Director and co-writer Ryûhei Kitamura's Versus is the story of life, death and resurrection; the eternal battle of light vs darkness made incarnate and flesh. It's a stunning visual tour de force; graphic, beautiful and indulgently crafted; and also breathtakingly unremitting, inviting the viewer to join with it to rejoice in a perpetual martial arts, sword and gun-play master class. It's also, when all is said and done, a tad boring.
One has to admire what Kitamura has put together. Versus really is a visual treat; dare I say it's visual art. Grand sweeping pan shots, extreme zoom in and outs, the great use of pausing and time, all help build a believable yet mysterious, ethereal other-worldly sand-box for the various characters to play in. The faultless display of highly choreographed, sumptuously stylised and captured martial arts, all of the highest calibre also makes Versus an absolute film making triumph; it's faultless; it's performance art.
There's a old adage though, that one can certainly have too much of a good thing and at two hours even the most hard-core fighting fan would start to find the endless barrage of video-game-esque dueling wearisome, however polished it all is. And that's the rub because outside the fighting, the narrative, such as there is, is so minimal, so enamoured with ambiguity, mystery and what hides in the shadows that the bust ups alone are relied on to solely to carry the film; and they just can't do it. That's not to say what little there is, is bad. Kitamura's esoteric mantra, the deliberate design to permeate intangibility across all two hours brings with it an alienness, a transcendentalism that one can't help but admire. But, critically, it rarely made perfect sense, seemed at times to contradict itself and more than once seemed forced so as to justify the next big duel.
Versus is the story of Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi) and his eternal struggle against The Man (Hideo Sakaki) and his undead cohort. There's also The Girl (Chieko Misaka), a gang of Yakuza goons, various assassins and some cops. In a what appears to be an endless cycle The Man keeps waiting for the The Girl and KSC2-303 to return resurrected to the world, or more precisely to the Forest of Resurrection, where he can hopefully, this time, perform a sacrifice or something, open one of the 666 portals 'to the other side' and gain some great unimaginable power. All the while the Forest of Resurrection behaves as one would expect bringing any others caught up indirectly in the manage-a-trois death party back as zombies.
Combine sadistic Yakuza, blood thirsty undead and an ultimate samurai driven callous by the ravages of immortality, but in possession of a really big sword and a plethora of modern weaponry, and you have quite the recipe for an excessive blood bath and Versus delivers, in bucket loads. Whether it's heads, hands, innards or all three, exorbitant but delightful attention has been given to making the zombie or human deaths as memorable and colourful as possible. Scenes are audacious and shocking, and even a bit daft at times, but this is never a Dead Alive (Brain Dead) or Dead Snow; the melancholic atmosphere is always dutifully adhered too, even as twisted zombie caricatures are literally sliced and diced Fruit Ninja style in laughably long and exaggerated set pieces.
Sublime, surreal; Versus is a hard film to judge. A hyper-stylised excess of violence; as a Japanese close combat film it excels in all areas. Except, when your first twenty drawn out duels are as good as the last, when it does get to the big finale where immortal fights immortal and the fate of mankind hangs in the balance, it just fails to deliver the kind of punch you'd expect it to; especially when you'd already enjoyed them going at it together a good few times before. Certainly a zombie high-octane experience, there's much to recommend with Versus and certainly I can understand many shouting it's the best film evar; I'd also go as far as proclaiming it art in both form and function; and yet as a complete cinematic feature it just didn't quite do it for me with just too much, well, everything, 7/10.