Writer-director Shinichiro Ueda, wearing his trademark maroon bowler and bright yellow hoodie (emblazoned with the name of his film, One Cut of the Dead), appeared to sustained applause following the October 31 screening of his zombie-slash-filmmaking comedy, playing in the 31st TIFF Japan Now Section.
The film is Japan’s box office sensation of the year, having just passed the 2 million admissions mark and earned 1,000 times its minuscule $27,000 budget. And it’s still playing to SRO crowds in over 100 theaters around Japan, after being released in June.
Ueda was appearing at TIFF on Halloween, but let’s face it: every day has been Christmas for him since the film world premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival in April. An instant hit, it has since screened at 60 festivals around the world, scooping up close to 20 awards, and been released all over Asia. Word on the street is that the buses in Hong Kong are even wrapped in ads with the film’s blood-spattered cast — nearly all of whom were acting in a feature for the first time.
One Cut of the Dead opens with an impressive 37-minute single take, as a no-budget film crew trying to shoot a film about zombies is suddenly invaded by the real thing. Then, the story shifts behind the scenes and deepens immensely over the course of two more chapters, capturing the film crew as they struggle hilariously — and finally, movingly — to get that single take in the can.
Emcee Kohei Ando, Japan Now Programming Advisor, opened the Q&A session by telling Ueda, “What a great bag of tricks!” Replied Ueda, “Everyone’s praised me for the film’s structure, but you’re the first to mention the tricks. Thank you. Doing a long take was always my dream, because the longer the scene, the more difficult it is to shoot. I think it’s a nice juxtaposition to the rest of the film, with montage editing.”
Ando also commended Ueda for the film’s exceptional entertainment value. “The film is fun,” he said. “Audiences can realize how fun filmmaking is by watching it.” Ueda responded, “I’m glad you say that. I love zombie and horror films, and films like Pulp Fiction, with achronological time schemes, as well as backstage films, like Fall Guy and Day for Night. I used up my whole bag of tricks, so now I need to fill it up again.”
He continued, “Because it depicts the filmmaking process, I was worried that some people might not [be interested], but it also depicts the importance of teamwork, so I think everyone can relate to it — even overseas, where the film has screened so widely. I realize now it’s quite universal.”
Said Ando, “Maybe everyone enjoys it so much because it’s not about pros, it’s about losers who [succeed in the end.]” Ueda nodded. “Many seasoned filmmakers and TV crew members have praised the film,” he said, “and I think they really related to it because they were all amateurs in the beginning.”
An audience member asked whether Ueda had had to contend with a demanding cast and crew like that in the film. “I didn’t have any problems with them,” he said, “but one investor insisted that his lover should have a role in the film, and I didn’t want to agree, but…” Ando interrupted, “You could’ve just killed off her character immediately.” After the audience laughter died down, Ueda said, “I would rather think of such demands as a chance to figure out how to turn them to the film’s advantage.”
Another question was one that many of those in attendance had surely been thinking: Takayuki Hamatsu, who plays the gonzo director of the zombie film in One Cut of the Dead, is a gentle man who evolves into a screaming megalomaniac as his incident-plagued shoot goes awry. Was he meant to be Ueda’s alter ego? Ueda responded, “No, no, he’s not like me. Even if I get angry, I wouldn’t [go ballistic] like he does. But there are parts of me in all the characters.”