It’s impossible to spoil this film, mainly because it’s so audacious, even braggadocious, but it adds immensely to the experience if you walk into One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na! / カメラを止めるな! 2017) knowing nothing. It may be slow going at first, but trust me, you’ll want to stay to the very end of the credits. Consider yourself forewarned.
This film is a zombie film within a film about the making of the zombie film (that’s itself invaded by zombies) within a film about the making of that film followed by a documentary of how they actually made the second film (which is the first “making-of” film). You’ll really want to see that documentary, because the second layer is a 37-minute long single take, and in the world of the film it’s done live. The whole thing is structured as a joke, with the long one-shot as the first half of the setup, the more conventional and somewhat slower middle section as the second half of the setup, and the third act as the incredible, multi-climactic payoff. Then the credits roll over the documentary.
A number of things make One Cut an utterly gobsmacking achievement. It’s the debut feature of director Shinichiro Ueda, was shot in eight days on a 27,000USD budget with unknown actors, and gained wide release solely on the basis of word of mouth. The script, also by Ueda, does multiple things at once: It walks a tightrope in the first act (the one-shot) between campy and coherence, paves the way for various gags revealed in the third act, provides in-world explanations for those gags in the second act, and then conjures from thin air explanations of actual mistakes made in the first act. Ueda wears his director’s hat with supreme confidence and aplomb, not only blocking the long take on location in an abandoned industrial space, but also factoring in the documentary skeleton crew that captures the mayhem in real time. He also excels in the third act, somehow preserving the manic energy of the first act even though cuts and edits are now allowed (Ueda also edited).
Needless to say, cinematographer Takeshi Sone deserves his full due here. One of the running gags is about the in-world cinematographer’s (Tomokazu Yamaguchi) back giving out, and it makes perfect sense given the required stamina. Once it does give out, the young, female assistant cinematographer (Sakina Iwaji) finally gets her chance to shine, and she literally runs off with the camera—she has to, as she’s filming a chase sequence.
Most of the actors, including those mentioned, deliver outstanding performances, and nobody drops the ball. Especially notable are Yuzuki Akiyama as the sweet and beautiful celebrity actress who plays the one-shot’s lead actress, where she’s note-perfect as a twenty-something girl next door-type; Manabu Hosoi as the first layer’s cinematographer, one of the second layer’s zombies, and a drunk actor in the third layer, all of which are convincing performances, if for drastically different reasons; and Takayuki Hamatsu as the last-minute stand-in for the director of the first layer and character in the second layer, and actual director of the third layer, where his personal motto is “cheap, quick, and adequate.”
As a whole, One Cut of the Dead is both a celebration and satire of low-budget genre filmmaking, and the satire wouldn’t have worked without the celebration; even making the satire required a profound love for that particular gonzo style of filmmaking. It’s also a dazzling illustration of the illusions of cinema, as almost all the gags in the third act revolve around incorporating disruptions and interruptions into the one-shot story. Most of the time such incorporation results in noticeable pacing issues and aimless chase sequences, and so the film is also an experiment in just how much suspension of disbelief can be squeezed out of the audience. All told, rather than presenting itself as a fully deconstructed film (such as Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1971/2004)), One Cut deconstructs one film (second layer) in order to put together another (third layer), giving us just a quick glimpse at how the sausage is made—a figurative glimpse in the third layer, a literal glimpse in the documentary. This, along with the frankly impossible music cues (by Kyle Nagai), places the film on just this side of the genre-arthouse divide.