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Versus + Ultimate Versus (2-Disc Special Edition)
When Versus was released in 2000, it put filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura and actor Tak Sakaguchi on the map. It proved instantly popular with the cult movie crowd and not only played festivals around the world but had some theatrical runs as well. It was released on DVD and then Blu-ray domestically by Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock, and now lives again in this newly remastered two-disc Blu-ray edition from Arrow Video.
The story? Well, honestly there isn't much of one, but what we have goes like this. There are 666 portals on Earth that allow people to travel to an alternate dimension of sorts and while regular humans are unable to see them, specific members of the warrior class can. One such portal exists in the so-called ‘Forest of Resurrection' in Japan, which just so happens to be located next to a prison. When two inmates escape into the forest, they intend to meet up with some gangsters but this quickly goes south when Prisoner KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi) takes issue with them having kidnapped a woman (Chieko Misaka). A fight breaks out, and things quickly get violent… especially once they learn that the portal in the woods has the ability to turn the quickly growing mountain of corpses in the area into flesh-eating zombies…
A low budget exercise in style over substance, Versus is, nevertheless, a pretty fun watch .it isn't a perfect film, however. The middle section, which admittedly features some nice fight scenes, overdoes it and feels unnecessary. Some more judicious editing would have helped the pacing here and resulted in a leaner, meaner and more effective movie, but that didn't happen. That said, there's a lot to like here. Kitamura shows, even this early in his career, a great eye for visuals. There are some really interesting compositions used throughout the movie and some impressive camerawork as well. The movie never shies away from violence, going for the gore far more often than not, and offering up some pretty solid splatter along the way. The film also throws in elements from all sorts of influences, pulling from gory horror and zombie pictures, Yakuza gangster movies, nineties indie crime movies, spaghetti westerns, action pictures like The Matrix and plenty of samurai films.
Front and center in all of this is Sakaguchi, who makes being cool look easy. He doesn't necessarily have the most range in the world, but he plays the tough guy quite well, always looking the part, moving well and just fitting into the story really nicely. As the movie progresses, he and Chieko Misaka develop a pretty decent chemistry, and they work well together in the picture. The movie wasn't made for much money, and as such the production values lack the gloss that those more accustomed to mainstream fare might want, but that just adds to the movie's already considerable charm. Even when things don't quite exactly work, you've got to admire the filmmakers for even trying in the first place, as this is a remarkably ambitious picture by low budget genre movie standards.
Note that disc one of this release includes the original theatrical cut of the film, running two-hours even while the second disc includes the longer Ultimate Versus cut which extends the film by an additional ten-minutes in length. In addition to adding the extra footage (mostly fight scenes but we also get a different opening), this version also features different music and some newly created CGI effects work and different color timing.
Both versions of Versus come to Blu-ray from Arrow Video on separate 50GB discs with the transfers taken from new 4k scans of the original 35mm intermediate element (the film itself was shot on 16mm film). This is a big improvement over the previous Blu-ray release from Media Blasters, which looked pretty lousy, except for one pretty noticeable department sure to irk fans of the film, and that's the color timing. The original release had some color filters applied quite frequently throughout the film, and those are no longer present on this release and scenes that were once bathed in those color filters now look more realistic. As per a press release that Arrow put out once fans called them on this issue, this transfer was approved by Ryuhei Kitamura who claims it was a ‘rushed decision' on his part back when he first made the film. Given that the director also had a hand in creating it, and they're sticking to their guns claiming that this is how he wants the movie to look. Take that as you will.
Otherwise, the picture quality here is quite good when you take into account the movie's origins. It was shot fast and cheap on 16mm stock without the benefit of a big-time, highly experienced lighting team and for that reason, it's always going to have a rough and tumble look to it. That look is definitely preserved here, the image is quite grainy. Detail is much better than past editions, but is still hampered by the limitations of the source material. The discs are well authored and are free of any obvious noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression artifacts and, those filtered scenes notwithstanding, the colors otherwise look quite good here, as do skin tones.
Audio options for the two versions of the movie are:
Theatrical Cut: Japanese language 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, 24-bit Japanese LPCM 2.0 and 24-bit English LPCM 2.0, with English subtitles provided for each language option.
Ultimate Versus Cut: Japanese language 24-bit DTS-HD 6.1 Master Audio, 24-bit Japanese LPCM 2.0, English language 24-bit DTS-HD 6.1 Master Audio and 24-bit English LPCM 2.0, with English subtitles provided for each language option.
The Japanese language 2.0 Stereo tracks suits the movie better than the other options, they just sound more natural, but the 5.1 mixes do a pretty nice job of spreading out the score and the sound effects. Levels are generally balanced well here, there are a few spots where the dialogue might be a tiny bit low, and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion to note. Regardless of which option you go for, there's pretty solid depth and overall the quality of the audio here is just fine. As the film was shot without live sound and dubbed in post, there are some spots where lip movements seem a bit out of synch, but that's just the nature of the beast when dubbing a movie in the first place.
Extras are spread across the two discs as follows:
The first of two commentary tracks on this disc features Ryuhei Kitamura and Keishiro Shin, who speak in English about the making of the film. The second track features Ryuhei Kitamura joined by Tak Sakaguchi, Hideo Sakaki and Shoichiro Masumoto. Both of these are busy, informative tracks with a lot of information covering where the idea for the movie came from, some of the effects work featured in the picture, financing the film, locations, stunt work, scripting the movie and lots more.
From there we dig into a host of featurettes, starting with Body Slamming Body Horror, a sixteen-minute examination of Ryuhei Kitamura's career by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp. First Contact: Versus Evolution is a ten-minute archival featurette that spends a few minutes looking at how Kitamura and company came to make the film and how they went about getting the project moving and into production. The fourteen-minute Tak Sakaguchi's One Man Journey is an amusing document of the leading man's tip to Germany where he attended the Japanese Film Festival in Hamburg in 2001. The one-minute Team Versus is a very quick look at Napalm Films' office space, while the more substantial twenty-five-minute Deep In The Woods, taken from a French release of the movie, is an interesting featurette made up primarily of interviews with Kitamura, Sakaguchi and other members of the cast and crew as they look back on the making of the movie and share some stories from the shoot. Also carried over from a French release is the thirteen-minute The Encounter, which is an interview with editor Shuichi Kakesu who offers some interesting insight into what all was involved with cutting the film and working with Kitamura in the picture's post-production process.
You want more? The aptly titled FF Version is an amusing, albeit heavily cut down, twenty-minute version of the movie that plays more or less like a highlight reel for the proper cut of the movie. Also found on the disc are the twenty-seven-minute Part One: Birth Of A Dark Hero and forty-six-minute Versus The Legend archival featurettes , both of which are carried over from the aforementioned Media Blasters release and which include loads of information on the history of the film and the people that made it. We get two clips, two and three minutes in length respectively, of the film screening at a few international festivals and two fun Versus Side Stories, entitled Nervous (seven-minutes) and Nervous Two (sixteen-minutes) as well as a minute-long making of featurette that are interesting to see. Without spoiling it, the two shorts tie into the feature quite well and are worth checking out if you enjoyed the main attraction and want to spend a bit more time in its world.
Rounding out the extras on disc one are twenty-two-minutes of Deleted Scenes that are available with commentary from Kitamura and company, five different trailers for the feature, four separate still galleries, menus and chapter selection options.
The main extra on the second disc is another commentary from Kitamura who is once again joined by some cast and crew members. Aside from that, we also get Sakigake! Otoko versus Juku, an eighteen-minute archival featurette that takes a look at what all was involved in creating the newly shot footage that Kitamura used and cut into the original version of the film. Menus and chapter selection are provided on the second disc as well.
As to the packaging, Arrow includes a nice slipcover with this release as well as an insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and the Blu-ray release, technical notes on the presentation and an essay on the picture penned by Tom Mes and a second piece on the film written by Kitamura himself.
It's a shame that the original version of Versus with the color timing fans know wasn't included here, as, whether the director wanted it or not, it's an important part of the movie's history and a rather glaring omission. That said, if you can live without that option, this is a really nice package overall. Color timing issues aside, the transfers on both versions are much better than the past North American Blu-ray release and the two-disc set is loaded with extras. The movie itself is considerably longer than it needs to be, especially in the Ultimate Versus cut, but there's still a decent amount of fun to be had with it. Casually recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.