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BLOG: YTC_EpisodeXXIX: Blog Vs Blog!

Episode XXIX: Blog Vs Blog!

Our once proud Hollyweird woke up one morning to find it had become a giant insect. An insect of two halves, with a blog under one name and a podcast under another. With too many figurative legs in two (sic) many pies, Hollyweird rallies it’s brain cells and decides to become one with it’s other half.

In a flash the estranged halves amalgamate. A new force emerges to once more to bring balance to the force. Well, um, the blog at any rate.

FINAL.2.2
NEW Hollyweird blog photoWelcome to this inaugural episode of the You Total Cult blog. This blog is very much a continuation of its former state as Hollyweird. I will still be writing my thoughts on the more unusual cinema offerings in the same way, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on whether you enjoy this blog for fun or out of loyalty!

The name change of this blog from Hollyweird to You Total Cult is purely to allow it to be keyed into my other work, both as a Podcast co-host and as a Twit-terer.

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(Shameless plug: You Total Cult Podcast is available on iTunes and also directly from http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/ . Our Twitter address is @You_Total_Cult. The co-host of the You-Total Cult Podcast, Craig Lakin Ennis also has his own blog of recently viewed films at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/scragg/ )

R.I.P. Hollyweird, we hardly knew ye. But what the heck, it’s all the same really. In fact, I’m even going to keep the numbering system in place without re-setting it. That’s what happens when you grow up rereading 1960’s American Superhero comics- a longing for continuation rather than constant reboots.

So this may well be the first You Total Cult blog, but it is also Episode 29. Given then that this is a tale of two blogs, it seems only fitting to pick apart a film with a perfectly suited title to opposing forces- Japan’s 2000 release, Versus!

 

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Versus, as the title may imply, is a film of conflict. Not the sort of internal conflict via a deep character study but more the straightforward conflict of a Martial Artist-Samurai-Mass-Murdering- Convict fighting a bunch of Gangster-Zombie-Demons in a forest.

2r7afqtThe Martial Artist-Samurai-Mass-Murdering-Convict, known only as ‘Prisoner KSC2-303’, has been broken out of secure transit by a small crew of Yakuza hoodlums. Also along for the ride is a kidnapped girl, known only as ‘The Girl’. Prisoner KSC2-303 is not sure why he has been rescued or why The Girl is there, so being a Martial Artist-Samurai-Mass-Murdering-Convict, he decided he’s had enough of the Yakuza. He grabs The Girl and they high tail it through a forest.

This is no ordinary forest, though. The forest itself is a Portal To hell where dark energy is leaking through. As it turns out, the secretive boss of the gangsters, known as ‘The Man’, is actually a reincarnated force to be reckoned with. The Man, Prisoner KSC2-303 and all the other players in this tale have fought previously on this very ground 500 years ago.

This dark power means that no-one can die in the forest, instead they just come back as zombies. Unfortunately for the oblivious gangsters, this is where they have been hiding dead bodies for many years. Consequently there is a lot of Undead-cannon fodder around as all the forces come into conflict once again.

 

Ketamin's bad for raves, fool
Ketamin’s bad for raves, fool

 

Although this ‘dark power’ from the Portal To Hell is never quantified, it’s enough of a reason to fight as any. Each cast member essentially goes at it for the entire run time of the film based on this premise. Versus showcases a prisoner against gangsters, gangsters against zombies, self-serving gangsters against loyal gangsters, a good spirit against a bad spirit and pretty much every variant in-between.

In fact there are also two more characters who slowly become introduced over the film. These are both detectives chasing the escaped Prisoner KSC2-303, but one happens to be serial-killer and the other a braggart. Invariably both of these detectives become involved in the numerous fight scenes, too. Evidently sometimes Zombies, Yakuza, Samurai, Convicts are not enough for a non-stop action film, You also need murderous Policemen.

Cop Killa!
Cop Killa!

In fact, all-in-all, it is safe to say that Versus has a perfect title. It can be fairly accurately described as 119 minutes of ever changing action set pieces, with the occasional calm moment thrown into the midst of the combat.

Versus plays as a film whereby the film makers took everything they loved and threw it all into a DIY picture. When I first saw the film in 2000 this made the film a refreshing blast of disposable action. It led to me forcing it onto friends for evenings in with beer and snacks more times than I can shake a pointed stick at a zombie’s brain.

Yet a decade or so after this gluttony of Versus, the film now sadly feels dated and duller than I first thought. How can a non-stop, Zombie-Kung-Fu-Gunplay film feel dull I hear someone at the back cry? Well, partly because it is just too much genre-love thrown in together with no weight behind it.

 

The Eyes have it
The Eyes have it

From a visceral perspective, Versus is too rammed up with characters and fight scenes for its own good. Films such as The Raid prove that an action film can be virtually non-stop and still be highly watchable, even though it is rare. One thing that The Raid possibly had in its favour was an incredibly clear, simple genre. It is a Martial Arts film. So if a viewer likes the hard hitting, impact-style of Martial Arts movie then they will likely enjoy The Raid. Regrettably though Versus as though is a case of ‘jack of all genres, master of none’.

There is some swordplay, some gun play, some zombies and a fair amount of cameras spinning around many of hand-to-hand combat scenes. Yet none of these elements are played for their individual worth. Instead they are constantly jumbled together.

Prisoner KSC2-303 has the typical ‘Warrior Progression’ as his skills improve from Boxer- Gun Smith- Swordsman throughout the film, this progressive drama of him becoming prepared for his ultimate fight with The Man. But this ‘skill progression’ is totally undercut by all of the other characters action scenes. Any pace of following Prisoner KSC2-303 as his skills become more impressive is interrupted so often by the gangsters’ fights, or the detectives’ fights or The Man’s fights that the film as a whole suffers from a muddled flow. Unfortunately this result in all of the films action scenes as a whole feeling jarringly repetitive rather than smoothly flowing.

Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Unless it's a Katana.
Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Unless it’s a Katana.

(Besides all of which, Versus is certainly not aided by a hideously-dated Techno soundtrack)

 

However, before this blog reads as too much of a list of Versus’ shortcomings, there is a fantastic aspect to the movie. The most curious thing about re-watching Versus is that its unclear plotting is also perhaps its saving grace. Surprisingly, Versus’ muddled story and vague characterizations means that by the end of the movie it is entirely possible that the audience have been following the villain of the piece all along!

 

"Say What?!?!"
“Say What?!?!”

During the final battle between Prisoner KSC2-303 and The Man, both men fight to the death via an epic, Supernatural/Gun-addled Swordfight. The Girl and Prisoner KSC2-303 come out victorious and they ride off into the horizon together for anew life… At least until a title card informs the viewer is it is now 99 years later.

A generic dystopian image
A generic dystopian image

The world has now become a charred, barren dystopian place. A mysterious figure carrying a sword cautiously walks into an abandoned building. Before him lay a gang of Cyberpunk-Zombies in wait… the very same, resurrected gangsters from the Forest! Leading them is Prisoner KSC2-303 who now holds The Girl as a captive. He explains in a monotonous tone that there is nothing left to destroy on Earth. He is bored as there is nothing left to ruin. As the man advances we see him to be… The Man!

The Girl then cries something that is perhaps the key to this entire sequence. She shouts to The Man that “I was wrong! I should have joined you all along!” The Man and he Prisoner launch into a fight as the film ends with their seemingly eternal conflict.

The line “I was wrong! I should have joined you all along!” possibly puts all of Versus’ events into a different spin. Upon a first viewing in 2000, I assumed this to mean that the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters swop roles every re-incarnation. Thus The Girl is saying on this occasion she chose the wrong one of the two men to support.

However on this latest viewing it occurred to me that maybe The Man was always the hero and Prisoner KSC2-303 was always the villain.

idea-lightbulb

Going back over the earlier moments from the entire film, The Man never truly does anything ‘evil’. He only kills the Gangsters, all of which he knows will either return as zombies or be reincarnated. The one person he turns into a Demon was a Yakuza boss who had tried to kill The Man first. In fact the nastiest thing he does is lie to The Girl about intending to sacrifice her when he really wants Prisoner KSC2-303.

Meanwhile Prisoner KSC2-303 is presented throughout the movie as much more of a bad man. His very first appearance flashes his motto up onto the screen- ‘Some people deserve to die’. After that he knocks out The Girl quite a few times, eviscerates anyone he comes into contact with, cuts off a Policeman’s Hand and successfully challenges one of the gangsters to a fist fight- who Prisoner KSC2-303 then immediately pulls a gun on.

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You mean this dude may be the hero???

 

What is interesting is that for both The Man and The Prisoner, their actions can be seen as either good or bad. The Man is either playing games with everyone else in The Forest whilst believing everyone is too beneath him to worry about. Or it is equally possible that The Man is actually trying to avoid hurting anyone directly. He could just want to ‘go to the other side’ via sacrificing a murderous sociopath and without upsetting anyone else.

Similarly Prisoner KSC2-303 can either be a slightly bad boy struggling to do the right thing , or else he’s out to do whatever wants so long as it gives him an excuse to kill- and along the way he gains enough power to become deadly on a global scale.

It is actually surprisingly tough to know which way around Versus is. Maybe the typical good guy is the hero, or maybe he is the bad guy. Or maybe The Girl’s piece of dialogue about picking the wrong side does not mean anything significant. After all, Versus is a very loosely constructed film with barely any explained story in place that has been translated into English.

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Whatever the true intention though, there is no denying that this possibility of Prisoner KSC2-303 being the evil all along makes Versus is a much more intriguing watch from the start.

Whilst Protagonist= Evil plot twist takes place in Thrillers such as The Usual Suspects or No Way Out, it is not one known to myself to occur in Martial Arts\ Action Films very often (Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter series is a notable exception).

This may be because with thrillers, audiences are invited to go on twisting turns and enjoy the elegance of deception within dubious moral comfort zones. In action films though it seems clearer to simply want a good guy to hurt bad guys. Any reversal of that principal runs the risk of seeming sadistic.

Whatever the intent of the film makers and wherever the truth lies about who the hero of Versus I supposed to be, it is encouraging to be able to still find something new and exciting in a film that seemed less fun than in the past. It just shows that we can all take something new from the old- even if it is just a new blog title for an old blog.

Next time on the You Total Cult Blog I will be recapping Frightfest 2013 for y’all. Unless I get fired. You never know.

Thanks for reading,

MJ

 

BLOG: YTC_Hollyweird: Episode XV: A Scroll Down Memory Lane

Follow me on Twitter: @You_Total_Cult.

In the short term, the YTC podcast can currently be found at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/

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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…

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Wings of Honneamise is a startlingly unusual Anime, and one well deserving of some coverage. Indeed, I don’t think that I’ve ever read about it. I just taped it off of the Sci-Fi channel once and realised that it was something special. Wings of Honneamise is a unique study of the mental and spiritual effects of an aspiring astronaut. However, I hope this does not sound too intriguing to anyone reading this as I actually left my Wings of Honneamise DVD at my parents last year.

Whoops.

So instead I’m going the polar-opposite direction and focusing on the very different, purely visceral Anime called Ninja Scroll. There is nothing subtle nor intelligent about Ninja Scroll. There is, however, a whole-hell of a lot of fun.

ninja

In feudal Japan, an evil clansman is desperate to mine gold out of a secret deposit behind the Shogun’s back in a quest to become the new ruler of Japan. Tricking two of his best ninja soldiers, Gemma and Jubei, the ambitious Lord convinces them to kill one another, leaving only himself as the sole person aware that the Gold mine exists. Jubei dispatches Gemma, but quickly goes into hiding as a Ronin; a master-less Samurai. Now surviving as a wandering soldier of fortune, Jubei wanders the land doing what he can to survive within his own code of honour.

(Think of the A-Team but with less milk, aeroplanes and banter).

Five years on and Jubei stumbles upon an entire village of slaughtered people alongside a wiped out army. Of ninjas. The only survivor of which is a female ninja called Kagero. Rather unfortunately for Kagero, Japanese fantasy often tends to feature rape. So as the only captured soldier she’s about to face that rather nasty fate via a massive creature that can turn its body into stone. Yes- you read right. This is a time of Demons and magic, you see. I may have forgotten to mention that part….

Jubei’s interruption of this attempted rape of Kagero leads to a battle with the stone demon, which Jubei ends up narrowly winning via reasons I don’t want to spoil. With ‘Rocky’ dead, a strange elderly man soon appears. This is Dakuan, a somewhat nasty and manipulative Yoda-like figure.

Evil Yoda

Dakuan explains that he is a spy, sent on a special mission to stop the Eight Devils of Kimon, a group of murderous demons. With Jubei having just slaughtered one Devil, the other seven will now come for him in retaliation. Dakuan then suggests that he and Jubei team up. Jubei scoffs at getting involved but is soon poisoned by Dakuan. If Jubei can survive for a whole day and defeat all the demons, Dakuan will cure Jubei and pay him handsomely. With Kagero joining them, the three protagonists now in place.

All we need now is a powerful ring-leader for the antagonists. Enter the re-incarnated Gemma, who sure can hold a grudge against Jubei. With all these pieces slowly in place, an epic battle for ancient Japan is about to begin…..

Gemma has a splitting headache

And epic it is! This film is pretty much just one thing; eye candy.

Colour Fills The Screen

The action is frantic from start to finish, each frame beautifully composed and drawn. This was way before Flash Animation/CGI somewhat cheapened the form. The sheer hard work from all the animators is pretty obvious throughout the runtime.. Hell, go watch the sword fight between Jubei and the Blind sword smith, Mujuro. Pause the fighting it at random and you’ll see every sword movement is drawn in. Some strikes may move too fast to follow clearly at full speed, but it’s all actually in there. This level of detail is a huge part of the films remaining appeal. Released in 1993, of course Ninja Scroll’s presentation does look dated today. But the fact it still holds up as well as it does really is a testament to the all of the artists responsible.

To my mind, the lush visuals within Ninja Scroll come down to three further aspects beyond the aforementioned level of detail;

1)The colour palette

The colours in this film often ‘pop’ against one another. It’s important to note that Ninja Scroll is a very gory film. Blood flows as freely as a proud father’s open bar tab at a wedding.

Naturally then this red needs other colours to splash out against. The main contrasts are yellows, greens and and blues. Any of these are pretty evident just by watching the film. But it is the blues that really catch my eye whenever I watch this film.

Being a film about ninjas, there is a lot of night scenes. The shading of blues and blacks is really beautifully done, keeping the action clear but still setting the shady scenes wonderfully.

 

Kagero’s got the Blues

2) The backgrounds plates are are lovingly designed, varying from plague-ridden villages to bamboo forests to ancient temples to pirate ships and even more in between.

Tree Huggers

3) Finally, and probably the most key to Ninja Scrolls visual cues are the excellent character designs.

The Eight Devils of Kimon come across like Boss Fights in a video game; each is unique with their own attack and weakness. Jubei slaughters them one by one, with each fight getting progressively tougher. But like any good video game, each Boss should be memorably different from the others.

For instance, the sex-fiend Tessai is a giant made of rock, all bulging muscles and muted colours. Benisato is an attractive woman naked and covered in snake tattoos- which can then come to life. Mushizo is a dwarf with a hornets nest built into his body. Yurimaru is an effeminate, well dressed man who controls electricity through a series of thin wires- and so on. Each villain stand uniquely next to the others, which is quite a feat for a 94min film which also features 3 protagonists!

Bee here now

In fact the only character to stay largely ‘plain’ is the hero, Jubei. His classic anti-hero demeanour is enough to understand his personality its own. Yet it is worth pointing out that he is actually based on a Japanese folk hero, Yagyū Jūbei Mitsuyoshi. Perhaps his basic appearance is akin to an English version of Robin Hood where by simply putting hmm in a green hood makes him recognisable to people from the same culture. Or perhaps he simply looks even more badass to take out all these Devils and armoured Ninjas in nothing but his robes and a straw hat!

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Feel free to buy me this Jubei statue if you like.

Writer and Director Yoshiaki Kawajiri deserves a lot of credit in the Anime world for puling off this film. It is brisk and energetic whilst being blood soaked and juvenile. Frankly he manages to fit an awful lot of plotting into a paper-thin narrative. In fact Kawajiri certainly must have dome something right as there was even a semi-sequel television show that ran for 13 episodes called, imaginatively, Ninja Scroll: The Series that he co-wrote. This is a film that lingers long after the simple fun of going ‘Cool! Swords!’. It mixes myth and design in a tantalising way that in many ways has yet to be matched by Fantasy/Action Anime two decades on.

 

Make no mistake, Ninja Scroll is dumb fun. Definitely dumb, and definitely fun. If you love action, monsters and bad dubbing then please do track it down. I did. In fact, it was the first ever DVD I bought along with a beast of a player back in 2000. I made this my first ever discs because I knew I wanted something with real flair to test out my new technology- and ‘Scroll sure as the Eight Devils of hell has a lot of flair.

 

Next time will be a look at a rather marvellous Spaghetti Western, which is also one of the bleakest films that I’ve ever enjoyed sitting through.

As for when ‘next time’ is I am not yet sure. I will be filming Frightfest in London soon, so maybe pre-Frightfest or maybe post-Frightfest.

Ooooh, the excitement of mystery!!

 

Thanks for reading,

MJ

 

P.S. I actually left my Ninja Scroll DVD at my parents house, too. I’ve just seen the film enough times to write this blog regardless!