Written by: Shin'ichirô Ueda (screenplay), Ryoichi Wada (play)
Directed by: Shin'ichirô Ueda
Starring: Takayuki Hamatsu, Yuzuki Akiyama, and Harumi Shuhama
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Keep on shooting!"
In order to talk about One Cut of the Dead—a Japanese zombie movie from 2017—we need to go back to 1960s France, where a group of film brats writing for Cahiers du cinema hatched the auteur theory, which positioned the director as the ultimate authority over filmmaking. Because it’s dominated film discourse ever since, it’s almost something we take for granted: of course the director is the most crucial figure when it comes to producing a film. You have to imagine this was on Shin'ichirô Ueda’s mind with One Cut of the Dead, a movie that opens on a film set, where maniacal director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) berates an actress for not showing the proper amount of fear during a scene where a zombie terrorizes her. Higurashi is the textbook definition of the director-as-auteur: tyrannical in his boldness, unafraid of coming off as a complete and utter asshole. Film is life, and nothing—not even an actual zombie apocalypse—will stop him from gleaning some capital T “Truth” with his lens.
That’s the hook for One Cut of the Dead: following this intense exchange, Higurashi’s crew takes a break, only to discover the undead walk amongst them. The next half-hour or so follows their frenetic attempt to survive the outbreak, all of it captured in one frenzied take that’s vaguely reminiscent of Gareth Evans’s and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” segment in V/H/S/2. However, an undercurrent of absurdist black comedy also guides it: seemingly meek hairdresser Nao (Harumi Shuhama) becomes an ass-kicking kung-fu master, chopping and jump-kicking the dead as Higurashi doggedly pops in with his camera, insisting that this is the realism he’s striving to capture. The gag reaches its logical conclusion when an exasperated cast member has had enough of his shit and brings it to a bloody climax: the camera suddenly cranes up, allowing viewers to finally breathe as they survey the carnage of hacked limbs and severed heads. The credits roll 37 minutes into the movie, thoroughly upending expectations and leaving viewers wondering just where they’re headed.
What they’ve already seen feels like a pretty obvious—but still hysterical—takedown of the cult of auteurism. Hamastu’s over-the-top turn as the dogmatic director refusing to filming during the apocalypse is the extreme vision of crafting art by any means necessary. It satirizes the notion that all great art must somehow be a difficult struggle, or that great artists must be mercurial assholes. Higurashi is an absurd figure, consistently outshined by a cast and crew whose personalities prove to be infectious during their battle to survive. They’re the ones who ultimately make this worth watching, not Higurashi. He becomes the target of well-deserved comeuppance as Ueda takes his journey to a logical, blood-soaked extreme.
Had One Cut of the Dead ended on this note, it would have made for a brilliant—if not one-note—short film. But Ueda has more on his mind than simply savaging the notion of the deranged artist: just when you think you’ve got the movie pegged, those credits roll across the screen, foreshadowing the stark shift in direction it takes for the next hour. Spoiling this outright would be a true disservice: considering the film was released nearly three years ago, I was amazed to discover that I truly had no idea what One Cut of the Dead is really about, and there’s no way I’d want to ruin that experience for anyone else. Suffice it to say, it becomes a very different sort of movie, one that pulls back the curtain on its opening sequence to reveal that everything wasn’t quite what it seemed.
It remains meta in nature but takes on a decidedly different tone since Ueda is crafting a different movie altogether, one that’s less preoccupied with gore-soaked mayhem and more interested in the portrait of the offbeat family that emerges as viewers come to realize what Ueda is up to. Higurashi’s daughter Mao (Mao), a genre-crazed movie fanatic in her own right, emerges as a pivotal figure in the audience’s journey to understanding who her father—and mother—really are. Obviously, I am tip-toeing around particulars here, but trust me: One Cut of the Dead—a movie that orchestrates a half-hour of nonstop zombie carnage—morphs into one of the sweetest little family movies in recent memory.
More than that, Ueda also expands upon his musings on filmmaking, moving from biting satire to championing the unsung heroes behind-the-scenes that often go unseen. One Cut of the Dead gives these folks their due and then some by circling back around to that opening sequence to reveal the hidden trials and tribulations that unfold off-camera. Ueda fills in blanks you didn’t even know existed here, uncovering the patchwork nature of guerrilla filmmaking, which relies less on an autocratic director and more on devout, resourceful crew members who pick up the slack at every turn. He completely upends our perception of what One Cut of the Dead—both his own movie and the fictional movie within his movie—really is by turning it into a clever puzzle box. Watching the pieces come together is an absolute delight: technically, you’ve watched the same movie twice, only the second time is a completely different experience.
By the time One Cut of the Dead loops back around, Ueda has come full circle in his observations about filmmaking. Not only does he leave the auteur theory in the blood-stained dust, but he goes one step further by championing the collaborative nature of art. In doing so, he also—much like those French film brats did—advocates that great art can emerge from anywhere. It’s not just the product of a singular genius who brings it into the world fully and perfectly formed after culling it from his mind. Rather, it can simply be the work of a mercenary who specializes in being “cheap, fast, and average,” essentially doing what some might be considered grunt work on behalf of a cabal of producers simply looking to churn out content for a new platform.
Great art is alchemy, forged from the fires of mistakes, improvisation, and unforeseen obstacles that meticulously and fatefully align during the course of creation. It often has to come together on the fly, with hasty revisions and last-minute fixes. Yes, it takes a competent director to hold it all together, but One Cut of the Dead rightfully reminds us that filmmaking often literally rests on the backs of unseen crew members. This isn’t just one of the finest zombie movies in recent memory—it’s one of the most infectious, loving tributes to the communal magic of filmmaking that I’ve ever seen.
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