Posted: 06/15/2005

 

Guard from the Underground

(1992)

by Ben Beard



This is what the strong do to the weak: Revenge of the ex-sumo wrestlers. From ArtsMagicDVD.com.


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Kiyoshi Kurosawa, one of Japan’s more esteemed contemporary directors, delivers a simple conceit—club-wielding maniac butchers mid-level employees in empty skyscraper—producing a pleasing albeit slightly ridiculous thriller set in the confined world of the mega-corporation. But as the movie focuses more and more on the killer, the movie loses its appeal.

Akiko Nureshima begins her first day at the Akebono Corporation, a large business with dealings in art and food, among others. Located in an enormous skyscraper dedicated solely to Akebono business, Akiko discovers an insulated world of business types, such as her immediate boss, Mr. Kurume, an irritable, pushy bully with a predilection for flashing, or Hyodo form Human Resources, an aloof, effete elitist with a conspiring air, or the friendly security guard with a gambling problem.

News radio reveals to Akiko the story of Fujimaro, an ex-Sumo wrestler freed on charges of murder by reason of insanity. The new security guard at Akebono? A giant of a man named Fujimaro. Coincidence? Forget about it.

Hired as a consultant to Department 12, a new arm of the Corporation created to purchase high end art and then resell at a higher price, Akiko slowly assimilates into her new job. The building, all tight hallways and little nooks, dim corridors and crusty stairwells, half-finished like some gothic castle, envelopes the narrative. Terror builds in commonplace events—taking too long to get a cup of coffee, waiting for the elevator doors to open. Akiko’s increasingly surreal encounters with her coworkers results in her first run-in with Fujimaro.

Accidentally locked inside the document room, Akiko drops an earring before finding a way out. She begins searching for her earring in a banal quest that carries her into the deep recesses of the building’s basement, a dismal, terrible place, all torn walling and hanging wires. Deep within the bowels of the basement, she finds a crude shrine with her picture hanging in holy effigy.

And, in true horror movie manner, goes back to work as if nothing happened. This is the first of many stupid actions, the “Let me take a look” or “I’ll be right back” moments. People lock themselves in rooms, hide under chairs when they should be running, standing confused as death looms just above their heads.

The film takes a sadistic turn when Fujimaro finally makes his move and shuts down the building’s electricity and phone systems. Akiko, Hyodo, and two others are trapped, thrust into a meat grinder where Fujimaro hunts them down through the building’s labyrinthine interior, to subject those he catches to brutal beatings and certain death. The few survivors band together and retreat to the inner office of Hyodo, staging their final stand.

The film’s mechanical detail and Fujimaro’s lack of motivation create what is ultimately a throwback to the horror films of the late 1970s. The killer is insane, that is all you need to know. (Forgetting that most mentally ill people are a danger mostly to themselves.)

As some terrifying force of nature Fujimaro hacks and chops his way through the corporation’s do-gooders, some exterminating angel, an ancient killing machine. Watching Fujimaro torture his innocent victims becomes a bit tedious in the end. As the bodies pile up in broken heaps, the film loses its suspense. It would be a much stronger film without the segments following Fujimaro, focusing instead of Akiko and her struggle to survive, but then the movie would be half as long.

Of course, only the Japanese would conceive of the corporation as the world, stuck in the hands of a larger-than-life murderer. The multiple deaths count for little or nothing. There is no meaning to the carnage: it is simply something that happens. The indiscriminate killings, the parallels of business practices and murder and art: Kurosawa is up to something here but whatever it is he doesn’t quite pull it off. The viewer is left with what appears to be a pointless, perhaps cynical, exercise in splatter.

Imagine Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth without the thrills, and you’re close. Kurosawa is talented with the camera and knows how to craft a film, but in this throwback horror rip-off, he misses the mark, substituting viscera for suspense. Many directors fall into the trap, but we should expect more.

Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.



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