A review requested by Eric "Sssonic" Mason, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There is a certain kind of film that has existed ever since the first generation of film school students began to direct features, and which came to its fullest prominence beginning in the 1990s, in which a fanboy gets to put all the other movies into his movie. They can be amazingly good, and they can be amazingly terrible, or anything in between, and in the form of Versus, I believe I have been shown the purest version of the genre that I have ever seen. The 2000 film is the third project completed by director Kitamura Ryuhei, following a pair of featurelets clocking in under an hour apiece, and the 30-year-old has claimed that he feared, at the time, that he wouldn't have a chance to ever make another, so he wanted to make sure that every fucking idea he could come up with made it into the final movie (his fears were unfounded: in part because of this very film's admiring cult, he'd get a crack at directing no less a holy grail than Godzilla: Final Wars, the designated Last Godzilla Picture for a good long while. In my opinion, he made a bit of a hash of it, but that's neither here nor there). Which is why in Versus, we have history's first and probably last horror-comedy that sets a lone samurai and, a millennium later, a squad of Yakuza hitmen fighting zombies in a haunted forest, in action setpieces that owe various debts to '70s Hong Kong kung fu movies, '90s American neo-gangster pictures and Peter Jackson-style gross-out action for grossness's sake. And then it ends with a sci-fi interlude, because why not.

There are an infinite number of ways to make this all not work, but only two I can think of to make it actually work. One is to be a genius of mixing comedy, thrills, gore, and action with the fluidity and clarity of purpose of a Sam Raimi, or a... anyway, Sam Raimi could have done it. The other is to be a full-on magpie darting at shiny things without hesitation, so deeply investing into every individual scene and every individual shot, believing in it so absolutely, that every moment of the film lands successfully enough that the audience will be swept up with the filmmaker's own enthusiasm, and not pay so much attention to whether the film steps along a nice A->B->C pattern, or if it's just a string of exclamation points. Kitamura, sad to say, is not Sam Raimi. But he's a hell of a good magpie.

A plot synopsis is almost beyond reason - "Yakuzas, haunted woods, zombies, zombie Yakuzas" is really all you need to know - but in the 444th of 666 portals to Hell, the Forest of Resurrection, a pair of prisoners have escaped: one is known only by his ID number, KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi Tak), the other not even treated with that level of intimacy (he's played by Komiya Motonari). He doesn't matter much at all; KSC2-303 does, though, since he's in a position to spot a girl (Misaka Chieko) who has been kidnapped by the Yakuza and rescue her. At which point the exact plot starts to get a little confusing for me to parse, but a high-level Yakuza (Sakaki Hideo) comes along to crack some skulls, simultaneously with the multitudes of dead bodies hidden in the woods rising up to give the rest of the gangsters hell. He has darker secrets than could ever be guessed, and they connect him to KSC2-303 and the girl, and those samurai a thousand years ago, and potent demonic force of the whole forest. And it takes an enormous amount of bloody fighting to stop him from tapping into the power of Hell itself.

I didn't realise until writing all that out what it is, exactly, that appealed to me about Versus despite its wanton embrace of action that piles up on top of itself to the point of absolute incoherence: it's a Japanese version of one of Lucio Fulci's "gate to Hell" movies. The armies of zombies, the mythology that erupts into the film at at totally arbitrary point in the plot, the way that scenes are far more interested in how to make a visceral impact in and of themselves rather than how they add to the overall development of the plot; that's all pure Italian genre goodness. The particularly Japanese twist comes in the way that it's all treated with joyous goofiness: even when it's not actually stopping to make jokes (something that doesn't happen all that frequently), Versus is absolutely wacky, so overblown in its plotting and excited to show off those gore effects that it can afford - this movie adores that old "blast a hole through a zombie, then point the camera back at the shooter through the dripping wet hole" gag - that there's never much of a risk of taking it too seriously. Certainly not as horror, though it has a few good shocking moments, and the Forest of Resurrection (a well-chosen spot that offers maximum atmosphere for minimal production design and budget) can be satisfyingly creepy in the way of all sufficiently dense forests.

It is, pretty transparently, an excuse to show off, and what he lacks in finesse, Kitamura makes up for in pure showmanship. He's aided considerably by editor Kakesu Shuichi, who keeps the images flowing quickly, and composer Morino Nobuhiko, who whips the tone around from adventure to action to thriller to pensive character piece, even. Among other talented indie sorts, all diving into the visibly low-key production with the best kind of "hey! let's make a MOVIE!" gusto.

What it amounts to is a film that shows its seams rather openly, but expresses such glee in how creatively it assembles all of its ingredients into a series of demented fights that it tends to make us co-conspirators rather than an audience to be persuaded of the film's authenticity. The film is a live-action cartoon, motivated by whatever Kitamura thinks is extremely cool at a given moment, and directed with such fearless commitment to that ideal of cool that it ends up sweeping us along with it, even when our idea of cool doesn't align with the filmmakers. It's not remotely flawless, even discounting its admittedly amateurish production value. It's absolutely too long - and the uncut version of the original I watched isn't even the longest extant cut (in 2004, Kitamura revisted the film to add CGI and re-work the color timing, but that seemed like an inappropriate way to see it for the first time, to my way of thnking) - and there are places where the momentum and mania simply get tiring. And, I mean, it's pretty hard not to disagree with the more serious kind of person who would simply write all of this off as totally stupid. It is stupid. But it doesn't care not to be, and it's energetic enough to be a real gas even so.