Judge Adam Arseneau once had a job as a security guard. He identifies strongly with this film, except for, you know, all the serial killing.
"You refuse to believe that someone like me can exist in this world."
Kurosawa's answer: a serial-killing, six-and-a-half foot tall sumo wrestler masquerading as a security guard.
Good enough. Let's start filming.
Facts of the Case
Akiko, a former museum curator, has just been hired by Department 12 of the Akebono Corporation to work an office job, something she has never done before. When she arrives to work, the security guard has never even heard of Department 12. This is the first in a long string of surreal events to occur on Akiko's first day on the job.
Her boss is a short-tempered bipolar maniac and frequently screams at his employees. Her co-workers are either clueless or intentionally difficult. Department 12 is commissioned to broker rare artwork and sell them at profit, but seem unwilling to spend any money on the venture. She manages to get herself locked in a document room. Rumor has it the company has just hired a freakishly tall new security guard, who was an ex-sumo wrestler, but nobody seems to have seen him actually at work yet.
Hey, didn't Akiko hear something on the radio today on the way to work about an ex-sumo wrestler who was just released from jail after being found too mentally unstable to stand trial for murder? Naaaah, probably just a coincidence.
There are two kinds of lousy films in the world of cinema: the kind that try to be good and fail miserably, and the films that have absolutely no illusions about their lousiness and simply roll with it. The Guard From Underground is definitely the latter, possessing that ironic tongue-in-cheek sentiment in every celluloid frame, fully aware of its horrible acting, absurd plot, and total lack of character development, but having a fantastic time all the same.
Prior to this film, Kurosawa had been working on low-budget direct-to-video V-Cinema yakuza films, stuck in a purgatory of mass production and a total lack of creative control after a well-publicized incident with a senior director left him branded a troublemaker. When he was offered a shot at creating a slasher film for the price of a luxury automobile, he jumped on the offer, crafting a poorly-written, poorly-acted campy romp that pays homage to the best American slasher films of the 1980s that put him back on the path to becoming one of the most fascinating Japanese directors of the current generation.
Well…actually, he still had a few years to go. Created five years before Kurosawa's breakout hit Cure, The Guard From Underground is still visually identifiable as a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, but just barely. It possesses few of the visual traits and stylistic interpretations that would come to dominate his later work, but the detached camera angles and pallid color tones are still present. The film may be stupid beyond all belief, but it is also keenly aware of its own stupidity and almost parodies its own inadequacies by being extreme as possible.
As in many Kurosawa films, the characters have no clear concept of good and evil, existing in a world of shades and hues of gray where the capacity for violence exists in all of us. What better way to express this concept than through a slasher film? There are some Kurosawa-esque moments of complex moral ambiguity towards the end, but they are fleeting. Badly written, poorly acted, recoded on lousy equipment, and featuring completely absurd methods of killing people, it simply drops a bunch of oddball characters into an office building and has a gigantic ex-sumo wrestler systematically murder them one by one, each killing getting more and more gruesome than the last. Why? Why not?
Whether intentional or not, the absolutely surreal working environment that Akebono inhabits makes the film totally hilarious, kind of like Office Space if Mike Myers worked there instead of Milton. Whatever passes for "corporate offices" in Japan looks suspiciously like an abandoned hospital ward or something, but nobody seems to notice. One could interpret the film as a subtle jab towards the corporate mentality of Japan business, if you wanted to spend a lot of time just making random crap up. After all, the surrealist office environment of Akebono Corporation could be presented as all office environments in Japan; a send-up of the follow-the-leader mentality of corporate business that is so wrapped up in its own intensity that it…um, fails to notice a gigantic sumo wrestler systematically killing off its employees.
Gee, when you say it out loud…I guess that would probably be stretching things. Hmmm.
Oh, yeah, it seems that The Guard From Underground is a bit of mistranslation from the Japanese intention of the word. Rumor has it a more accurate title translation would probably be along the lines of "Security Guard from Hell." Or so goes the rumor. It makes more sense to me, at least.
The audio and video presentation is as good as can possibly be expected for a film of this age and budget restraints, by which I mean not very good at all. A hazy, soft blend of pale yellows and nauseating greens, the film is dim, murky, and damaged. Matted into a 1.66:1 on all four sides, the film stock—and I kid you not—looks like it was processed in urine. It just has that color about it. But all things considered, ArtsMagicDVD probably did the best they could with the egregious source material.
Both a stereo and Dolby 5.1 Surround presentation are available, but the surround mix is superfluous, erratic, and ill-balanced, and probably should have been excluded. Dialogue appears in both front and rear channels randomly, and audio simply drops away from channels for seconds at a time. Bass response is okay, but nothing fantastic. The stereo channel is a bit more muffled, but does the job well enough. I'd take the surround presentation as the track of choice, but only by default. Despite the small budget, the film has an excellent score, a non-stop suspenseful orchestra number that repeats itself a few times, adding a great sense of tension.
I had a bit of an issue with the subtitles. About an hour into the film, they became unsynchronized with the on-screen dialogue by about two or three seconds; it was quite noticeable and distracting. I can cut the video and audio presentation some slack based on the source material, but there is no excuse in this day and age to have sloppy subtitle timing.
Besides a theatrical trailer, the only noticeable feature is a commentary track by ArtsMagicDVD regular Tom Mes, Japanese film critic and scholar. As with all his commentary, he gives a detached but fascinating analysis into the background behind the production, Kurosawa's underlying themes, and what strikes me as a half-hearted justification of the film's quality in the face of unrelenting corniness.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For fans of Kurosawa looking to expand their collection, there isn't much here that needs to be appreciated beyond the absurdity of the film itself. Compared to his later work, The Guard From Underground is like an affront to the art of film itself; so be sure to intellectualize your purchase before blindly buying this film after seeing the name "Kiyoshi Kurosawa" on the cover.
Try not to be too judgmental. After all, everybody has to start somewhere.
A campy, surrealist slasher film, The Guard From Underground makes no apologies for its crappy budget, bad acting, or absurd plot…it simply goes out and kills a lot of people for no reason.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
It would be an unequivocally lousy film were it not so darn funny and ironic.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Japanese Film Scholar Tom Mes
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