that would make Roger Corman proud. It’s a shame that Tsutsumi hasn’t been brought to the global stage in the same way his sparring partner Kitamura has. Both films are prime examples of great filmmakers doing their thing under strict conditions and that is something to be commended.

To get a bit of an inside perspective on the Duel Project, read through this article courtesy of the gloriously named review site Hollywood Bitchslap that features a brief interview with Kitamura.

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