Way back when the earth was young and you could make a working record player out of some rock and a prehistoric bird (“It’s a living”) I wrote a piece about how messed up Japanese cinema is. Looking back, I should have stressed that it’s also F%*&#ing awesome. So this week I’m here to rectify that with two movies and the strange tale of their creation.
Once upon a time at a film festival, two Japanese film makers of no small acclaim met and embarked on a night of binge drinking and extended discussion about the art of film making. These men were Ryuhei Kitamura, creator of such excellent movies as Versus, a movie that can be summed up in the single, beautiful phrase “Yakuza vs Zombies”, and Yukihiko Tsutsumi, whose work I have largely yet to partake of.
Over the course of the evening, a dare was made. A film making challenge, as it were. Who could make the best “duel to the death” movie, under severe limitations: They were allowed only one week to film their creation, and must make it with only one location and two to three actors. When I get drunk with my friends I usually just babble incoherently about Werner Herzog and Power Rangers before face-planting in my own vomit. Different strokes, I suppose.
So this week at FFR I’m presenting to you the fruits of their demented labor: Tsutsumi’s 2LDK and Kitamura’s Aragami, two vastly different movies about two people trying to murder each other. Bring a change of clothes, there shall be splatter.
Tsutsumi’s entry in the challenge takes the whole “duel” aspect less literally than Kitamura’s entry, less about two warriors battling for honor and glory and more two attractive 20-something girls getting in the mother of all catfights.
Our combatants are Nozomi and Rana, roommates and aspiring actresses. The two seem immediately opposed in terms of personality, Nozomi being more quiet and bookish, and Rana being a Tokyo girl to the bone: flighty, fashion-obsessed, and in many regards dumb enough that you could use her head as a doorjamb and she’d barely notice.
The two are aspiring actresses and learn early on that they are in direct competition for the same possibly career-making role, thus setting the stage for passive-aggressive swipes, sabotage, arguments, and eventually brutal, gory murder.
This is something of a slow boil. The two start off feigning friendship, all the while secretly judging and despising each other, which I found personally reminiscent of all of my human interactions since approximately age five. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.
But of course things have to ramp up, and when they do, the film basically does a flying cartwheel off the sanity cliff and falls straight into the chasm of delightfully demented lunacy.
Once things go beyond “I politely disagree” and into “Imma drown you, bitch!!” territory, the levels of violence, to say nothing of the amount of punishment these two can soak up, gets into the level of a Frank Miller comic.
There’s beating, stabbing, electrocution, it’s some of the most hilariously over-the-top attempted homicide I’ve seen in a while. Outside of my last high school reunion, of course.
The characters are about as well-developed as you could expect from a movie that takes place in real time over the span of about 70 minutes, with each one given enough back story presented through fairly organic exposition that they don’t just feel like characters in a fighting game, distinguishable only by their clothes.
Overall, I quite liked 2LDK, it’s a smart, tightly crafted black comedy that only goes slightly insane by the end.
Unlike 2LDK, Aragami is a bit more “traditional” and I want you to imagine those quotation marks at about size 100.
After a brutal (and unseen) battle, two Samurai arrive near death at a mountain temple. After collapsing, one of the two awakens to find himself the guest of the man living there and a perpetually silent woman.
Slightly spoiling things here, but it turns out the host is actually what he calls an Aragami, a nigh-immortal god of battle, and is seeking a worthy adversary so he may die in combat and finally rest.
But that’s really as traditional as it gets. Kitamura is a director with an abundance of style and a flare for the cool, and it shows. The temple is like a Tim Burton nightmare, the soundtrack is a truly excellent mashup of traditional Japanese music, hiphop beats and techno, and much like its’ rival film, things go completely bananas by the end.
While 2LDK‘s climax was a frenetic, brutally gory fight, Aragami finishes off with a breathtakingly choreographed and filmed sword duel. I was literally enthralled by the style, the grace of movement, the beautiful cinematography that was used in the sword-fights and am I letting on that I somewhat preferred this one to 2LDK?
Aragami does also seem to have more of a sense of humor about itself, with our confused hero breaking down in laughter at the ludicrousness of what’s going on at least once. Aragami, like most of Kitamura’s work, is one of those movies that knows it’s utterly bonkers, but seems to answer your smart-ass remarks with a self-assured smirk before lighting a match against it’s cheek and cracking it’s knuckles. It knows who’ll be laughing in the end.
Special note should also be made of the excellent performances by the leads Takao Osawa and Masaya Kato, with a special appearance by Kitamura’s frequent collaborator Tak Sakaguchi, who is and shall forever remain the man.
I did prefer Aragami in the end, but that’s mostly because this is just more my kinda film.
Fans of Japanese cinema should definitely check these two out. 2LDK is a dark, funny, at times poignant little romp, and Aragami is a slick, stylized action piece, and if you have an evening to spare, they would make an excellent double-bill.
Nice reviews. The silent woman in Aragami is also Kitamura’s wife, I believe. She’s in Godzilla Final Wars as well (as one of the aliens).