R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Undead of the Rising Sun

Probably more than any portion of the Horror genre, Zombie films have a universal appeal. Ever since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead hit theaters in the late 1960’s zombies have been a staple of horror cinema from Hackinsack to Hong Kong. Perhaps its the fact that a good film of this sub-genre can be made relatively cheaply. For that reason, zombies have terrorized the people of nearly every film going nation for 40 years.

One of the hotbeds of Zombie films has been a country known lately for maverick Horror movies. No Horror film makers in the world are as renown as those in Japan. Beginning with the success of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and continuing with superb horror films such as Juon: The Grudge and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, Japan has been a top producer of Horror for the last few years. With this success, the country’s export of Zombie films has had a number of great efforts. For lovers of the sub-genre, some of the most entertaining films to feature the walking dead have come right out of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Junk Starring Kaori Shimamura and Miwa Yanagizawa. Directed by Atsushi Muroga

The film begins in an abandoned factory where an American scientist injects a life giving serum called DNX into a very beautiful, very naked and very dead woman. Things, of course, go horribly wrong for the scientist when the woman wakes up and starts eating him. The action then moves to a jewel heist by a small gang of thieves lead by Kaori Shimamura’s Saki. The heist goes off pretty well and the fence for the goods sets up a meeting at (dun dun dun) the same abandoned factory! There is, of course, a double cross as long haired yakuza chief Ramone (Gota Satsujin) refuses to pay up and in the ensuing firefight gallons of DNX are splashed all over an entire pile of conveniently place corpses that were next in line for the experiment. The gangsters sent in to kill our little band of antiheroes don’t last long, in typical Horror Movie fashion.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Armed Forces have discovered the danger and send in a couple of scientists to neutralize the situation. They don’t last long either. In the end, it’s Saki and a sidekick named Akira (Shu Ehara) against a factory full of deadheads.

Director Atsushi Muroga’s Junk is a lot of fun for those that want some generic Zombie kicks. The action isn’t spectacular, the acting is pretty bad, but the gore is pretty nice. Miwa Yanagizawa gets to ham it up as the zombie queen and spends most of the film naked and eating people. Mixing up elements from Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead, Junk is a nice homage to those that came before it, while being a fun little romp on its own.

Wild Zero Starring Guitar Wolf, Drum Wolf, Bass Wolf and Masashi Endo. Directed by Tetsuro Takeuchi.

Wild Zero is the story Ace (Tetsuro Takeuchi), a smalltime musician who finds the love of his life only to find out that “she” is a transvestite and that there is an army of zombies returning from the grave. Helping poor Ace out is the band Guitar Wolf (an actual Japanese Rockabilly band), lead by its singer and guitarist of the same name. Now Guitar Wolf, (the band, not the lead singer) is no ordinary band as they seem to be superheroes of some sort. The gun toting, radioactive guitar-pick slinging, self proclaimed greatest Rock and Roll band in the world kick some zombie tail while teaching Ace about being true to himself, his new he/she lover and his music.

The film climaxes as Guitar Wolf face off against an alien mother ship, a former promoter who turned on them and then turned into a zombie that shoots lightning from his eyes, and hordes of the walking dead. Across town, Ace races on his scooter to save his new girl/boyfriend from yet another horde of zombies. If this sounds like a scenario you’d like to see, then Wild Zero is the movie for you.

If you want your Zombie Films to be serious works of apocalyptic art, with intense social commentary similar to the films George Romero, do whatever you can to stay away from Wild Zero. In Signs, M. Night Shyamalan constructed a story around War of the Worlds and centered his story around a small corner of a huge cosmic event. With Wild Zero, Director Tetsuro Takeuchi takes a similar approach, only his source material is Ed Wood’s infamous cinematic atrocity, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Aliens are using zombies to take over the world and the only thing standing in their way is Japan’s greatest Rockabilly band. If you took John Travolta and his gang from Grease, and made them ass-kicking Japanese superheroes, you would have Guitar Wolf. They drive awesome muscle cars and a custom Guitar Wolf-cycle and scream “ROCK AND ROLL” every two minutes.

Wild Zero is even more fun than Junk. The movie is simply about being cool, kicking the crap out of zombies, and Rock and Roll. The film has several sequences of Guitar Wolf just playing pyrotechnic filled concerts. For the gore junkies the film has enough guts and exploding heads to satiate most hardcore fans. The film’s humor is really peculiar at points, such as a moment when two zombies who used to be bickering lovers find each other and start making out. This quirky humor is one of the aspects that stay constant throughout the film and make it work.

Versus Starring Tak Sakaguchi and Hideo Sakaki. Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura.

A title card begins the film informing the viewer “There are 666 portals that connect this world to the other side. These are concealed from all human beings. Somewhere in Japan exists the 444th portal.” From here the film sets a marvelous tone for things to come. A classic looking Samurai is surrounded by zombies on all sides. Seconds later, and after lightning fast strokes, the zombies fall in tandem as if they were yakuza falling to the blade of the great Samurai masters such as Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo or Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi. When next confronted by a deadly looking monk, our hero charges fearlessly to be…cut in half!?

Suddenly its a present day scene with two prisoners running through a forest, one of whom is our real hero Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi). The duo reaches an outcropping and meet a team of yakuza lead by a homicidal maniac played by Kenji Matsuda. The gangsters have a hostage with them. Everything goes insane after KSC2-303 kills a gangster, only to see him re-emerge immediately. In the ensuing melee, the other prisoner is killed then brought back to life and then killed again. KSC2-303 takes this opportunity to escape with the girl.

The gangsters follow only to realize that the forest they are in is the same spot they use to bury the bodies of their victims. Their chase stops when they realize that zombies that they sent to the grave completely surround them. The film goes into overdrive as our hero, the wackiest bunch of yakuza thugs to ever grace the screen, and dozens of flesh eaters do battle in a series of kung fu brawls, shootouts and knife fights. It’s just as cool as it sounds!

The film takes a dramatic turn with the introduction of The Man (Hideo Sakaki). Sakaki’s character is revealed to be the sorcerer who cut down the zombie killer Samurai hundreds of years before at the film’s beginning. The Man reveals that he is settling an ancient feud between himself and KSC2-303, who is the reincarnated descendant of The Man’s ancient nemesis. The winner of the fight will be granted immortality by the portal described in the opening credits. Ending the film is an epic sword fight that puts most fights to shame in Western cinema.

While there are higher profile films to come out of Japan in the last few years, Versus is just as entertaining as Ringu, Battle Royale or Audition. Director by Ryuhei Kitamura gleefully throws together a mishmash of genre with Zombies, Martial Arts, Gangsters, and Fantasy all taking center stage at one point or another in the movie. The film has a rabid energy close to the feeling of an early Sam Raimi effort with its low budget constraints actually adding to the picture’s charm. The film is exciting and uses self-aware humor to keep the proceedings light and entertaining.

Helping the film is a quartet of performers that have become Kitamura’s stock company. Tak Sakaguchi oozes cool as the film’s antihero. As the strong, silent type Sakaguchi shines mainly in the action scenes, as in the romantic subplot with Chieko Misaka. Of the villains, no one is cooler (or crazier) than Kenji Matsuda. He’s just so funny as the zany yakuza leader who loves to use his butterfly knife. It’s almost as if he’s channeling the Joker with his flamboyant, over the top mannerisms and psychotic nature. Minoru Matsumoto’s nervous yakuza is also very funny as he plays a jittery gangster who starts freaking out at the first sight of zombies. A running joke where Matsumoto’s character is able to produce gun after gun from his pants is very funny. Lastly Hideo Sakaki’s The Man is a super cool Japanese version of a Highlander. The Man is nearly immortal and his confrontation with his life long nemesis is just what it should be. It’s amazing how well the fight is choreographed and shot, considering the movie’s budget.

Each of these picture are proof that huge production values are not necessarily needed to produce a successful and fun movie. What you do need is a director that understands what his audience wants and what direction to take the film. Of the three films here, Junk is closest in tone to classic Zombie Film, but that also makes it a bit generic compared to the out of control efforts of the other two movies. All three are able to break down the walls of culture to present films that are universally entertaining to all audiences. Audiences love for the walking dead is one that is unending, and its going to take more than a bullet to the brain to the stop it.


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