“The Duel Project” is kind of like a less pretentious Japanese version of Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Dogme 95’ so-called vow of chastity in that it enforces a number of rules in an attempt to strip down the film making process to its essentials. Of course here, rather than trying to bring the focus onto the story and the performance of the cast, the aim here was somewhat less lofty, being more of a challenge designed to push the creativity of the directors involved.
The rules in question were laid down by Shinya Kawai, best known for being the producer of “Ringu”, who quite possibly after a few too many drinks took aside young directors Ryuhei Kitamura (of the cult hit “Versus” fame, and who has since answered the call of Hollywood with “Midnight Meat Train”) and the decidedly less famous Yukihiko Tsutsumi (responsible for bringing the “Siren” video game to the screen), and said something along the lines of: ‘Fellas, make me a couple of films, with not more than three characters, at least one of whom has to die. It should be set in one location and shot on a small budget over eight days’. The three laughed, raised their glasses, and “The Duel Project” was born – either that, or they decided on the idea after finishing their work on the short film anthology “Jam Films” ahead of schedule and had some free time on their hands. Viewers can now enjoy the results for themselves with the Tartan box set release of the two films, Kitamura’s “Aragami” and Tsutsumi’s “2LDK”, both of which come complete with deleted scenes, trailers and some behind the scenes footage and featurettes for the latter.
Of the two, “Aragami” is likely to be the bigger draw due to Kitamura’s cult popularity. The short film (clocking in at just seventy minutes) follows a heavily wounded samurai (played by Takao Osawa, also in the director’s “Sky High”) who arrives at a temple seeking refuge. He is taken in by the owner (Masaya Kato, a Takashi Miike regular who starred in “Gozu” and “Agitator”), who unfortunately reveals himself to be the titular demonic battle god. Unsurprisingly, the two launch into a series of deadly duels which, even less surprisingly can only have one winner. Fans of “Versus” and of Kitamura’s kinetic directorial style may be somewhat disappointed with “Aragami”, as despite the short running time there is not very much in the way of high energy action, with most of the battles coming in sudden brief flurries. The film’s low budget certainly shows, with the temple set looking rather cheap, though some good use of lighting does at least make for a little atmosphere. Sadly, Kitamura never really makes much effort to play around with the rules of the project or to try and subvert them into something more interesting, and the drama is pretty straightforward and rather unimaginative. Still, the film is entertaining enough, never outstays its welcome, and though it doesn’t feel like too much effort was put in, it remains a worthwhile watch.
Thankfully “2LDK” (which incidentally stands for 2 bedrooms, Living room, Dining room and Kitchen) is much better, with Tsutsumi turning the limitations to his advantage and cranking out a nasty, tightly-wound little piece of fun. The story for his equally short piece revolves around two TV actresses (Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike) living together who find out that they are competing for the same role. This brings out the worst in the girls, and their rivalry quickly escalates from petty meanness and mind games to homicidal fury. Tsutsumi wrings all he can from the premise, gradually notching up the tension before allowing it to blossom into violence, and although the film is little like a psychotic live action cartoon in its later stages, he keeps things tight throughout. Similarly, although the two girls are pretty two dimensional characters, they are played off against each other in effective fashion for maximum personality clash, and even when the two aren’t trying desperately to kill each other there is a constant expectation of brutality. Tsutsumi utilises the sets very well, using them to bring out the inherent claustrophobia in the cramped location, and this too adds to the knife edge feel of the action.
As a result, “2LDK” comes out the clear winner of “The Duel Project”, mainly since Tsutsumi enters into the spirit of the challenge far more than Kitamura, though of course, since the value for money package includes both films for the price of one, viewers can make up their own minds.
Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Ryuhei Kitamura (director) / Yukihiko Tsutsumi, Shoichiro Masumoto, Ryuhei Kitamura (screenplay)
CAST: Maho Nonami … Lana
Eiko Koike … Nozomi
Takao Osawa … The Samurai
Masaya Kato … Aragami/Tengu/Miyamoto Musashi
Kanae Uotani … The Woman
Tak Sakaguchi … The Future challenger
Hideo Sakaki … The Samurai’s Friend