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Posts Tagged ‘Harumi Shuhama’

As Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead gets underway, we find ourselves in very familiar (perhaps dispiritingly familiar) territory: a young woman (Yuzuki Akiyama) in blood-spattered vest and shorts recoils from the ominous figure (Kazuaki Nagaya) of a looming, grey-faced walking corpse. There is pathos as well as terror, as it transpires these two were romantically involved, before he became, er, vitally challenged. The camerawork is a bit clumsy, and the zombie make-up a bit primitive, but we have been drowning in zombie films ever since 28 Days Later came out, nearly 17 years ago, and much worse work has made it onto cinema screens in this time.

However, not all is as it initially appears, for as the zombie attacks his victim, a voice screams ‘Cut!’, the camera pulls back, and it is revealed that this is not a low-budget zombie movie, but a film about the making of a low-budget zombie movie, and one which is not going well: the director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is revealing despotic tendencies, and they are currently on the forty-second take of this particular scene. After expressing his dissatisfaction with the actors’ performances in deafening terms, he goes off in a huff, leaving the make-up woman (Harumi Shuhama) to tell the young performers the eerie tale of the history of the abandoned industrial site they are filming in, with rumours of weird experiments on human bodies. We are back in the realm of the slightly hokey here, and then there is a rather odd interlude as the make-up woman demonstrates her hobby of self-defence. But then, it seems that there may be some substance to the rumours of the site’s dark past, as what appear to be genuine zombies appear and start attacking the cast and crew. Everyone is shocked and horrified – well, nearly everyone, as the director is delighted at this opportunity to use a bit of method-acting in his zombie spectacular…

Yes, this is a film about zombies attacking people who are making a film about zombies attacking people. My first thought when I heard about it was that it sounded very much in the (lacerated) vein of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (one of the master’s less impressive latter-day films), in which people making a horror movie find themselves caught up in a genuine zombie apocalypse. This is not quite the same as that, however. I know we were talking the other day about how this is a good time for niche films to be released: well, once again, you don’t get much more niche than self-referential Japanese zombie horror comedy films. I knew very little about One Cut of the Dead before I went to see it, its Wikipedia entry is (perhaps intentionally) misleading, and I feel it would almost be spoiling the film to talk about it in any detail. On the other hand, I feel I have to say something, as this is one of the best films I have seen at the cinema this year (I should mention it’s taken its time arriving on UK screens, as its Japanese premiere was in 2017). So, this is one of the rare occasions where I will say Spoilers Incoming, but also that this film fully deserves the glowing notices it’s been getting pretty much everywhere, not to mention its enormous success (apparently this is the first film in history to make a thousand times its budget at the box office).

Why, you may be wondering, is this film called One Cut of the Dead? Well, I think this may be another case of our old friend the slightly dodgy translation making an appearance – One Take of the Dead would be a slightly more appropriate title, as you slowly become aware that the action of the film is unfolding in front of a single camera without any breaks – supposedly the camera filming the film-within-the-film, if you’re with me so far (thus explaining the film’s original title, Kamera o Tomeru na!, which translates as Don’t Stop the Camera!). Are you with me? I hope so, because we’re not quite to the heart of the matter yet.

After 37 blood-splattered minutes of hilariously over-the-top chaos, there is, finally, a cut, and a caption reading ‘One Month Earlier’ comes up. Suddenly the film adopts a much more conventional style. We meet Takayuki (Hamatsu again), a journeyman director of karaoke videos and the like (his motto is ‘fast and cheap, but average’) who is given a potential career opportunity – the backers of the soon-to-launch Zombie Channel (it’s only a matter of time before this really happens) want to kick off their new network with something special, and have decided to start with the live broadcast of a thirty-minute zombie movie, One Cut of the Dead, filmed in real time in a single take. Takayuki initially thinks this is a joke, but rapidly says yes when he realises they are serious.

Slowly it becomes apparent that this isn’t a horror film about zombies attacking people making a horror film about zombies attacking people. This isn’t even a horror film at all, in the strictest sense. This is a comedy film about people making a film about zombies attacking people making a film about zombies attacking people. What could be simpler? We are introduced to all the actors who play the characters in the film-within-the-film, and of course much humour is derived from the differences between their screen personae and real-life personalities. It is true that this section of the film is slower and less obviously funny than the bravura opening segment, but at the same time it is crucial to the film’s ultimate triumph, which is yet to come.

One Cut of the Dead is, I suppose, the equivalent of one of those Penn and Teller routines where they show you a hugely impressive and entertaining trick, then – in breach of all the magician’s union guide-lines – purport to show you exactly how they did it, which somehow manages to make it seem even funnier and more impressive than it was the first time around. The final third of the film is essentially a reprise of the beginning, but this time we are privy to all the desperate antics going on behind the camera in order to make the thing work – two of the actors haven’t turned up, which is why Takayuki and his wife (Shuhama) have been forced to step in and appear in the film, the bizarre performance of one of the zombies is revealed to be because the actor has drunk himself almost into a stupor, and so on. All the bizarre details and weird non sequiturs in the opening sequence are revealed to have a hilarious behind-the-scenes explanation; the stream of jokes is relentless and all of them hit their target. I have not laughed as much or as hard at any film in as long as I can remember as I have at One Cut of the Dead.

The film’s energy and invention are irresistible, and it enjoys two brilliant comic performances from Hamatsu and Shuhuma (Shuhuma’s transformation from mild-mannered make-up lady to axe-wielding berserker is funny the first time round, but even better when the reasons for it become apparent). And by the end it becomes a genuinely uplifting and joyous experience: you find yourself really rooting for these people as they desperately struggle to get to the end of the film despite all the problems it is beset by. In addition to being a truly great comedy, this is a loving tribute not just to bad horror films, but also to the craft and art of film-making itself. A fake-gore-splattered delight, and a wonderful surprise.

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