The following is a version of a segment to a compilation article to which I contributed with other writers over at The Action Elite prior to its publication on February 9, 2015. CLICK HERE to read the article in its entirety.
My college experience wasn’t a lot of fun, though I did have some good memories. I was a member of a cult genre club that followed sci-fi, games and anime, and it was through my membership there about fifteen years ago that one of ours bought a VHS tape of a little-known Japanese flick called Versus, directed by Kitamura Ryuhei. I saw a snippet of it in passing but it never quite caught onto me until I came upon a point in my life where I needed an outlet to deal with personal hardship and heartbreak.
So, cult Asian movies on DVD became my thing and so did my patronage of franchises like Tokyo Shock and online stores such as HKFlix.com and YesAsia.com. It’s also how I ended up buying multiple copies of Versus in various versions between Region 1 and Region 2-coded single and double-disc units. Why? Well, even for a thinly-budgeted zombie action slasher with performances that often dove into delightful improv amid all such gonzo plot development and gory imagery, it is just THAT good, and would ultimately embody the epicenter of my appreciation for chambara-style Japanese action for my generation, in addition to actor and lead star, Sakaguchi Tak.
The film doesn’t bear any names to reference its characters, including Sakaguchi whose role goes by none other than Prisoner KSC2-303. A sequel to late 90’s zombie slasher, Down To Hell, Versus takes off with our prisoner and his inmate buddy escaping through the woods while still in shackles as they set off to a rendezvous point where they meet up with a ragtag squad of Yakuza led by an eccentric knife wielding lieutenant, and it isn’t long before tensions increase and no one likes each other. Things eventually get worse when a mysterious young woman (Misaka Chieko) being held captive is pulled from the backseat, and our hero is instantly displeased with the situation. Soon enough, someone gets a bullet to the head resulting in a Mexican standoff with all guns drawn, and it is only seconds later that the same dead body suddenly awakens.
The Yakuza focus their fire on the undead body at hand while our hero and the girl escape back into the woods, ensuing a manhunt for both which takes the fight into the haunted forest where our characters are confronted by an army of undead rising from the dirt below. Of course, at the center of it all is our hero prisoner whose chemistry with the girl is nothing short of stiff while she continues to care for him, knowing almost full well what lies ahead in a story that jumps back and forth between two different periods, setting up an explosive finale of big guns, bigger bullets, and an epic sword duel between two warriors where only one can emerge as the victor.
While Sakaguchi wasn’t a very good actor at this time despite having done a few stints in film, his performance served its purpose, lending an aire of unwritten charm and humor to his leather-jacketed tough guy exterior, and Misaka‘s role certainly helps. The overall theme we get from his character is, to simply put, a tough guy with a really vague past and a potential darkside. He doesn’t believe in hitting women, but will knock a chick unconcious for her safety before he fights anyone, and he’s the last person you would expect to be sentimental which brings just a little more humor to his character development. With this in mind, it’s not until much later in the second act before going into the third that we begin to care about him more, fully engaged in hero mode with a missing eye, locked and loaded as he confronts actor Sakaki Hideo who plays “The Man”.
Sakaguchi carries himself quite well through all of the action in most of the shots he is seen, with choreography by longtime collaborator and friend Shimomura Yuji, taking on numerous elements that comprise a lot of what we have come to know in action stardom. Even Kitamura himself has often lended the design of Sakaguchi‘s to the credit of a few known Hollywood movie characters, namely the Terminator and Kurt Russell’s memorable role as renegade savior Snake Plissken in the Escape movies; Point in fact, if you own a double-disc set of this film containing some behind-the-scenes featurettes, you will see segment on set where Sakaguchi demonstrates several gun poses modeled off of classic action movie actors and director like Mel Gibson and Chow Yun-Fat. It’s a pretty funny moment and very indicative of just how much fun this cast and crew had on the set of this film.
Versus is a definitive look into the mind of a director who once was told that there was no money for the kind of movie he wanted to make. It was also the start of an exciting an new era of Japanese action going into the new millenium, and Kitamura‘s career has grown ever since, with productions having gotten bigger and bigger with a roster of actors between Japan, the U.S., and several parts of Asia. That said, Sakaguchi shares quite a chunk of this legacy, having acquainted himself so well with the film festival scene in a role that has since spawned a cameo appearance in a shortfilm Kitamura directed a few years thereafter, and the hopes of bringing the character back for a Versus sequel. Unfortunately though, with all the talk of Sakaguchi‘s retirement after he finishes with Shimomura‘s latest directorial gig, Re:Born, any chance of a Versus 2 doesn’t seem likely to happen, which is depressing.
Versus may not be an action packed blockbuster that takes itself seriously, but it offers plenty of reasons to care about the characters, to laugh often and be entertained. And with this, Kitamura and Sakaguchi have made a great pairing in bringing us a classic, with a slate of colorful and unique characters and a brilliantly vague approach that never really makes it clear just which side it is you should root for until the very end.
I sincerly hope that Kitamura follows this up somehow, even if it means recasting the role or introducing new ones to this universe. Versus is a true benchmark of cult fandom for Japan and fans all around, with a lead actor whose signature performance leaves a huge mark in history that further validates what makes Japanese action cinema so awesome.