ReelAsian22: One Cut of the Dead

Ueda Shinichiro’s One Cut of the Dead opened in only two theatres in Japan. An independent film from a first-time director, with a supremely small budget and unknown cast, it quickly gained a following and continually expanded to more and more screens as word of mouth spread. As of its screening at the 2018 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival, it was still sitting in the top ten of Japan’s weekly box office, having already become a box office sensation and reaching the number one spot. And its following only continues to grow as it wins awards and receives invitations to film festivals all over the world, its fans becoming global and legion.

In my review of Inuyashiki, which also screened at Reel Asian this year, I said Sato’s craft was so impressive I could not tell if he was cleverly working around a small budget or smartly deploying a big budget. Where Inuyashiki was actually the latter, One Cut of the Dead is the perfect example of the former. With a reported budget of JPY $3,000,000—or USD $27,000—Ueda’s feature debut is the most resourceful and ingenious independent film I’ve seen in a long time. It is a triumph of clever conceptualization and smart planning. One Cut of the Dead is a schlocky, single take (hence the title) zombie film about a film crew who set out to make a zombie film, only to be attacked by real zombies. One Cut of the Dead is also a film about One Cut of the Dead, and the producers who commission the film for a new zombie-themed television network, and the filmmakers who try to plan and execute it.

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“Don’t stop shooting!” (Which is also a more literal translation of the film’s Japanese title.)

Ueda’s film is bursting with ideas. Yes, it’s a zombie film, but it’s also a comedy, a family drama, and an impressively self-reflexive meta-narrative about independent filmmaking and the amorphous or unstable nature of texts and meaning. The film recontextualizes itself numerous times and often in surprising and incredible ways. The element I need to single out here is the comedy. Ueda’s good-natured comic sensibilities are the reason so much of this works, providing a gentleness and a charm that make the whole experience cohere. The humor also keeps the conceptually dense narrative light and entertaining and provides some of the most relentless laughs I’ve encountered in any comedy this year. There were times where I could barely catch my breath. A zombie comedy is nothing new, but there has never been one quite like this.

One Cut of the Dead, like Inuyashiki, is also about a father and a daughter. But unlike Sato’s blockbuster, Ueda’s spirited indie flips the script on gender expectations, evolving from the traditional “final girl” horror trope—as dutifully depicted in the first part of the film—into a simple, heartwarming and empowering story about women in the film industry, about the hopes and dreams of a young girl in love with the movies. As I said, this is a continually surprising film, wonderful and unpredictable to the very end. The plotting of the script and the logistical planning of the shoot is admirable. For such a small film, it’s ambitious; but more than that, it’s successful, gleefully executed by everybody involved, in front of and behind the many cameras, visible or otherwise. The passion on display is, dare I say, infectious.

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Shuhama Harumi as Nao in One Cut of the Dead.

There is so much more I want to say, but I will refrain. The experience is best discovered for yourself. One thing I should point out, or reiterate—and which the trailer for the film also points out, and has been repeated in the film’s marketing materials—is that One Cut of the Dead is a full-length feature, while also being a 37-minute single take zombie short. One Cut of the Dead is a film within a film, and the short film plays in its entirety within the feature, including its own credit roll. So, you know, don’t get up and leave when the credits start rolling. Like somebody at my screening. I still find myself thinking about him, and wondering what he thought about the film, thinking he had seen the whole thing, but understanding so little. Godspeed, you wayward soul.

★★

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