DVD Review: Ryuhei Kitamura's 'Ultimate Versus' in a R1 3-disc set
In 2000, Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura unleashed unto the world one of the greatest offerings of Japanese cult cinema: Versus. After a couple of smaller independent projects, Heat After Dark and Down to Hell, the goal of the project was to create a sequel to Down to Hell [The crew are wearing Down to Hell 2 jackets on production]. Kitamura, not happy with the current state of Japanese film decided to make a film that would go against the conventions of his homeland's product. His goal was to make a film that would be acceptable for Japanese audiences and something they would enjoy but also something that could be shown and enjoyed by an international audience as well. It became evident as production continued that they had something bigger than just a sequel. So, despite selling the project as Down to Hell 2 the movie was re-titled Versus and a legendary martial arts/action/cult film was born.
Arguably, it can be said that Versus is Kitamura's first and last great film. With each successive film it is becoming evident that Versus was something really special and the magic of that film could not be replicated. With each successive film the devotees in the Kitamura camp have been dwindling. With the exception of his short film Messenger and his contribution to the Godzilla franchise with Final Wars this reviewer finds all of his other films only slightly acceptable, only flirting in genius and often feeling very labored and unfocused. Kitamura, a pronounced fan of the Hollywood film style, will finally get his chance to bring his direction skills to a Hollywood film with Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train. Time will tell if a new following can be created or if the same perceived problems that plagued his Japanese films are inescapable in his western debut.
So why is a re-release of his film important? Regardless of all his other offerings Versus still stands as one of the greatest offerings to genre cinema, mashing martial arts, action, horror, comedy and sci-fi themes into a still very entertaining film, even after repeat viewings. What also makes this release important is that in 2004 Kitamura, and most of the original cast and crew, went back into the woods and filmed new scenes to further realize Kitamura's vision of the film. Dare I say it; it was kind of like Lucas going back and updating his Star Wars films, just not as blasphemous. But the intentions were the same -- to bring a fuller version of a film that was limited by budget, time and technology. And without losing any of the original cut's charm and thrills this new version of Ultimate Versus delivers more zombie crunching action than ever before. There will be no need for fan boys to print up shirts that read, ‘Prisoner KSC2-303 Shot First' though that it would be interesting to see if anyone would get it.
Media Blasters delivers a package never seen before on Region 1 disc[s]. This really is the Ultimate Versus collection. Kitamura's new version of his film is on Disc 1 and hardly anything was left untouched. Without losing any of the original structure of his film Kitamura tinkered with even the minutest details to perfect his film. 28 of the 36 chapters on the DVD feature some sort of reworking, be it color correction, new music, added action sequences, or full scene replacement. The result is fuller story and character development, hardly necessary for a film of this ilk but nonetheless appreciated. I watched two versions of Versus to help pick out the improvements and I still had to refer to the DVD booklet scan to see everything that Kitamura and his team had done.
So what are some of the notable improvements? Fans rejoice for more action has been inserted into the film. Yûji Shimomura did not return as the action director. Instead, Tak Sakaguchi, Prisoner KSC2-303, took the mantle of action director and created sequences that fill out the action in the new version of the film. While the early version of the film relied more heavily on guns and swords, Tak introduces a rumble element to the action [Tak was a street fighter before Kitamura discovered him] and evens out the action between gun, sword and fist. Sure, there was one added scene, with Tak twisting and turning and flipping down two lines of zombies shooting them with guns, which I would consider over embellished and perhaps egotistical, but the sequences he worked in really to add to the film.
What about the special effects? Kitamura used CG to improve on the some of the blood letting because we all know that more blood equals more fun! In the final battle between Tak and Sakaki there are more sparks when their swords clash. More blood. Just enough changes to make it more exciting and bloody.
Some notable new scenes include a re-introduction of the three assassins hired to kill Sakaki, The Man Who Knows Everything. In the original version they arrived in a car and the slick yakuza, one of my favorite characters in the film, Kenji Matsuda welcomes them. That was replaced with a new scene where the three assassins are walking along a path and they find themselves surrounded by zombies. They each get to display their unique fighting styles; Takehiro Katayama the Red-haired assassin and his kicks, Ayumi Yoshihara the Long-haired female assassin and her guns [she took a liking to Kitamura and moved in with him -- cheeky], and Hoshimi Asai the Short-haired female assassin with mad Karate skills [a champion in real life].
Katayama is given another fight scene with Tak later in the film. There is more swordplay in the film's first scenes with the samurai, Kamiyaka. Tak and Sakaki engage in a bit of fist-o-cuffs during their final battle. All in all, you get about 10 minutes of new footage to salivate over. And while I would have been one of the first people to suggest that Kitamura would have benefited from having a stricter film editor the additions here really work well.
How does the film look? It looks surprisingly well considering the 4 year gap between filming. The team does their best to flawlessly seam together the added scenes with the original. While it is noticeable which are the new scenes it isn't so obvious as to lead to distraction. The new scenes are a bit cleaner and a bit crisper but enough work has been done overall on the final product that it shouldn't be a concern to you, the viewer.
The other 2 discs in this set are rammed with extra features, trailers and making of videos. This is all taken from the 2 page insert you will find in your edition when it comes.
1. DVD Commentary for Ultimate Version
Director Ryuhei Kitamura, Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, and Shoichiro Masumoto discuss the film. They explain each new scene that was added from the previous cut and into the ultimate version. They also talk about scenes from the original version with lots of jokes and laughs. (Recorded 2/13/04 at TAC)
2. Original DVD Commentary
Director Ryuhei Kitamura, Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki, Shoichiro Masumoto, Shirow Shinkei, and Yudai Yamaguchi discuss the film. Commentary track from the original DVD release has been re-edited into this ultimate version. Explanation of each scene and stories behind the scenes are much more detailed than the ultimate commentary. First time viewers of "Versus" should start off by listening to this commentary. (Recorded sometime in February 2002)
New making-of footage "Sakigake! Otoko 'Versus' Juku"(18 min)
Making-of footage taken during the re-shoot of the film in November 2003, at a forest near the suburbs of Chofu, Tokyo.
Deleted Scenes(21 min/18 scenes/Commentary by Director Ryuhei Kitamura, Tak Sakaguchi, Minoru Matsumoto, Shoichiro Masumoto, Shinji Tanikado, Yudai Yamaguchi) Scenes that were cut from the original film are explained here in detail.
1. Lots of weapons in the trunk
2. Changing clothes
4. Sucking blood
5. Wiper Zombie
6. Monkey chase
7. End of Katayama
8. Real fight
9. Taku awakens
10. Little guy appears
11. Burning amulet
12. After the fight
13. Sakaki appears
14. Nakatani Zombie
15. Misada Zombie 1
16. Misada Zombie 2
17. Taking the jacket
18. Little guy vs. Fused Zombie
Intro Making "The First Contact"(10 min) This making-of feature was aired at the film premiere. "Down to Hell" was made, and this film was to be titled "The Return: Down 2 Hell." But the ideas got much bigger and was eventually renamed to "Versus." This feature will go through the steps that were taken in order to create "Versus."
Original Making-of "Behind 'Versus' Part 1-The Birth of the Dark hero" (27 min) Making-of that was featured on the original "Versus" DVD. As stated in the title, this making-of covers the dark hero Tak Sakaguchi, and talks about the secrets/anecdotes. But there's no telling what's true and what's false.
New Making-of "Behind 'Versus' Part 2-'Versus' the Legend"(46 min) This Making-of was created specially for this DVD. From 1999~2000, it took them 7 months to shoot the film at the location, and this feature contains valuable footages from that period. Shooting scenes with the steady cam, special make-up effects, footage from the lodge, and
at the international film festival. This is packed with footages the fans have been waiting to see. These are the footages that started it all!
"Versus" Inside Story "Nervous 1"(7 min) Side story that's already featured in the original DVD. In the feature film, he used to get angry after being called a policeman. Now the detective is back in this short story filled with suspense and comedy.
"Versus" Side Story "Nervous 2"(16 min) This second side story was made just for this DVD. But this is not a sequel to the first one. Story take place after the events of "Versus", and features the little guy along with the two crazy cops. Three of them suffer from psychogenic amnesia, so they try to forget about the past to become friendly with one another. But their memories come back and all hell breaks out. It's filled with dark humor and is sure to make you laugh. Also starring Kanae Uotani and Yumi Kikuchi from Kitamura's films.
Making of “Nervous 2"(1 min) Shot in one day with a production cost of 10,000 yen. This is the making of "Nervous 2." It was boldly put together by Kitamura. (Director Ryuhei Kitamura)
Overseas Document "One man journey-Tak Sakaguchi"(14 min) In April of 2001, Tak Sakaguchi went to Hamburg, Germany to attend the Japan Film Festival. This is his travel log.
"Down to Hell" Trailer (4 min) This was what started "Versus", and is also the starting point of Ryuhei Kitamura's career.
"The Return: Down 2 Hell" Trailer(2 min) This trailer for the "DTH" sequel was made before it was turned into "Versus."
"Versus" Original Trailer(2 min) The original film was shot and produced simultaneously, and this trailer was announced right after the shooting wrapped up on location.
"Versus" Original Trailer Making-of version (5 min) This trailer was created before the theatrical trailer. "Versus" Theatrical Trailer(2 min)
"Versus" Promo Trailer (15 sec)
Still Gallery (64 pics)
Production pics from the location, early visual designs, still photos from the premiere, and other rare photos are included.
German DVD of "Versus" at the very end is one of Ryuhei Kitamura's favorite items.
Production stills- Storyboards, Shots at location, etc.
Film Festival/Premiere- Fliers, Posters, Novelties, and other related products.
Original Video & DVD- Video/DVD cover arts.
Overseas items- Fliers, Posters, Overseas DVD releases.
Does the package live up to its name? I would certainly say so. Nowhere else on R1 disc will you find such a complete collection of anything and everything Versus [by all accounts the Japanese version of Ultimate only came on 2 discs. Does 3 discs mean more material?]. And if you needed any more convincing it is all packaged in a tin case. There, I can hear your credit cards leaving your wallets now. This is a must have for any Versus fan. A must!
Ultimate Versus hits the street on March 27th. Pre-order with Amazon here.