Clever comedy that delivers
Arguably, the whole zombie genre of films has been played out with every possible angle explored in countless films. Likewise, the combination of horror and comedy has given us classics such as Shaun Of The Dead and Zombieland. Is there anything else that can offer up a fresh angle?
In Japanese film One Cut Of The Dead the answer is yes and no. The whole zombie angle utilised here is merely a distraction for what’s really going on, which is a behind the scenes exploration of how a film gets made. The concept that the film is sold on to begin with is that it’s a zombie film shot in one continuous take, but also a film shoot that’s besieged by real zombies during the process.
At this point it’s imperative that if you haven’t yet watched the film, that’s all the details you need going in. Providing any more information would spoil the peculiar structure of the film and the way it plays out in three distinct acts. For those not that worried about spoilers, read on.
Written and directed by Shinichiro Ueda, One Cut Of The Dead asks a lot of its audience in a set-up that only really delivers in the final third of the film. The film opens with the self-contained one take movie. For about 30 minutes, we have to endure a fairly dull low budget horror outing. Here and there, the film also throws up some very odd moments that will puzzle viewers: Why is the glum sound guy sitting down during the zombie attacks? Why is there a bizarre discussion about everyone’s hobbies? Why is the camera focussing on one of the actors screaming while a terrifying zombie attack is apparently taking place behind the camera?
The film’s second act takes place one month before and looks at how the director Takayuki Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) got involved in the project to begin with. Higurashi is shown to be an average director whose family life features the supportive Harumi (Harumi Shuhama) and daughter Mao, who is keen to pursue her own film director dreams.
The first reading turns out to be a disaster with diva-like leads and an assortment of odd characters who all have their foibles. There’s a moment where the camera lingers on Higurashi’s face in the middle of this chaos, showing a man whose dreams of art and professionalism are being eroded in real time. A lot of throwaway details, as with the first part of the film, are dropped in and appear to be insignificant to the film’s narrative as a whole.
It’s only when the third act begins, with the crew shooting on location at a crumbling disused water treatment plant, that everything you’ve seen before snaps into place. There’s a punchline for every one of the insignificant scenes that played out previously and the results are hilarious.
The shoot appears to be organised chaos as a road accident deprives the crew of two of their actors, forcing Higurashi to not only direct the film, but play the fictional director in front of the camera as well. The volunteering of his wife to play the role of Nao, the makeup artist, meets strong resistance from Higurashi, but it’s not until halfway through this final segment that it’s revealed why (a sterling performance from Harumi Shuhama). Meanwhile, his daughter, frustrated by the disaster unfolding before her eyes, takes matters into her own hands by commandeering the production office.
What follows in the final third is a combination of slapstick and character-driven comedy that pulls together everything in a satisfying number of gags. Yet despite the chaos, the film’s closing shot shows a film crew who, despite their bickering, are prepared to go all out to be professionals and fulfil Higurashi’s artistic vision.
“This film began as a workshop which is only available in Japan” commented Shinichiro Ueda in an interview for MYMBuzz in 2018, “it’s not a peculiar system but it’s only really used in our country. What happened was that a company came to me as a director first, and then once I was chosen I started to search for a story we could look at.” The film itself took three months to shoot and that focus on a workshop system, relying on the input of the various team members, helped to craft the final production.
The fact that this film has been snapped up by Third Window, who specialise in introducing Japanese films to a wider audience, seems apt. Their catalogue of films features a lot of quirky character-driven Japanese comedies, such as Kamikaze Girls and Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers.
One Cut Of The Dead’s combination of hilarity and disaster seems custom-made for their attention. However, that winning formula was tainted earlier this year when the film turned up on Amazon Prime in a bootleg format (something which drew criticism of Amazon’s screening process).
Following its international success at its screening at the Udine Film Festival, One Cut Of The Dead began picking up attention and a slew of awards, including Best Film at a number of Film Festivals. On re-release in Japan, the film grossed over 3 billion yen, sealing its success as an indie wonder.
One Cut Of The Dead is a clever comedy whose wit and ideas will deliver rewards for the patient viewer and is deserving of its place in that whole zombie comedy sub genre.
One Cut Of The Dead is out now on Third Window.
He is responsible for design outfit Arc23 as well as writing for outlets such as J-Pop Go, Electronic Sound, All The Anime, Manga Entertainment and The Electricity Club.
He has been featured in a variety of press and media features including the Metro and Japan Update Weekly.