In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
I don’t really know what I expected with Versus. My first experience with director Ryûhei Kitamura is probably the 2008 Vinnie Jones vehicle Midnight Meat Train which is probably a much better tonal declaration for the tone explored in the movie Versus than the title of Versus itself…
The opening scene sets the pace. In what I found to be a slightly misleading opening sting, we see samurai versus zombies filmed on the kind of camera and in the kind of style that made me think I was watching Crank: High Voltage. We see a cloaked swordwielder taking on a swarm of zombies in Zatoichi like precision and expediency, only then is he faced with another more menacing foe, and it’s only then what you realise is that what you’re watching is going to be an ever increasing absurdist tract on increasing anarchy and escalation of ridiculousness. We immediately go to a different story where two prisoners have escaped and are being set to be picked up by… someone. Who turns up is a kind of cartoonish throng of yakuza who seem to have arrived straight out of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. They have a woman with them who is there for unknown reasons, and tension immediately starts when the prisoners say they need to leave but are being held by the gangsters for unknown reasons. One prisoner has an idea, if he antagonises the most volatile seeming of these yakuza, undermine the pride of someone who very clearly prioritises the projection of masculinity that he maybe doesn’t have the cajones to back up when it comes to conflict, he could probably get to the car and get away. This is at least what I intuited his plan to be and the cinematic language seems to back it up, and what I found so electrifying about this scene is that I felt like the scene told me that in an instant and now there’s oodles and oodles of tension. The film stretches this tension out and out. You expect it to suddenly explode into violence but even when violence occurs it continues. Exceptional stuff that is completely unrepresentative of the remainder of the movie, but in a good way you understand. Because as soon as this set piece is over the movie just explodes into anarchy.
You see, this is the forest of resurrection. That being, zombies come back to life here when people are near, and this is the forrest where all the yakuza unwittingly buried all the people they knocked off. This prived a delicious anarchy to scenes of yakuza fighting off their revengeance aggressors the only way they know how, with over the top gunfire. There’s also a very clear and purposeful nod to a key scene in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters in which conquistador zombies emerge from the ground as a representation of repressed and forgotten cultural atrocities that still hang around, like a zombie, in our society, here literally represented in the form of all the people these yakuza have killed coming back at zombies to kill them.
We engage in this cat and mouse debacle, and it’s a lot of fun, for quite some time, running from one violent, over the top set pieces to another as allegiances shift. The film really picks up though in the second half where things get strongly atmospheric and mythological and mystical, while still being batshit crazy. What’s really amazing though is that amongst the anarchy, as the truth begins to unfold it actually makes coherent sense. Things that are set up pay off and almost all mysteries are answered. Even though it’s highly artificial and fantastical, it all hangs together.
The thing that strikes me about Versus is that it has a distinctly Tarantinoesque tone to it. Which is weird because it’s the kind of movie that Tarantino could be relied upon to homage in one of his own movies. In that it’s like the classic mould of Japanese genre movies in that they are deeply entertaining, thoroughly concerned with style, but also have a modicum of subtext there fi you’re willing to go look for it. Versus aesthetically shares many ideas with the more out there pictures from Takahsi Miike, who fits those three points snugly. Tarantino of course starred in Miike’s ramen western Sukiyaki Western Django and called Audition a “true masterpiece”, (now please, Quentin, make a movie as interesting for the love of God), there are particular moments of gore in The Hateful Eight in fact riff on beats from films like Audition and Carrie. Out of all of the aforementioned pictures, aside from Sukiyaki Western Django, Versus feels the most like a Quentin Tarantino picture. In that it is highly frivolous, incredibly violent, and self referential to the extreme, playing with extreme characters and spurious gore in much the same way as Pulp Fiction, but on a much smaller canvas. This got me thinking about Quentin Tarantino, and how what he demonstrates broadly above everything is that people are actually really willing to consume exploitation cinema, cinema that is quick and fast and primarily exciting above all else, cinema that is viscerally exciting and uses violence as a punchline and physical contact and violence as a way of delivering meaning. Yet the kind of people who gave Django Unchained the best screenplay oscar despite its third act being patchy at best, (hey, it has some excellent moments but it’s a structural mess), would turn their noses up at Versus, I’ve seen them do it. This is a shame because Versus is one of the most wildly entertaining crowd pleasers I’ve ever seen, with a great eye for spectacle of all its kinds.