|Plot Outline: Akiko Narushima is a bright young art enthusiast hired by an up and coming corporation with the aims of becoming a new force in the world of high stakes art dealing. With Narushima as the only semi-professional appraiser on the team, she obviously has her work cut out for her. Her first day on the job becomes a nightmare however when the news that a Sumo Wrestling murderer has escaped and is on the loose. The killer, unknown to everyone else, has enlisted himself as a guard for this corporation and well… nothing good can come from any of this.|
The Review: There is absolutely no question to me that Kiyoshi Kurosawa may in fact be one of the most important directors on the scene. With his work on Kairo (often cited by me as one of the scariest films of all time) and Cure, he catapulted himself well beyond the call of duty in my book. His use of shadow and darkness to let the audience fill in the blanks with their imagination is only equaled by some of Hitchcock’s techniques from back in the day. I can literally think of only a select number of directors who have achieved such monumental gains in genre cinema, and Kurosawa simply deserves as much praise as can be afforded. The Guard From the Underground is one of the many films us R1 folks have never been given the opportunity to see for ourselves until Artsmagic bought the rights and it should be on it’s way to DVD shortly. If you’ve read much on Kurosawa, or even the Japanese film industry in general, you know what the V-Cinema market is and what kind of films have been released through it. As details are pretty slim right now, I can’t say for certain that Guard From the Underground was made specifically for the V-Cinema market but if I had to guess I would say it at least carries all the distinguishable markings of one. As one of Kurosawa’s earliest released films, it’s definitely an interesting piece of work. Not as confrontational in ideas as his later films would prove themselves to be – it never the less bares his mark as a director and you can trace his prints in ever frame. This is a film by a director learning his technique, what he likes and what he doesn’t. Never the less, it can still prove to be quite a bit of fun if you’re a slasher movie geek like myself.
Guard sets its’ self apart from the beginning as something that maybe teeters on the edge, even if it doesn’t quite push over those boundaries it hangs upon. With a profile shot of our leading lady sitting in the back of a cab having what can only be described as a painfully awkward conversation with the driver (and I have to commend the actress for this, as she gives one of the best ‘uncomfortable’ faces I’ve ever seen). The dialogue, despite what you would normally think, appears to be quite punchy for this sort of film. The back and forth between the two is amusing and generally just a nice way to introduce the character. From there the audience is piqued with a news bulletin speaking of the Sumo Wrestler who was known to break human beings like pencils, of course a brilliant (albeit simplistic) piece of foreshadowing and plot development. After all of this we’re finally given the title card. Kurosawa has a knack for setting his films up before the actual title sequence, but there’s something so fresh and invigorating about the way Guard starts. I actually walked in not knowing anything about it, so it was as if everything was new to me – and I have to say, if he was looking to lure the audience in, it was a fantastic way to get the job done. The budget for the film is of course going to stand in its’ way at times, it’s to be expected. It makes up for all of that in it’s experimental ways though, which is something I enjoy seeing in a lot of these older films from improved directors. Especially Japanese filmmakers who have spent some time in the V-Market. There’s an experimental nature to all of it that can’t be topped. Many of them, especially when you break it down to strictly genres, seem to have the same atmospheres about them (a layed back view of filmmaking, although you just know the sets were anything but), but I have to imagine it’s simply the inventive nature of these directors given so much freedom with other people’s money. At least the better of them of course.
These early efforts by great directors of course have their weaknesses as well as their strong suites, that’s just the way life is. One thing that should instantly strike you as ‘off’ in the film is the overstated V-Cinema-esque score. I went over this in my review for Shinji Aoyama’s Wild Life where the score actually helped to even the film out in some ways – but with a project like The Guard From the Underground it has the polar opposite effect. Where a minimialist approach was almost absolutely neccesary, the soundtrack pumps out generic “bum, bum, bum!” scary themes to accentuate the onscreen horror. If you can’t tell by now, I’d have to say it was a failure. I hope I’m not spoiled by the more modern approach to atmospheric filmmaking in Japan, but I can only imagine how much more effective the ‘dread’ of the film would have been had their been more ambient noises or simple silence. There’s no use crying over spilt milk I suppose, so I’ll just move onto the visuals, which make Kurosawa as proud as usual. You can literally see him forming the ideas and theories in this film that would later make him as popular a figure as he has become. I am partiuclarly fixated on this one shot where our “guard” himself is introduced and we’re given shots of his feet taking cold calculating steps up a stairways, and the way his face is mostly hidden in the shadows during the course of the film. Even after his features have been revealed, he still remains in the darkness. Kurosawa is just full of little tricks like that, and the film showcases many that have become staples of his particular ‘style’. The acting throughout ranges from just what you would expect from a low budget slasher film such as this, to many pleasant surprises. Our lead actress turned out to carry her weight around quite well, even if the character its’ self was a bit light at times. I of course can’t go without mentioning Ren Osugi who pops up for his role, which I am told is guaranteed to him with every motion picture filmed on Japanese soil! At least that’s the way it seems. He plays the roll of the slightly perverted boss at the company who ends up getting bashed over the head at one point and spazzing out on the floor in what might be one of the more disturbing moments of the film. His eventual death is even moreso. Although not an excessively violent film, Guard uses what blood it does to great effect. I have to give it that. Whenever I flinch at a scene with barely any onscreen violence – I know someone has done their job right. Although Guard From the Underground is by no means a ‘great’ film, it is fun in the way that these flicks usually are. If you’ve seen one, half the time you’ve seen them all. Guard does break from that tradition but it might not be enough for loyalists, but who is to say. I can’t help but like this sort of stuff myself. Broken bones, oozing blood and sumo killers; that is classic entertainment.