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Versus Main

Versus Blu-ray Review

Written by ZigZag

Blu-ray released by Arrow Video

Versus Large

Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura
Written by Ryûhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi
2000, 119 minutes, Not Rated
Released on December 8th, 2020

Starring:
Tak Sakaguchi as Prisoner KSC2-303
Hideo Sakaki as The Man
Chieko Misaka as The Girl
Kenji Matsuda as Yakuza leader with butterfly knife
Shôichirô Masumoto as One-handed cop
Yuichiro Arai as Motorcycle riding yakuza
Kazuhito Ohbs as Yakuza with glasses

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Review:

Legend has it there are 666 hidden portals that connect this world to “the other side”. Somewhere in rural Japan, the 444th portal exists within the Forest of Resurrection. Enter two escaped prisoners on the run through the woods to a predetermined rendezvous point. Here they are met by a yakuza gang and are ordered to wait until their boss arrives. With the introduction of a kidnapped girl, one of the prisoners demands they release her, resulting in an armed standoff. Pressure builds between alpha males, as nobody wants to appear weak. Almost immediately, blood is shed and in the aftermath one of the yakuza is dead. Unfortunately, in this location, corpses don’t stay down for long and soon everyone is emptying their guns into the newly reanimated gangster.

To test a theory, a yakuza member kills one of the prisoners and sure enough, within minutes the victim is once again standing. During the ensuing chaos, the surviving prisoner and the girl flee into the woods. It is here we learn the forest is a popular location for criminals to dump victims’ bodies, and now all of these corpses are rising from the ground ready to attack. These are not your average zombies however, as they retain the knowledge of their prior martial arts training and for unknown reasons, all were buried with weapons. The final piece of the puzzle is a mysterious man who orchestrated the earlier rendezvous and suggests he shares a unique history with both the prisoner and the kidnapped girl.

Predestination, immortality and reincarnation factor heavily into this story, as our main characters have been fighting each other for centuries. We witness flashbacks of a fight between a samurai warrior and several katana-wielding zombies in the forest. In the contemporary setting, the ghouls are armed with automatic weapons and are resistant to bullets. Unlike Romero zombies, a headshot does not always close the deal. Pursued by both the living and the dead, our anti-hero must engage in an endless string of battles to stay alive long enough to escape this nightmare.

Twenty years ago, global audiences ushered in a wave of popular Japanese genre movies commonly referred to as either J-Horror or Asian Extreme Cinema. Titles as diverse as Ringu (1998), Audition (1999) and Battle Royale (2000) set the bar for the region’s creative output for years to come. Director Ryûhei Kitamura (The Midnight Meat Train) entered the fray with his genre-bending low-budget action/horror hybrid Versus (2000). The high-concept picture is a prime example of style over substance with skirmishes taking place every five minutes and a bare minimum of plot and dialogue to get in the way. The characters are too cool to be saddled with anything as pedestrian as names and are all morally deplorable. Our protagonist admits he’s no better than the assassins chasing him, but draws the distinction that at least he’s not a jerk about it.

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Versus is more action-oriented than anything, but there are some solid performances by the lead actors. Breakout star Tak Sakaguchi (Azumi) is charismatic and does all the heavy lifting as our unnamed protagonist, identified by his uniform as Prisoner KSC2-303. He throws himself into the endless fight scenes, fending off attackers both living and undead without ever losing his edge. Hideo Sakaki (Ju-On: The Grudge) is the even-tempered antagonist (aka The Man) who spends much of the running time observing before joining in the final fight and proving himself a formidable opponent. In the critical but frequently thankless role of The Girl, Chieko Misaka (Suicide Club) is an island of vulnerability amid all of the surrounding testosterone.

Kitamura overcomes the constraints of shooting on an ultra-low budget with creative and striking camera angles, constant movement and an unrelenting level of energy. Visually the film owes a large debt to The Evil Dead and Shogun Assassin with more than a passing nod to the dynamic style of The Killer and The Matrix. There is a lot of posing in this movie, but the characters really do look cool doing it. Written by Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi, the script wastes zero time with character development or exposition as viewers are simply thrown into the action with one of the coolest opening shots of its day. The director revisited the material a few years later adding unnecessary backstory along with some enhanced visual effects and extended fight scenes, releasing it as Ultimate Versus (included on this release). The new intro may offer some insights into our anti-hero, but the result robs the original opening shot of some of its power.

Versus is a little rough around the edges but is so determined to entertain that any budgetary shortfalls are easily overlooked. Kitamura used this picture as a calling card for bigger things, including the epic Godzilla: Final Wars. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for the site several years ago marking the release of his film No One Lives and found him to be very open and informative in discussing his process as a director. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I can easily recommend looking him up and starting with Versus. Though some may find the picture exhausting, genre fans will find a lot to like between the inspired fight choreography and copious amount of bloodshed.

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Video and Audio:

The film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical presentation. For this release, the original 35mm intermediate elements received a 4K scan and restoration with the picture presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Image quality is sharper and contains more detail than the previous 2010 Blu-ray from Tokyo Shock. During the restoration changes were made concerning the use of some color filters that have led to an outcry by some fans on the internet. Arrow Video has taken the opportunity to address the changes in a rare public statement:

In response to some forum comments we have seen online, we would like to issue a statement on why our recent Blu-ray release of Versus looks the way it does.

Previous releases of this film employed a set of strong colour filters, but working under instruction of Director Ryuhei Kitamura, who oversaw and approved our grade, we have treated these scenes more realistically with a broader overall colour scheme. He confirmed that the use of filters had been a rushed decision on his part at the time of release and was always something he had wanted to change.

Equally, as explained in the Blu-ray booklet, Versus was originally shot on 16mm on a very low budget in natural light. We sourced the best elements available – blow-up 35mm intermediates – for our remaster rather than the original 16mm negative. As a result and due to the nature of the original production and subsequent post-production, the film will always look a little rough, as it should.

We hope that this explains that the new colour grade was at the specific instruction of the director and that the quality of the presentation remains true to the independent nature of how the film was shot and produced.

There are two cuts of the film; the original theatrical edition features DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 mixes in Japanese, with an English dub also in LPCM 2.0. Ultimate Versus comes with an expanded DTS-HS MA 6.1 mix in Japanese and English, plus LPCM 2.0 mixes in both languages. Music cues and sound effects are well-balanced and the surround tracks are highly active providing an extra punch to the many action scenes and atmospheric sound design. The film’s dialogue was looped in post-production, so lip sync is occasionally off giving it the feel of a spaghetti western.

Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.

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Special Features:

Disc 1: Theatrical Cut (120 minutes)

There are two audio commentaries with director Ryûhei Kitamura; the first pairs him with producer Keishiro Shin for a detailed account of the production history and how various challenges were met. This is an informative and entertaining discussion with a fair amount of humorous asides and interesting trivia. The track is in English but contains frequent gaps of silence.

The second track finds the director joined by six members of the cast and crew for a lively commentary recorded in Japanese with English subtitles. It is a little confusing at times as to who is speaking due to the large number of participants. This is a more laid-back session with a lot of jokes and fond memories making it definitely worth checking out.

Japanese cinema expert and author Jasper Sharp (The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema) offers a video appreciation and career retrospective of Kitamura’s work in the featurette Body Slamming Body Horror (16 minutes). In English.

First Contact: Versus Evolution (10 minutes) takes a look back at the film’s origins and how it came to be. In Japanese with English subtitles.

Actor Tak Sakaguchi recorded a video diary of his trip to Hamburg’s Japan Film Festival in 2001. The footage is presented here in the segment One Man’s Journey (14 minutes). In Japanese with English subtitles.

Team Versus (1 minute) is a short but amusing glimpse inside the office of Napalm Films. In Japanese with English subtitles.

A French TV featurette titled Deep in the Woods (25 minutes) takes a look at the film and offers interviews with members of the cast and crew, including Kitamura. Some of the information provided includes the origins of the film, the director’s visual style and influences. In English, Japanese and French with English subtitles.

Editor Shuichi Kakesu talks about his work on the film and how he became attached to the project in the French featurette The Encounter (13 minutes). In English.

A collection of deleted scenes (22 minutes) comes with commentary from the cast and crew. Both the scenes and the commentary are in Japanese with English subtitles.

The FF Version (20 minutes) is a heavily condensed and redacted version of the film for your viewing pleasure – at least maybe once.

A two-part behind-the-scenes segment titled Behind Versus examines the making of the movie. Part 1: Birth of a Dark Hero (27 minutes) and Part 2: Versus the Legend (46 minutes) offers an on set look at the daily production. Some of the topics covered include casting, thoughts on the characters, a look at the stunts and the action choreography. Mostly in Japanese with English subtitles.

Two short clips of footage from various festival screenings (5 minutes) are set to music with some dialogue. In Japanese with English subtitles.

There are two short films included under the header Versus Side Stories following peripheral characters after the events of the movie. These films are titled Nervous (7 minutes) and Nervous 2 (16 minutes) and both are in Japanese with English subtitles. Also on hand is The Making of Nervous 2 (1 minute), a self-explanatory video shot during production.

A collection of international trailers offer a look at the marketing campaign.

There are four photo galleries broken into the following categories: promotional stills (30 images), posters (19 images), Japanese press book (24 images) and Japanese press kit (5 images).

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Disc 2: Ultimate Versus (130 minutes)

A different audio commentary featuring the director joined by the cast and crew appears on this disc with the actors sharing their memories of returning four years later to shoot additional scenes for this new version of the film. There are some truly hilarious moments in this recording, as everyone seems to be having a blast. This track is in Japanese with English subtitles.

The featurette Sakigake! Otoko versus Juku (18 minutes) takes a behind-the-scenes look at the newly-shot footage for this extended version of the film featuring interviews with members of the cast and crew. In Japanese with English subtitles.

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Grades:

Movie: Fourstars Cover
Buy Amazon Us
Cover
Buy Amazon Uk
Video: Fourandahalfstars
Audio: Fourstars
Features: Fourandahalfstars
Overall: 4.5 Star Rating

About The Author
ZigZag
Author: ZigZag
Staff Reviewer - USA
ZigZag's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
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