Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus is a frenetic, low budget, deliberately B-grade mix of some of the coolest movie madness you are ever likely to see. Passionate about films of the 70’s and 80’s, like Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead and Mad Max, and influenced by filmmakers such as James Cameron, John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, Kitamura is not only a walking advertisement, but an outspoken advocate for the Hollywood pre-CG action film. Which accounts a lot for the reasons why Versus is like it is. Being a dedicated fan of pointless action films myself, this is not even remotely a criticism. Versus might hark from older influences, but it’s the freshest thing not only to come out of Japan but possibly film in general, in quite some time.
Disgusted by his local industry’s attitude — that there is no competing with Hollywood films — Kitamura set out, maybe not to prove them wrong but at the very least to do what he loved, his way. What he also managed to do, merely by accident, was break through into international cultural consciousness, and do it with all the gleeful subtlety of a Texan with a power tool. Of course, that’s not to say that Versus is an entirely Western-style film. On the contrary, it looks Western, but at heart it’s all Japanese. Two men with a shared past destined to fight it out, cool villains, reluctant anti-heroes, long moments of stillness punctuated by the flash of a sword and the spray of blood; it’s classic Chambara, a style of film Kitamura believes is lost to his culture but which could be ascribed not only a way of looking, but a way of thinking. And like the good schlock-film fan he is, he’s dragged its interred corpse out of its resting place, injected it with some life and let it run rampant on an unsuspecting audience, American zombie horror movie style, and neither genre has ever looked so good.
It’s the simplicity of all those trashy action films, the singularity of structure and the uncomplicated plots (not to mention the blood and guts) that makes them work, and it’s exactly that that makes Versus work. Its familiar formula film baked exactly the way you like it, with a few surprises thrown in for flavour. One of the surprises in fact was a last minute stroke of genius; when Versus was wrapping up, Kitamura still felt it was lacking something, that last, killer hook. What he came up with gives everything else that happens unexpected depth, and the story stretches off into the unknown future without it becoming a blatant and tasteless pointer to a sequel. All Kitamura’s heavy-handedness is applied where it’s really needed, in the fight scenes, the blood and guts and, probably the one thing that makes this film such a fantastic spectacle, the editing. I could wax lyrical on that, but you’re better just to watch the excellent extras included on the disc — the interviews with the director and the producer, as well as the editor, choreographers and cast are not only fascinating but occasionally hilarious.
Kitamura’s more recent film Azumi might have impressed film festival audiences with its glossy, stylistic flair, but Versus is the ground-breaker and where the director was possibly being the most honest and raw with what he was trying to do. I’ve definitely said it numerous times now — this man is someone to watch, because the more attention he gets, the more money and freedom he’ll be given. If it turns out as a case of too much dollars and not enough sense and all of Kitamura’s revolutionary potential gets lost under the pressure of risking less, at least Versus will remain as a glowing example of what good you can do when you’re being bad!