Both budgets and box-office prospects for Japanese indie films have been declining for years. As the former approaches the zero mark, so do recognizable actors and other standard indicators of quality. Audiences, smelling amateurism, stay away.

Flying in the face of this dismal trend is Shinichiro Ueda’s brilliant zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead,” made for nearly nothing with a no-name cast. An international festival favorite, it has stirred up the sort of pre-release buzz that films with 10 times its ¥2.5 million budget can’t buy.

Though he has directed prize-winning shorts, as well as a segment of the 2015 omnibus feature “Cat Quarters,” Ueda is a relative newcomer, as is the film’s cast, who are all students at Enbu Seminar, a Tokyo film school. “One Cut of the Dead” is a workshop film made under the school’s Cinema Project banner.

One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o Tomeruna!)
Run Time 96 mins.
Opens JUNE 23

This film differs from the struggling indie hordes in one crucial way: The script, written by Ueda, is a work of pop cinema genius, with a Chinese box of a story whose surprises feel more inspired than contrived. Meanwhile, the film makes laugh-out-loud virtues out of its calculated amateurishness, from helter-skelter staging to slapdash effects.

“One Cut of the Dead” begins as a “making of” video for a zombie movie shoot in an abandoned factory. The director (Takayuki Hamazu), a loudmouthed perfectionist, is driving his cast and crew up the wall and is at a breaking point himself since the producer (Yoshiko Takehara) had the mad idea of shooting the entire story in one long take for TV broadcast — he has flubbed 42 times already. No wonder he’s sweating bullets.

While running his exhausted actors through their paces yet again, a real zombie appears on the scene, hungry for human flesh. Instead of telling everyone to run for their lives, the director continues to shoot. After all, this is career-changing footage, but his terrified cast and crew are turning into zombies one by one. His epic may end up being seen only by the zombies themselves, assuming they can work a camera.

Up till this point the film is a knock-about comedy, filmed with a crazed energy and headlong pace, its big joke being the nutty director obsessed with his art in the middle of chaos. Its funniest character, though, is the director’s wife (Harumi Shuhama), a retired actress helping out behind the scenes who proves to be a kick-ass zombie fighter.

Thirty-seven minutes in, just as the joke is wearing thin, the story resets, with a fresh perspective that infuses the proceedings with a new energy and meaning. The film becomes even funnier, while making us appreciate the dedication, ingenuity and passion of its on-screen movie folk — and the unknowns who play them.

Then, just as we are waiting for the credits to roll, Ueda tops his topper, taking the film to yet another level. What had begun as a clever, if patchily executed, stunt becomes an even more inspiring ode to filmmaking.

On a personal note, immediately after seeing the film I strongly recommended it to the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, where it had its world premiere in April. At the end, the 500-strong audience gave it a five-minute standing ovation. And tossing critical objectivity to the winds, I applauded with them. Another happy victim of the zombie infection.

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