Fanboy review time! I decided that since this is a new site I’m going to eventually have to go back and review movies I first watched years ago. No better time than the present and no better example than Versus. I’ll be honest right off the bat - I love this movie and it’s one of the first Japanese movies I watched when I was first becoming interested in Asian cinema. I’ve seen it somewhere between 5-10 times. I’ve listened to all the commentary tracks and watched all the special features. I practically know all the dialogue even though I don’t actually speak Japanese so there’s no way I can hope to review it with an ounce of impartiality. That being said, having seen it so many time I do have some perspective on where and why some aspects of Versus could be considered sub-par at best, so think of this more as an overview/analysis than an actual review.
Versus begins 500 years in the past with a samurai slicing and dicing his way through a mob of zombies. He turns to see an odd character standing in his way, seemingly having appeared out of thin air. This is the audience’s first introduction to “the man” (Hideo Sakaki), our obligatory supremely powerful, yet calmly sadistic villain for the duration of the film. (By the way, none of the characters in Versus have names – they simply don’t need them.) The samurai attempts to take a run at this mysterious character but instead is cut cleanly in half effortlessly. From his separated torso’s view from the ground the camera pans up to another samurai (Tak Sakaguchi) waiting in the wings.
Fast forward to the present day, or something close to present day. Two criminals (one of which happens to be Sakaguchi, somehow) have escaped from prison and make their way through the woods to a rendezvous point where they expect to be picked up by some yakuza to complete the escape. The yakuza have other plans, however, and have strict orders to wait for their boss to arrive in a second car. They don’t know why they’re supposed to be doing this. All they know is they were supposed to kidnap the girl, meet up with these two escaped convicts, and wait. Sakaguchi’s character, henceforth referred to as Prisoner KSC2-303, is not one to follow orders. He keeps giving the yakuza a hard time, driving their leader crazy because they know they’re not allowed to kill him. This scene goes on a bit too long on my opinion; consisting mostly of dramatic posing, arguing, and tough-guy banter. The camera keeps rotating around the characters and seems to bob and weave in random directions for dramatic effect, but the only effect that comes across is sea-sickness. Apparently they had rented a steadicam for only that one day and the director of photography, Takumi Furuya, was off shooting a TV drama, leaving his assistants in charge of the scene.
Prisoner KSC2-303 manages to grab one of the yakuza and points his gun at another yakuza, shooting and killing him. This results in a stand-off until the yakuza that was just shot dead stands up and attacks the others. Yep, he’s a full-blown zombie alright. The yakuza unload several dozen bullets into the zombie’s head and chest to no avail before Prisoner KSC2-303 takes out his entire chest cavity with 1 shot. Apparently anyone that dies within the vicinity of those woods comes back to life as a zombie, and for some reason Prisoner KSC2-303 has some sort of special knack for killing them. But why does their boss want this prisoner and some random girl out here in the middle of nowhere? And if everyone comes back to life as zombies in these woods, what about all the corpses the yakuza have been burying out there for years? Oops…
The result of this setup is a huge mishmash of gun-fu, martial arts, zombies (with guns!), gratuitous gore, several dozen completely unnecessary (yet cool) poses, a generous dose of splatstick humor, and a storyline that really doesn’t matter much at all in the grand scheme of things. This all culminates with an epic sword battle between Prisoner KSC2-303 and the mysterious villain from the opening sequence and in my opinion that fight alone is worth the price of admission. This movie definitely isn’t for everyone but hopefully by now you know if it’s for you (did I mention the zombies have guns?).
Aside from occasional snafus or general sloppiness with camera work the technically aspects of Versus are nothing short of amazing given the tiny budget and the independent nature of the project. Yudai Yamaguchi turned out to be a whiz with gore and put together hordes of zombies on par with Tom Savini’s earlier work in the genre. Stunt doubles are used sparingly, but when they are it’s only for something completely hazardous and visually stunning. The sound design and music range anywhere from iffy to fantastic. The samurai scenes from the past have a great soundtrack put together by a collaboration between Kenichi Yoshida and Nobuhiko Morino. The present-day soundtrack can be great at times with fitting up-tempo guitar riffs but during some of the most action-packed scenes there’s just a half-hearted techno beat that sounds like the background music from some old Sega Genesis game. There’s really not much consistancy of quality for any single aspect of Versus. The scenes in Versus were filmed in order, which is rare for movies these days, but because of this you can actually see the progression of the cast and crew as the it goes on, steadily ramping up in quality toward the end.
It’s obvious it was a labor of love for everyone involved, most evidenced by the fact that the ending was left open to allow the possibility of a sequel. Even though most everything about Versus is derivative of other movies from the past such as Highlander, The Evil Dead, and even Robocop to a smaller degree it’s not so much ripping those movies off as it’s paying homage to them in a very blatant up-front sort of way. If you want to know why Ryuhei Kitamura has so many diehard fans with so few films under his belt so far, this is the place to start.