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Doogan's Views at The Digital Bits!
page added: 8/8/03

Doogan's turning Japanese, he thinks he's turning Japanese, he really thinks so.

Well, the book is finally done and so I'm back and ready for more DigiBits action. It's been a long time, but a fruitful one, because very soon, you'll be able to put Bill and me up on a bookshelf where we've long dreamed of being - in book form anyway.

I think I can say, without sounding too full of myself, that this book is damn good. It won't necessarily replace the Internet in terms of what you'll be able to learn or stay current on, but for a snapshot of where DVD is right now in the year 2003, it works incredibly well. I honestly think every person who has any sort of interest in DVD will have fun with it. All in all, this is going to be a good book to toss your newbie friends, use as a reference for yourself and MAYBE even stuff in every stocking come Holiday time. God bless us, everyone.

So, enough about what I've been doing with all my minimal spare time. I've put the time in, and it was fruitful. But what have I done for you lately? Well, I've watched a ton (a literal ton) of DVDs in the last few months. I've watched major studio releases, minor studio releases and best of all, foreign films on DVD. Right now, my passion is with the Japanese cinema. Gotta love those Japanese films on Region 1 DVD. But it's so hard to find a perfect DVD of a Japanese film here in the States, for a variety of reasons. It's nice when a good company puts them out, but not every good Japanese film comes out from a good company. As I've said in the past, Film Preservation isn't as widely held in vogue outside of Hollywood. Tack on the fact that most Japanese companies want too much money for newly produced elements of their films, and most of the companies getting these licenses have limited funds and skimp out. Thus, you have great movies on occasionally subpar DVDs. But sometimes, you have to weather the problems in order to see great movies. It's just a fact of life for you film fans out there.

Anyway, with all of that in mind, this month, to mark my return to this column, I'm going to be looking at some recent Japanese releases that I think are pretty interesting. Some will rock you and others with leave you with a headache. But to me, the most living cinema out there happens to be Japanese, and I have to give them the props they deserve.

So this week we're going to take a look at one of my favorite genres: the Zombie flick. Happily, Zombies are making a comeback in the States of late (see: Resident Evil, 28 Days Later and the new Dawn of the Dead crapfest currently in production). But the Japanese have been kicking it with the Dead for a few years now and have turned out quite a few good ones, like Stacy, Versus and Junk. Sadly, the king of the recent crop of Japanese Zombie flicks (that would be Wild Zero) won't be out from Synapse for a few months, but we do currently have the other three I mentioned reviewed here.

Oh... and just so other studios don't feel left out in my columns this month, and so they can get their much deserved props, I'll also review a select few DVDs that aren't Japanese, but might have something to do with the theme I choose for each column. This time it's the Bay's Day of the Dead and Warner's long-in-the-hopper The Omega Man. Dig it and let's go.

Todd Doogan

Doogan's Views - Main Page


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2000 (2003) - Media Blasters

"There are 666 portals that connect this world to the other side. These are concealed from all human beings. But there are some who notice their existence. And some are willing to open the door and try to gain the power of darkness. Somewhere in Japan exists the 444th portal, known as the Forest of Resurrection."

Versus starts in the past. 500 years ago to be exact. In the Forest of Resurrection mentioned above, a lone samurai battles a horde of undead enemies, making quick work of them with his flashing sword. As they amble towards him, he just cuts them down. That is, until he meets their leader, who ends the battle as if there were no battle to be had. Right from the start with this film, you feel like you're about to witness something very, very cool.

We then flash forward to the present day, where two escaped criminals rush headlong through the woods en-route to a rendezvous point. When they get there, one of them will die, one of them will learn his place in the history of the forest and the undead will rise again and fight to unleash whatever is behind portal 444.

Using a hyper kinetic mix of Raimiesque camera work, Romero blood flow and Peter Jackson's over the top cartoon violence (see: Dead Alive and Brain Dead, not Rings), director/co-writer Ryuhei Kitamura has crafted something, well... interesting. But is it interesting enough? Is Versus worth all the bubbling fan boy word of mouth it's gotten of late? Personally, I have to say: no. Don't get me wrong, it's a neat flick overall and I'm glad I shelled out the 25 bucks to put it in my library. But I have a habit of initially falling for fan boy hyperbole, and the consensus out there is that this flick is the coolest flick out there. It's cool sure, but pretty flawed as well. Then again, it was the first feature film from Kitamura.

I could go on and on criticizing the lack of characterizations, the insignificance of the plot to the end result, or even the huge holes in the logic of the film. But what's the point? Kitamura made this to have fun and show off his style. And it does that. As much as I don't want to like the film, I do. I just don't think it's very good or super cool. It's just neat and likable. Sometimes it sucks being a fan and a critic, let me tell you.

Without a doubt, the best stuff in the film are the shots from 500 years ago. Kitamura should just make quirky samurai films from now on and he'd have a lifelong fan in me. His camera style, angle choices and sense of humor fit this genre incredibly well. Why he hasn't picked up the license to re-do the Lone Wolf and Cub series is beyond me.

That being said, the biggest problem I have with the film is the fact that watching Versus is like watching a friend play a video game like, say, DoA3. Sure it's neat for a while, but it gets old quick. I'm sure your friend is having a bang up time playing, just like I'm sure the cast and crew were having a ball shooting this film. But for you, there is only so much fun you can get out of it. Consider this when I tell you that Versus is over two hours long and most of it is fight sequences. As cool as some of it is, that ends up not being a good thing. Overall, unless you're a Japanese film fanatic or a fight film fan, that doesn't care about story structure of characterization, I can't really recommend people blindly pick this film up.

Media Blasters isn't known for its DVD quality, and at this point in time they don't seem to be trying to rectify that. Versus is a step up from the bad pirate copy you can find at your favorite comic/DVD shop, but only a small step up. The picture is very soft, full of artifacts and lacking in definition. The blacks, of which there are plenty, shift and shimmy with compression artifacts. I thought I could get used to the sub par picture pretty fast, but because the camera work in this film is so fluid, these problems just keep coming up, which prevents me from forgetting it's a shitty transfer. Hey, but it's anamorphic at least, I guess I can be happy about that.

As hard on Blasters as I am about the video, they get kudos for the sound options, which are pretty good. We get a very nice Japanese 5.1 that has a lot of impact and plenty of play, as well as a 2.0 for both English and Japanese. The English track is a bit muted held up against the Japanese 2.0 (and the dubbing isn't very good, but is it ever?), which is almost as good as the 5.1, itself. So the DVD has that going for it.

Those looking for extras will be only half-pleased. There are two commentary tracks. The first is a Japanese track with the cast and crew discussing the film and making jokes - with subtitles. The other is in Engrish with Kitamura, his producer and a female moderator. Both tracks are good and actually very fun. Kitamura is a funny guy and I doubt any of my criticisms of the film will surprise him as he has plenty more. He's a way harsher critic of this film than anyone else could be. Sadly lacking from this disc are the "making of" featurettes and parallel story from the Japanese disc. Both are talked about in the commentary tracks, so to not have them here is pretty glaring. Ah, but what are you gonna do? I complain, you listen and if you're intrigued by what I say, you'll buy the disc anyway.

Doogan Says: Versus is neat. It's okay. It's worth the time for a rental and if you like it after that, it's worth buying. I'm just not going to crow about it like it's the Second Coming. You may like it. You may not. I'm not going to vouch for it. But I will say, after seeing this I can't wait for Kitamura's recently theatrically released Azumi (see the trailer here) to come to Region 1 DVD. That, my droogs, looks badass and it's exactly what Kitamura excels at - a quirky samurai flick. Check the trailer out and see if you aren't clamoring for it. B-


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2001 (2003) - Synapse

"At the beginning of the 21st Century, young girls, aged 15 to 17, began dying one after another, all over the world. Even more surprising, the dead girls began to reawaken as zombies."

Japan, nay, the world is in utter turmoil as war, famine and a declining birth rate have put a choke-hold on society. No one knows why, but teenaged girls on the edge of becoming women get all giggly (thanks to NDH Near Death Happiness) and just fall over dead. Moments later, these girls turn into flesh crazed zombies (called "Stacys") and attack anyone they see. It's that simple. That's your set-up. That's your story. Well, actually that's not true. The situation is explored through the parallel stories of a select group of people.

First there's Shibu and Eiko. Shibu is a puppeteer who's seen better days. His crew has left him to join an elite troop of "Stacy" killers called the Romero Repeat Kill Troops (Repeat Kill - dissecting the body of a Stacy into 165 pieces). Eiko is a young girl with NDH and a wind chime, who adopts Shibu as her boy friend to repeat kill her when she dies. You see: it's illegal to repeat kill unless you are with the RRK, a family member or you're the boyfriend of the girl that dies.

That brings us to the second group, three sixteen (and two month) year-old girls, who call themselves the Drew Illegal Repeat Kill Troop (named after their idol Drew Barrymore). These girls, armed with swords, nunchucks and guns take the jobs the RRK are either too busy or lazy to do. Their aim is trying to earn enough money to hire someone named Sorimachi to repeat kill them when they die.

That just leaves Matsui and Arita. Matsui and Arita used to work with Shibu in his shop. They are with the RRK stationed at the Inugami Institute of Corpse Resuscitation - formerly the Riruka Women's Art School - where Arita is trying to find his sister's friend so he can save her. Matsui is trying to stay sane, and is having a hard time of it.

All three stories will converge in interesting way, and if you want to find out what comes out of mixing cute Japanese school girls, tongue wagging zombies, bucket loads of gore, an Art Neuvo chainsaw dubbed the "Blues Campbell's Right Hand 2," adorable home shopping hostesses dressed as a bunny and a wacky mad scientist - well, look no further, 'cause this is your flick. It's wild. It's wacky. And it's hard to swallow in one sitting. But man, does this film grow on you. Everything about it seems off, but in a good way. The music, the direct-to-digital cinematography, the acting - all of it melds into one wacky, bold and wholly original head-trip.

I know just a little bit about Japanese culture. That is to say, I'm no expert. I don't have enough knowledge to be able to wax philosophical about what's really being said about this film. I can say, however, that there's a lot being said with the film. Just the ending alone will make your eyebrows arch, with it's unspoken message of a future society sprouting out of a magical love made manifest. Like I said, Stacy is a bold and original film - even with all the bad American Zombie movie references.

Director Naoyuki Tomomatsu's choice to shoot this film on digital may have been a financial one, but in the end, I think it was a good one. It gives Stacy a nicely clean, crisp look. I found it a bit jarring at first, not really expecting it to be as digital looking as it is, but after many repeat viewings, I can't see the film any other way. I tried thinking about what it would look like with a cinematic, grainy look, and I don't think it would work as well. Tomomatsu's choice works in the film's favor.

Synapse respects the digital look of the film, presenting it in a super crisp, bright and very detailed anamorphic widescreen transfer. Colors are solid and blacks are full. As always, Synapse did a stellar job. It's such a good job that Stacy is one of my favorite transfers from them to date (excluding the new flawless Hi-Def transfer of Brain Damage they released recently). The sound is a functional 2.0 in Japanese, with easy to read subs. Extras are light... well, actually pretty non-existent, except for the trailer. A commentary by a cultural scholar, explaining the history of the book the film is based on (written by Kenji Otsuki), the pornographic career of the director and the cultural references within the film would have been great. But maybe that's a lot to ask. Donny May, Jr. takes care of us in other ways, so I'll cut him slack and stop my bitching.

Doogan Says: Stacy is funky fun. It's not for everyone, but once you check it out, it'll nestle inside your brain and stay there.B+


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2002 (2003) - Unearthed Films

The Japanese have an odd love affair with Quentin Tarantino. Lately, every stylish Japanese movie (at least the B-Grade stuff) has a weird Tarantino touch. That's particularly true of this flick, Junk.

Merging together the worlds of Reservoir Dogs and From Dusk Till Dawn with an obvious smattering of Romero's Dead films, Junk is a happy little brain dead action flick without much going for it. And yet, it's satisfying in the end.

Saki is the de facto leader of a gang of jewel thieves who just pulled off a nice job... leaving behind a casualty of course. They have the goods, but they need a fence. In comes Ramon (outfitted with Clooney tats from Dusk) who promised to take their jewels and give them a nice chunk of change. Of course ,he's a lying bastard and plans to kill them all and take the loot.

They plan to meet at an abandoned American military base in Okinawa, home to a secret super soldier serum research group who just had an accidental outbreak of DNX, which obviously revives the dead. Sooooo... in comes Saki and her gang, and out come the zombies. Bang, bang. Blood, blood. Ramon comes in, more bang and blood. Meanwhile, an American team, with the help of a Japanese doctor (with mysterious ties to DNX) is trying to blow the base up, but their computer system is malfunctioning so they need to go inside to do it. Of course, the doctor is met there by his naked past. More bang, more blood and we end. Whew.

Junk is fast, furious and derivative as all hell. But it's also fun to watch, and so I can heartily recommend at the very least a rental.

Unearthed Films is a new kid on the DVD block, but they're trying. Making a name for themselves with the morbid Guinea Pig series (remember the snuff film Charlie Sheen went to the feds with? Those films.), the Unearthed guys have some great titles planned for release. Chief among these is one of my favorite guilty pleasures of Japanese cyber punk (I don't see it on their site, so I won't name it yet). We'll talk about it when they announce it. Anyway, Unearthed did a good job with this film. The film is here in a non-anamorphic, 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which represents the film well. The original film elements prevented them from doing an anamorphic transfer, which is understandable. What we do get is a transfer with nice blacks and bold colors. There is a lot of grain, but that's to be expected. Sound is a well done Dolby Digital 2.0 in Japanese, with easy to read English subs.

Extras are pretty much text based, with a translation of the original Japanese press notes and cast and crew biographies. There are also trailers for this, the upcoming Evil Dead Trap 2 and the notorious Guinea Pig films. Also along for the ride is a gallery of photo material. Not bad for a movie you probably only just heard of.

Doogan Says: Junk isn't the best flick in this week's column, but it still can be a fun ride if you have an open mind. The Tarantino influence makes it an interesting conversation piece at least and the style of the film is certainly better than most films you'll see at the Cineplex this weekend. Pop it in and see what you think. C+

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