Consider this introductory paragraph a spoiler warning: it’s difficult to say much about One Cut of the Dead [Kamera o Tomeru na!] (2017) without giving away some surprises. I’ve no intention of spoiling the entire film, but if you’re planning to see the movie and have managed to remain unspoiled, you should probably see it first before reading further (or, for that matter, watching the trailer).
The film opens in the middle of a climactic confrontation between a woman (Akiyama Yuzuki) and her zombified boyfriend (Nagaya Kazuaki). It’s shoddy, badly acted and uninspiring. Then we pull back and see the film crew as the director (Hamatsu Takayuki) calls for them to cut. It’s the 42nd take of this scene – everybody is exhausted, the director is abusive towards both of the actors, the make-up woman (Shuhama Harumi) has to pull him away and he storms out calling for somebody to get him more blood. Chatting to the actors, the make-up woman inadvertently lets slip that they’re filming in an abandoned military research building… and it’s not long before they find themselves under attack by real zombies while the director keeps filming. Things fall apart, the story reaches a conclusion, the credits roll…
…at which point, in English-speaking countries, some people made the mistake of leaving the cinema. As far as these people were aware, they had just finished watching a 37 minute zombie movie which had been filmed in one continuous take with no cuts, incorporating a lot of running around and practical gore effects, careful planning of camera angles and use of the location, a frantic pace, and contrasting the awkwardness and poor effects of the beginning with (later) a more convincing amateur style of acting and more elaborate effects.
The remaining hour of the movie investigates how the fictional zombie movie (also titled One Cut of the Dead) came to be made. Flashing back one month, the man who plays the director within the film is also revealed as its actual director Higurashi, a much more gentle and timid person than previously seen. Due to his self-description as “fast, cheap and average” he is deemed to be the perfect person to launch a new Japanese zombie movie channel with the producer’s (Takehara Yoshiko) pet concept – a live-to-air single-take original zombie film. Assuming they’re joking at first, but taking the job anyway, he has to deal with an alcoholic collaborator (Hosoi Manabu), various prima donnas and a ridiculous schedule to pull the piece together. (I particularly enjoyed Asamori Sakina’s role as an assistant DOP with an excessive love for the zoom function.) Meanwhile his wife (an ex-actress who winds up playing the make-up woman) is bored and looking for a new hobby, and his daughter Mao (played by an actress identified only as Mao) is a budding filmmaker who has just been fired from a shoot for her insistence on getting real tears out of a child actor. We follow the journey of the film through the rehearsal process to the frantic behind-the-scenes activity surrounding the live broadcast.
The movie as a whole was developed by writer/director Ueda Shin’ichirô through a series of workshops with amateur actors chosen for their awkwardness. After finalising the script and the allocation of roles among the cast, they ran through eight full rehearsals in various locations before completing the zombie film on a single day by the sixth take (four of which made it all the way to the end of the shooting script).
Although this achievement is sufficient reason to admire One Cut of the Dead, it’s the central relationship of the director with his family and the celebration of the collaborative aspects of independent filmmaking which turn it from a gimmick film into a film with heart. Although the middle section of the film is a little sedately paced, it’s necessary to allow the viewer time to get to know the characters and to put all of the pieces in place, before the final third throws new light on the reasons the zombie film came out the way it did while completing the larger film’s transformation into a heartwarming comedy.
Released on DVD & Blu Ray by Third Window Films, if you can locate the out-of-print limited edition you can also see the director’s previous short film Take 8 (2015). This is about the final day of shooting of an independent short film, covering a scene in which the bride’s father belatedly arrives at the wedding to give his blessing to her marriage and finally accept the groom. Unfortunately the actor playing her father is also running late and the actress’ actual father turns up unexpectedly instead to watch the filming and express his disapproval of her relationship with the director. Can they manage to obtain his approval and finish the film before the day ends and the budget runs out? When you insert the bonus disc, you’ll be greeted on the menu screen by a short clip of (I think) Asamori Sakina doing a cute little dance next to a poster for One Cut of the Dead. The special features include a behind-the-scenes feature documenting the rehearsal process and a behind-the-behind-the-scenes feature of the complete final take of the zombie film, filmed on a helmet-mounted camera following the cameraman filming the film.
One Cut of the Dead was an unexpected hit in Japan, opening on only two cinema screens but catching on in a major way. Last year some of the cast were involved with a director-approved sequel made for Japanese TV, One Cut of the Dead Spin-Off: In Hollywood [Kamera o tomeru na! supin-ofu: Hariuddo daisakusen!] (2019), which is still waiting for an English-language release. (Rather less enticing is the promise of an upcoming English-language remake, currently titled One Cut of the Dead: The Remake aka Another Cut of the Dead.) But Ueda Shin’ichirô was sufficiently inspired by the constraints of this year’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions to make the direct-to-YouTube sequel One Cut of the Dead Mission: Remote (2020), in which the fictional director of the original film-within-a-film is hired to make a “weird true crime” short film about a serial tickler on a micro-budget using Zoom and crowd-sourced selfies. It’s very much in the spirit of the original while also being an excuse for a cast reunion in difficult times.