By director Ryûhei Kitamura’s own admission, labels are reductive and restrictive. Though they may help audiences to know where to look on the shelf for something or programmers to know where to schedule, labels imply as much the absence of something as they do the inclusion. In a May 2004 interview with Tom Mes, Kitamura says, “They say it’s a horror movie, so you shouldn’t add comedy or action. They to limit it too much to on genre. I’m not that simple.” Of all the words to describe Kitamura’s third feature film, Versus (2000), simple is not one of them. With a minimal budget, Kitamura combines the styles of horror, comedy, chanbara (also known as samurai cinema), the now-titled gunfu, and science fiction to craft a story of violence and revenge that transcends time. Nearly 21 years since its premiere at the October 2000 Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival, Versus looks to rise again with the aid of Arrow Video’s two-disc 2K restoration that includes both the theatrical edition and the extended version titled Ultimate Versus, as well as a bevy of bonus features.
Hidden around the world are 666 portals that serve as entry points between Earth and the other side (Hell). Unknown to Prisoner KSC2-803 (Tak Sakaguchi) at the time of his jail break, he’s going to find himself in the vicinity of the 444th portal known as The Forest of Resurrection. Though he’s not interested in myths and legends, KSC2-803 finds himself drawn into a battle centuries in the making, and the only way out is through.
Versus is one of those films that I’ve known about, but never checked out because of its “horror” label. For the unaware, the context of violence in horror films profoundly unsettles me, which is why I could only watch the Evil Dead films by starting in reverse with Army of Darkness (1992). AoD is positively bonkers and the emphasis on splatstick make it far more palatable than the more straight terror of Evil Dead (1981). What I didn’t realize at the time (and I will bear this shame forever) is that Versus is both my jelly and my jam. Not only does it evoke a similar cinematic flourish of Evil Dead, but it shares several qualities of other films like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) and Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander (1986), two films which hold a special place in my cinematic education. Evil Dead and El Mariachi are low budget legends, beloved for the ingenuity on display in the face of financial constraints. If any of the aforementioned films exist on your Top 100 Favorites list, then don’t wait to check out Versus, a film whose homages are subtle, it’s violence over the top, and its narrative a complex web the audience doesn’t even realize they are falling into. Kitamura may possess a disdain for labels (don’t blame him at all), but having a sense of what you’re getting into certainly helps open the mind to the possibilities for the adventure you should undertake (or retake).
Since this is a first-time watch, I went with the extended edition Ultimate Versus (2004) as that version would contain Kitamura’s total vision for his film. This worked out beautifully with Doctor Sleep (2019) and I’ll always prefer the Renegade Cut of Highlander 2 (1991) (see also: Daredevil: Director’s Cut (2003)), so I followed the same thinking here. What I endured was 131 minutes of pure unadulterated mayhem that got more bizarre and uncanny every few minutes and, in the parlance of the times, I am here for it. For the uninitiated, Kitamura begins the movie with an otherworldly explanation of the portals before dropping us into the middle of a fight between a samurai and a small zombie horde. Upon the completion of that sequence, we’re introduced to KSC2-803’s rap sheet before he and his companion are found by the Yakuza gang tasked with picking the two up in the woods. At first, these three sequences seem totally and tonally disconnected, yet each sequence serves as the foundation for what’s to come. More importantly, it keeps the audience in the dark almost as much as KSC2-803, who, for lack of a better term, is the film’s hero. As much fun as the splatstick to come is, the grounding of the story via these three initial sequences carry far more narrative weight than on initial inspection. One sets up the supernatural elements which course throughout, one sets up conflict that unwinds itself in front of us, and the last hints at the moral shift which may turn the tide in the war against villainy. This is but a microcosm of how the rest of Versus functions with Kitamura gradually increasing the intensity of both violence and ridiculousness until it literally can’t go any higher or grander. What’s lovely about Kitamura’s approach is that it enables the audience to get just comfortable enough with what they’re seeing that we don’t realize how different the film becomes from the moment KSC2-803 enters the scene to the end of the credits (be sure to stay through the credits). If Kitamura had just thrown crazy at us from the start, Versus would ultimately be a knock-off of every other low budget horror schlock to come out of Japan at that time. Instead, his utilization of the Yakuza action genre as the central entry point post-KSC2-803’s introduction before shifting into zombies and other mystic-related material creates a baseline of believability that also feels familiar. We trust this familiarity and are more willing to take a walk on the weird side when we trust something. Both Mariachi and Connor MacLeod are introduced as regular people before outrageousness begins and, in so doing, we’re willing to take that ride into the brutal places their respective stories go.
By the way, if it seems weird to you that I keep referring to Sakaguchi’s character by his prisoner number, none of the characters in the film have proper names, just descriptions. The woman KSC2-803 “rescues” from the Yakuza? She’s simply The Girl (Chieko Misaka). The man in charge? The Man (Hideo Sakaki). Evidently Kitamura surmised that since everyone would already know who each other is, it made no sense to give them names as they’d likely not use them in conversation. At first, this is strange and requires some getting used to. In my case, summarizing the film for EoM editor Crystal Davidson became a strange word salad as I was forced to avoid gender pronouns in order to keep things clear. In the watching, though, the lack of names makes a great deal of sense. It’s very American to presume that your name means something whereas reputation means more in the East. The ones who matter know the reputation of the other, so shouting out someone’s name is rather unlikely, even in the heat of battle. The lack of names also makes things a bit more mythic, more archetypal in the observance. It’s not characters fighting to either consume the power of the other side or bar access, it’s a battle of morality and duty. Where things get meaty is that KSC2-803 is about as criminal as The Man, so the difference between good and evil, between pure and unworthy, shifts in the context. Looking at it through the eyes of Kitamura’s inspirations, Ashley J. Williams (Bruce Campbell) is a knuckle-headed college student who loses his girlfriend, sister, and his friends to the deadites they awoke in the woods. If not for the sequel, Evil Dead 2 (1987), the original film ends with Ash being attacked by the same evil that took the rest. By the end of the series, Ash is a grizzled, angry warrior who cares less about those around him than his own needs. However, he’s a better warrior in AoD than he is in Evil Dead. Same with Mariachi in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). This isn’t to imply a correlation between the corruption of innocence and a savior in action films, but there is evidence within the text to consider. There is less of a visible character journey for KSC2-803, but the characterization of the “hero” is the same. KSC2-803 is an absolute bastard, but if you were stuck in a mystic woods with Yakuza on one side of you and the undead on another, I’d much prefer him by my side than some goody-two shoes.
Chances are, if you made it this far into the article that you didn’t come here to read me wax poetic about the corrupt heroes, you want to know how good does the restoration look. For one, keep in mind that this is a 2K restoration, not 4K nor 4K UHD, so what you’re getting here is an improvement on the standard definition original release. If you owned a Blu-ray version of the film, that’s likely 1080p and 2K is only a few more pixels above that, resulting in a less noticeable shift in quality. However, under the supervision of Kitamura, this remaster looks and sounds exactly like his intended vision. Does this mean that the color grade appears different when comparing to a prior version? Yep. So much so that Arrow Video themselves put out a statement about this soon after the physical release hit shelves in December. But just because you don’t like how it looks doesn’t mean that it’s not what the director intends. According to the booklet, they created 35mm intermediate elements from the original 16mm footage which was then digitized for editing and improving. One strange inconsistency worth noting is that the booklet says a 4K restoration was made from the 35mm intermediate, yet all of the accompanying materials with the restoration say 2K. At least with Ultimate Versus, a visual inspection supports a 2K restoration far more than 4K, so that may be an error in the booklet more than anything. The booklet, by the way, is available on for first pressing copies and includes the aforementioned essay from Tom Mes, an interview between Mes and Kitamura, and notes from Kitamura on the making of the film.
If bonus materials are your thing, the first disc contained the theatrical release is jam-packed with content, while the Ultimate Versus disc contains only a behind-the-scenes featurette of the making of Ultimate. I found this particularly fascinating because the scenes making up Ultimate were shot in November 2003, about four years after this cast and crew were together making the film. Frankly, it looks like watching kids at play as they just pick up right where they left off, seemingly having a blast screwing with each other, talking tough, and making magic. In particular, it’s worth noting that Sakaguchi doubled as the action director for the extra scenes as Yûji Shimomura (Kingdom) was unavailable to return in that role. Versus is notable as Sakaguchi’s first major role and has also gone on to do other stunt work in addition to acting, so to see his approach to stunts so early in his career is both wildly entertaining and absorbing.
The choice of purchasing any restoration really comes down to what you bring to it. If you dug Versus in 2000, then chances are you pre-ordered this and have already watched it since receiving it in December. If you dug the films released as part of the era dubbed Asian Extreme, chances are this film’s been in your periphery for some time. But if you’ve never seen it before, jumping in with Versus is going to feel like a gamble. But, as Kitamura says in his interview with Mes, “Moviemaking is a game, a gamble …” You can’t win unless you play and, as an audience member, Versus is well worth the risk.
Versus Special Features
- Brand new 2K restoration from original film elements by Arrow Films, approved by director Ryûhei Kitamura
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray™ presentations of both versions of the film: the original 2000 cut and 2004’s Ultimate Versus, featuring over 10 minutes of new and revised footage
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film and a reprinted interview with Kitamura by Tom Mes, and notes on the making of the film by Kitamura
DISC 1: VERSUS
- Original lossless Japanese 5.1 and 2.0 stereo audio and English 2.0 stereo audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Kitamura and producer Keishiro Shin
- Audio commentary by Kitamura and the cast and crew
- New visual essay on the career of Kitamura by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp
- Behind Versus, a two-part behind-the-scenes documentary exploring the film’s production
- First Contact: Versus Evolution, a featurette exploring the film’s origins
- Tak Sakaguchi’s One-Man Journey, an archival featurette on the actor’s visit to the 2001 Japan Film Festival in Hamburg
- Film festival screening footage
- Team Versus, a brief look inside the Napalm Films office
- Deep in the Woods, an archival featurette featuring interviews with Kitamura, cast and crew
- The Encounter, an archival interview with editor Shûichi Kakesu
- Deleted scenes with audio commentary by Kitamura, cast and crew
- Nervous and Nervous 2, two “side story” mini-movies featuring characters from the main feature
- Featurette on the making of Nervous 2
- Versus FF Version, a condensed, 20-minute recut of the film
- Multiple trailers
- Image gallery
DISC 2: ULTIMATE VERSUS
- Original lossless Japanese 6.1 and 2.0 stereo audio and English 6.1 and 2.0 stereo audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Audio commentary by Kitamura, cast and crew
- Sakigake! Otoko versus Juku, a featurette on the newly shot material for Ultimate Versus
Available on Blu-ray December 7th, 2020 in the UK.
For additional information, head to the MVD Entertainment Group’s official Versus website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.