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November 12 2019
One Cut of the Dead: How a micro-budget Japanese zombie comedy became a blockbuster
22 January 2019

It doffs its hat to the sheer ingenuity of low budget but high concept filmmaking, complete with the overt home video feel

The only certainty in the uncertain business of filmmaking is that you can never predict the fate of a film — will it hit the jackpot? Be forced to embrace anonymity? But the unprecedented success of Shinichiro Ueda’s Japanese zombie comedy, One Cut of the Dead, has become one of the most unforeseen phenomena of 2018. The tiny film came out of nowhere, delivered big numbers at the box office, lodged itself firmly in the hearts of film viewers, became the darling of international critics and has already become a part of contemporary filmmaking lore.

I asked producer Koji Ichihashi and actors Yuzuki Akiyama, Harumi Shuhama and Shinichiro Osawa if they had any inkling of the genie in the bottle when they started this off. “Never,” came the unanimous response.

The team was in Mumbai last week for the Japanese Film Festival organised by The Japan Foundation in collaboration with PVR Cinemas in which One Cut… was the opening film. Shot in just eight days, the unique film emerged out of a performance workshop. The makers thought the workshop should be publicised and people should be able to see and understand it, and so they turned it into a movie. But they never thought it would actually lead to profitability and love and acclaim of such magnitude.

Rare run

An average low budget film in Japan costs about 15 million yen. One Cut… was made at a fifth of the cost, an unimaginable 3 million yen. By the end of 2018, it had grossed over 3,000 million yen and, in these times of short runs, it has been a rare one to be showing in the Japanese theatres for over six months.

The micro budget, however, never came in the way, says Ichihashi. Locations were found well in time; during the shoot everyone stayed in the producer’s house.

The film stars a bunch of little known actors. For Yuzuki Akiyama, who played Chinatsu, the girl at the centre of the mayhem, this was a first full-length film; she had acted only on stage and in shorts thus far. Harumi Shuhama, who plays the martial arts obsessed Nao, had been active in Japan’s Off Broadway equivalent.

Without letting on muchOne Cut… starts off with a 37-minute single-take opening shot, and is about a ragtag but resourceful film crew shooting a zombie film in an abandoned water filtration plant. They encounter some real zombies in the process.

 

Cast of One Cut Of The Dead in Mumbai

Cast of One Cut Of The Dead in Mumbai   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

 

It reinvents the zombie genre while celebrating and using its long-standing codes and conventions — some eccentric but likeable characters, a bunch of totally freakish people, a few undead corpses, an abandoned space, many butcherings, and lots and lots of blood.

Most of all One Cut… is a self-reflexive film about movie-making with an emotional father-daughter story lurking at its core.

“Finest love letter to filmmaking” is how one fan described it: “Love letters rely heavily on exaggeration but this film is very sincere, self-aware, neither degrades nor exaggerates… it covers behind-the-scenes hardships of both films and live television.”

It doffs its hat to the sheer ingenuity of low budget but high concept filmmaking, complete with the overt home video feel, the perennially on-the-move camera, the enforced improvisations to set things right when everything is going wrong. Like the film within it, One Cut… is itself as low budget, high concept, clever and inventive. Did the cast and crew spot any parallels between their film and the film within the film? “There was supposed to be a zombie without a hand who didn’t come out on time and the actors had to ad lib to somehow get through the scene,” recalled Ichihashi. The actors doubled up as staff during the making of the film just as in the film within it.

In the lobby of PVR Icon in Andheri, the four team members were totally oblivious of the wave of love that One Cut… spawned among Indian viewers when it was first shown last year at Mami. Popular demand had led to two extra screenings. Striking zombie poses in front of the film’s standees and posters, they seemed a little lost in Mumbai. Their only exposure to India in Japan has been Baahubali, a big hit there. It was only after the film screening, when they were greeted with loud cheers and catcalls that they were visibly overwhelmed.

Singular appeal

Akiyama thinks there is a universality to the theme that helps build bridges. “The film is about normal people with normal lives and normal jobs suddenly finding themselves surrounded by trouble. It’s about how they get together, cooperate and get out. So people across the world think that it is about them. It depicts them,” she says.

One Cut… is a film that manages to bring viewers back for a second watch. “You want to see it again. You realise it’s no fun watching it at home alone so you go to a theatre to see it with a lot of people,” says Shuhama. It’s the communal experience of viewing a film — the shared laughter, abandon and fun with total strangers in a cinema hall — that makes One Cut… singularly appealing. I haven’t seen a film in recent times generating such spontaneous joy without ever trying too hard. “In Indian theatres people laugh, clap and make a lot of noise. In Japan this normally doesn’t happen but in this movie it happened,” says Ichihashi.

Now that the film has been such a hit all over the world has it made them rich? “Only him!” the actors laugh, pointing a finger at the producer. The film has brought the actors stardom and visibility. They have a busy time ahead with TV dramas, commercials and films to shoot.

Ichihashi plans now to make films with a bigger budget — “five times more than this one”. Even as the actors cry out “Please take us,” he tells us two films are coming up, planned exactly like One Cut …: “They will start as workshops and be made into films.” And hopefully be just as successful.

 

 

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