One Cut of the Dead (2017)

This review contains spoilers so if you have not seen the film already, I recommend you do before reading as there are some great twists to enjoy.

A film crew are gathered in a remote water treatment plant to film a low budget zombie film. During a break in filming the make-up lady (Harumi Shuhama) explains to the two leads (Yuzuki Akiyama and Kazuaki Nagaya) that there is an urban legend about the site that say when blood is spilt it will raise the spirits of the dead. Before they know it cast and crew are being attacked by zombies and must fight for their lives. The film’s opening half hour is a perfect B-movie horror flick, complete with dodgy acting, poor quality special effects and a story that makes little to no sense. After the credits roll (surprisingly early) “One Cut of the Dead” then turns into a film within a film within a film, when we discover that in fact everything we have just seen was all part of a special live television show as part of the recently launched zombie channel. We follow director (Takayuki Hamatsu), cast and crew as they rehearse for the film we have just watched and this is where the fun really starts. Once you realise that in fact the first part was not meant to be serious and in fact did not at all go according to the script, you are treated to the same events again, this time from behind the camera, with drunken extras, numerous mistakes, and a quick-thinking director trying to keep the live show going amidst the chaos.

Writer and director Shinichiro Ueda has created something truly special in this film. While many may think the zombie movie has been wrung to its last drop, he manages to do something unique with the genre. For everyone who has ever made a low budget film with their friends this film will ring painfully true. Its genius is in the structure. Going in knowing nothing about the film you soon settle down into what appears to be another cheap zombie film. Disused buildings, shoddy special effects, and peculiar line reads. It is an impressive opening, shot in one take, and this section alone would be worthy of praise, despite various apparent flaws. However, when the film then takes you a further step back behind the scenes and you realise that what you watched was a construction of the characters who are acting in it, there is a unique style of humour that provides for some laugh out loud moments. Suddenly, you are forced to recontextualise everything you just saw. The film has essentially shown you the punchline, and is now giving you the joke, which creates a fun atmosphere of expectation as you want to see what you know is coming and are anticipating the pay off in advance. The cast of “One Cut of the Dead” comprises entirely of first-time and unknown actors. Takayuki Hamatsu is well cast as the director, Takayuki Higurashi, of the ill-fated film. His relationship with daughter (Mao) is one of the highlights of the movie. Yuzuki Akiyama gives a very enjoyable performance as the lead actress with Kazuaki Nagaya playing opposite her. Also, Harumi Shuhama is fantastic as Higurashi’s overly zealous actress wife. The cast were chosen by the director for their awkward qualities and workshopped the film together. This approach of casting relative newcomers works well as there is great chemistry between everyone involved and the apparent lack of artifice in their performances is perfect for the story.

As mentioned, the opening “film” is enjoyable in its own right as a schlocky zombie comedy film and credit to the film-makers for pulling off this “one-take” style. All of the actors deserve praise for their roles in the film as there is not a bad note from anyone and everyone has a least a couple of hilarious scenes that they own completely. At the end of the film you can feel the camaraderie of the cast of this project, so completely does the film draw you in to the making of it. The cast are mostly given almost stereotypical roles, but pull them off with aplomb, for example the “idol”, the actor who wants to be taken seriously, and the director who is just trying to avoid messing up completely.

“One Cut of the Dead” deserves to be seen by anyone who is a fan of low-budget film-making, zombie movies, or comedy. It excels of every level of film-making and acting with a script that is laugh-out-loud funny. For those into film-making it has a lot of in-jokes, such as characters using eye drops to fake tears, the way of getting fake blood spray or corpses into shot, special effects, and more. The ending is a heart-warming testament to the power of co-operation that is sure to leave you with a smile on your face. This film reaffirms the absolute joy that films and film-making can be.

Radiance (2017)

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) works as a writer of audio-descriptions for films for the blind and partially sighted. She is working with a test group to write the script for a moving film about dementia and loss. One of the group, Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), was once a famous photographer who is now coming to terms with a  degenerative condition meaning the slow loss of his sight. The two have an uncomfortable relationship, with Masaya frustrated about his loss of sight, and Misako frustrated about her inability to convey the emotional content of the film in words. Slowly the two come to an understanding of one another.

Naomi Kawase writes and directs this touching drama on the subject of loss and understanding. It is great to see a film focussing on the issue of visual impairment and the film is in part about understanding those whose experiences are different from your own. The lead actors do a fantastic job with their characters. Ayame Misaki has a sharp edge beneath her kind-hearted exterior. Frustrated by her inability to accurately describe the film for her test group, and also suffering her own troubles with the slow deterioration of her mother’s dementia, Misako is a relatable and interesting protagonist. Masatoshi Nagase is also excellent as Nakamori. We can feel through his performance that this is a man who has lived a full life before losing his sight and is finding it hard to adjust. Both are somewhat prickly characters, understandably so, and this lack of sentimentality makes the film more enjoyable than a predictable romantic drama. The supporting cast, especially those playing the test subjects for the audio commentary do a great job. Oftentimes those with disabilities are used to gain sympathy, but here they are given time to share their feelings and, to some extent, speak on behalf of the blind community regarding their treatment in society. The only moment I found was undeserved was between Ozaki and Nakamori as they look out over a sunset. It seemed to come from nowhere, but even this can be read as a moment of exasperation rather than a romantic trope. Kawase’s script is lively and well-paced, moving between Misako and Masaya’s stories and using variations on the theme of loss and multiple perspectives to keep things interesting. The direction is intimate and beautiful at times, further emphasising exactly what Masaya has lost.

The film has a lot to say about how people perceive the world. In contrast to many portrayals, the blindness here acts not as a metaphor for ignorance, but rather gives us a gateway to a deeper level of perception. Misako comes to understand that it she is the one who is unable to see things clearly. Her group explain to her that some things, such as emotions, cannot and should not be explained. There are some things that simply cannot be described in words. This may seem obvious and cliched, but the film does a great job of showing this as well as explaining it. In a scene where Misako is walking around describing her actions we are made aware that this is not telling us everything. For example, it tells us nothing about what she is thinking, her emotional state, her history, her background. “Radiance” also acts as a commentary on film and art too, in Misako’s work and Masaya’s photographs. Art is a way for humans to make sense of the world and communicate with one another. It is necessarily imperfect, but it is one of the best ways we have of translating our inner lives to a medium where they can be appreciated, if not fully understood, by others.

The idea of loss is also a defining theme of the film. The loss of sight, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of memories or even of self through dementia. A constant refrain in the film refers to the unbelievable tragedy of something disappearing before you. Again, Kawase approaches the subject in an interesting way, using the visuals of burning photographs and layering the film with several different interpretations of this concept to make the point forcefully. A moving film that rises above simple sentimentality to tell a story that is powerful and timeless.

The Sion Sono (2015)

Sion Sono is a prolific director, having made over 40 films in his career. He came to prominence through gory horror films such as “Suicide Club”, but he has created works in several genres, comedies like “Love & Peace”, a hip-hop musical “Tokyo Tribe”, and more dramatic works such as “Himizu” and “Cold Fish” (inspired partly by real world events). The film discusses the fact that he is hard to categorise, in some ways having created a category all of his own, the “Sion Sono” film. He is an auteur, both writing and directing many of his projects. However, Sono admits that he has enjoyed more fame and success abroad than in Japan, suggesting that the Japanese film industry tends to shy away from films that show the country in a bad light. His focus on sex, violence, pornography, crime, and other taboo subjects have helped to turn him into a cult star rather than a mainstream success. But it clear from this documentary that success is not something that Sono feels is the most important thing in life. We see early on his disordered studio, with large canvases strewn around and wild impressionistic scribblings across them and slap-dash calligraphy pinned to the wall. We witness an amusing scene as Sono attempts to explain something of his process, and his philosophy, to the cameraman, as he daubs paint on a canvas, in a haphazard way, creating some sort of story in his own mind as he goes, and discussing the purity of the canvas being despoiled by his paint. Rather than strive for perfection he belives true beauty lies in these imperfections, lives that are full of mistakes and rectifications. Later on he suggests that he values quantity over quality, inverting the familiar in his own controversial style he seems to be determinedly set against mainstream expectations. Sono’s primary drive is to create. As he say himself, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, humans are here to create, to express themselves, and to live. It is a chaotic philosophy but it appears to have paid off for the director. Despite many in the film suggesting he should have become famous sooner than he did, his recent celebrity due to several fantastic films in a short span of years has ensured his place in the pantheon of top directors.

The film follows Sono through a year of his life as he works on “The Whispering Star” (2015) and talks about many of his other works. There are interviews with Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido (co-stars in Himizu), his wife and actress in the Whispering Star, Megumi Kagurazaka, producers, friends, and even his sister. Together they paint a picture of a man who is slightly eccentric, incredibly driven, passionate about his work, kind, and with a love of film stretching back to his childhood. During the segment with his sister he digs through old notebooks, showing his early film criticism, including a “Sion Sono” awards with Best Picture, Actress and Actor awards. There is also fascinating insight into how he creates his work, looking round sets, frantically scribbling down storyboards, dictating a precis of a new film to his assistant. In some of the most powerful scenes of the film we see Sono and his team in Fukushima, the area devastated by a nuclear plant explosion and which featured as a backdrop in both Himizu and The Whispering Star. As he speaks to locals, some of whom he recruits to act in his movie, we hear of their loss following the tsunami that destroyed their homes and businesses. Although the film doesn’t go into this in great detail it is clear that Sono feels this is an important issue to highlight. In fact this segment stands as a great documentary in itself on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

A great behind-the-scenes look at how this director works, his formative experiences, philosophy and creativity. Sono says that the only thing that concerns him is making interesting films, whether they succeed or fail financially. This documentary is certainly interesting, offering a great insight into a director with a unique vision.