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Monday, 14 November 2011

The Duel Project

Once upon a time there were two Japanese directors having a quiet drink when an unusual challenge was presented to them.  Each of them was to make a feature-length movie in one week, using a single set and as few actors as possible with the same theme: a battle to the death.  This resulted in two very different yet equally interesting films released in 2003, Ryuhei Kitamura's "Aragami" and Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "2LDK".  I wouldn't like to choose which is the better movie since both achieve interesting results within the confines of the challenge, but the latter proved to be the audience fave when the pairing made the festival rounds.

Kitamura remains the better known of the pair having had overseas breakout success with "Azumi" in 2003 and particularly with his 2000 film "Versus", a satisfying mash-up of the samurai and vampire genres done on a low budget.  The title character's name Aragami translates as the 'raging god of battle''. He has nursed a gravely-wounded samurai back to health in his isolated Buddhist chapel; he is tired of the eternal round and seeks a worthy champion to end his immortality. Masayo Kato, as the demon, goads Takao Osawa to challenge him to a duel, dropping the tidbit of information that his recovery was hastened by feeding him body parts from his close companion lying dead in the next room. Observing this initially verbal battle is an inscrutable beauty who fetches food and drink, but who is more often to be found sitting between them as a cool observer.  All of this builds up to a stupendous final swordfight between the two where we think at first that the samurai can never overcome his fearsome adversary; however (spoiler here) he is no longer completely human himself and ends up as the new demon of the temple, awaiting the swordsman who will release him in turn, and still watched over by the same strange beauty.

Kitamura does wonders with the one small set depending on atmospheric lighting to highlight the ornate (and slightly kitschy) carvings creating the illusion of space. He manages to stage the exciting cut and thrust of swordplay in this confined area by close filming and editing.  It is all beautifully and excitingly staged.

"2LDK" on the other hand has a contemporary setting and manages to limit itself to only two players.  The title is shorthand for small rental adverts offering 'two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen'.  Sharing this (to my mind) rather spacious apartment are two would-be actresses the wide-eyed virginal Nozomi, fresh up from the countryside looking for big-city fame and fortune, and the vampish, more-knowing Lana, with her dyed hair and beauty queen background.  Both are reading for the same movie part and, as it turns out, both are involved with the same man.  Building on the petty grievances of flat-sharing such as Nozomi's anally marking all of her food (including each egg) in the shared refrigerator and Lana's casually using whatever she wants at the moment, we become witnesses to the growing hostility between them.  This is largely achieved by their verbalizing their real thoughts about each other direct to the audience as they fruitlessly try to preserve the niceties of conversation.  Nozomi views Lana as an over-the-hill slut, while  the slightly unstable Lana (whose last chance is the pending role) views her flatmate as a talentless wannabe.

The action soon escalates from slapped faces to more and more violent attacks with a variety of weapons, from everyday household appliances and cleaning agents through icepicks, flame-throwers, swords, and chainsaws.  (It is probably best not to wonder why an apartment occupied by two young ladies should have such an assortment of weapons available.)  In the end, setting us up for the film's final irony, neither of them need worry anymore about becoming a film star.

Both directors responded imaginatively to the challenge given them, even if both films are relatively short -- between 70 and 80 minutes.  Kitamura has the larger cast, but uses his very small set brilliantly.  Tsutsumi manages to hold our attention with only two characters spinning relentlessly out of control, but does cheat somewhat by having the girls' impossibly spacious apartment as his battlefield.  He remains the less internationally-known of the pair with only his 2008 movie "Twentieth Century Boys" (the first film in his own franchise) making any dent in overseas markets.  Kitamura continues his relative success, although I'm not sure that making the English language "Midnight Meat Train" in 2008 with Vinnie Jones amongst others is worthy of too many kudos. 
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