May 19, 2007

The Guard From Underground (Kurosawa, 1992)

Much has been made of the connection between this early work from Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the American slasher films of the late 70’s and early 80’s. He himself has referred to this film as an homage of sorts to that particular brand of cinema (the primary influences here are Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween), and there are obvious parallels to be found. In the great slasher tradition, the killer is a hulking, almost invincible menace that seems to be everywhere at once, and there are a few creative death scenes (though they are fairly bloodless affairs). Kurosawa even throws in a wonderful visual reference to Hooper’s influential film. And yet, despite the abundance of similarities, I hesitate to refer to this as a slasher film. In fact, most fans of slasher cinema would probably hate The Guard From Underground.

Kurosawa’s film feels somewhat antithetical to the slasher genre, if not in terms of plot, then at least in terms of mood. The narrative is extremely slow, and the true slasher elements don’t really surface until the film’s latter half. The plot follows Akiko, a young woman who has just joined the newly formed Department 12 at the Akebono Corporation. Her first day at the corporation, just so happens to be new security guard Fujimaru’s first day as well, which is unfortunate, as he is a mentally deranged ex-sumo wrestler who was previously tried for the murder of a fellow wrestler and his lover.

In many ways, I consider The Guard From Underground a perverse comedy more so than a slasher film. The film focuses on a group of employees of the Akebono Corporation who never seem to be doing any real work. The head of Human Resources at the corporation, Hyodo, sleeps more than he works, and even though he does almost nothing all day, he still refuses to take most calls. And yet, everyone always seems to be putting in overtime. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, two characters, both fleeing from the killer, run into each other in a hallway. Surprised, one says to the other, “you’re working overtime tonight?” Beneath its slasher film exterior, Kurosawa’s film reveals itself to be a surreal portrait of corporate Japan and office politics, extremely funny in an eccentric, offhanded way.

Lest I give the wrong impression, it must be said that The Guard From Underground isn’t a great film. By most accounts, it isn’t even a good film. Shot on a shoestring budget, taking place in only a few rooms, and built upon an admittedly thin screenplay, the film will probably bore most. Yet, there is something intangibly fascinating about this work, which I am sure has to do primarily with the fact that it provides a glimpse of Kurosawa’s emerging style. Everything that has marked his later, superior work, is here in larval form, from the detached, languid visual style, to the palpable sense of dread, to the quick bursts of brutality, and of course the bizarre sense of humor that flows beneath the surface (for further evidence of humor in Kurosawa's work, watch Charisma and Doppelgänger). Although this is one of Kurosawa’s earlier works, it isn’t a recommended entry point into his oeuvre. However, for those more familiar with the director’s unique brand of cinema, there is much to enjoy here.

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