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Review © Alex Apple, 2005.

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 1992, 96 min. starring Makiko Kuno, Yutaka Matsushige, Hatsunori Hasegawa, Ren Osugi and Taro Suwa.

If you work in a large organisation, you'll know about the slightly odd, usually stumpy chaps who seemingly live in a glorified hut at the main entrance and insist on giving you dodgy looks as you try to sneak past them three minutes late for your eight hours of daily drudgery. The guys who you try to persuade that you genuinely did lose your pass when you left it in your trousers at the dry cleaner's, rather than giving it to some international terrorist who has since decided to launch their campaign for world domination at your catalogue shopping warehouse.

Yup, in-house security. OK, so patrolling the grounds looking for smokers by the propane tanks might not be the most challenging of careers, or indeed the most purposeful, but someone's go to do it, and it beats cleaning toilets with a toothbrush, right? Well, as Kiyoshi Kurosawa – yes, that Kiyoshi Kurosawa – turns his attention to the world of office politics, endless procedures for procuring keys, and, oh, by the way, a murderous security guard, you know you're going to be in for a bit of a treat.

Synopsis

Akiko Narushima has a brand new job at the Akebono Corporation. In the taxi on the journey in we hear of a former Sumo wrestler named Fujinoamaru, previously tried for the murder of a fellow wrestler and his lover, but released having been deemed insane. The authorities, it seems, are reassessing his case for a possible retrial, and looking for the wrestler.

Arriving at the Akebono building, she gives her details to the security guard Nomiya, as well, as the required photograph. She goes to meet her colleagues: her new boss, Mr Kurume (Ren Osugi), is a certified loon with a drink problem; his superior, Mr Hyodo (Hatsunori Hasegawa), a rather stand-offish executive (and pervert) with a reputation for toughness and doing his own thing, no matter the consequences.

Nevertheless, Nomiya has another new starter to deal with today, a third employee in the security department to join him and Shirai – and he's huge. From the start, Fujimaru remains, er, enigmatic, refusing to say very much at all, let alone engage in small talk with his new workmates. Nomiya gives up and goes upstairs to the sleeping quarters to join Shirai, only for Fujimaru to join them in mid-conversation... at which point Shirai says his new colleague has a funny name. Let's put it this way – this was not the way to impress the near seven-footer, and the next time we see Shirai he's found dead in a locker, gently bleeding. Oops.

Akiko, in the meantime, has been harassed by Kurume being completely hatstand, and flees into the library / document store. Accidentally finding herself locked in, she calls security to let her out. While she's waiting, there's a massive pounding on the solid metal back door, flexing it in the middle... she flees, dropping an earring on the floor, to the main door, where fortunately Nomiya is there to let her out. A lucky escape, she feels. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop the rather over-protective Kurume from thinking Nomiya did something to Akiko in there, and as he berates and threatens the guard, Nomiya clearly has plans for what he'd like his new co-worker to do next... He goes off to find Fujimaru to tell him to off the boss of Department 12, but not to kill him – not yet, anyway.

Our plucky heroine needs the keys to the document store again and goes to the security office, only to be told that they're all down in the basement. So off she sets down the stairs, past a female maintenance worker to a section in the rear of the underground store. It's deserted, but left hanging on a peg on a line is the picture she gave Nomiya the day before – why? Before she has much time to even think she hears a noise and hides – it's Fujimaru in his lair, coming down to pick up a metal baseball bat. As he gets close to her hiding place, Akiko notices one other thing: he's wearing her missing earring. Terrified, she legs it – and you get the feeling that, this time, Fujimaru allows her to go.

Off she pops, then to talk to Hyodo – only he's asleep. She decides to wait it out until he's awake – although it's the end of the day, she's still got plenty of work to do, even once Kurume and Nonomura have gone home. Only Kurume doesn't make it home, as the second victim in Fujimaru's killing spree – and you just know there's more to come. How is poor heroic Akiko going to escape, and how the hell is it going to involve a telex to New York?

Guard from the Underground is, as far as we can tell, a bit of a black sheep in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's catalogue. For a start, it's V-cinema, and, to be honest, fairly generic V-cinema at that. There's little visually to distinguish it from probably several dozen similar works by other directors like Miike or Higuchinsky. Budgetary considerations aside, though, there's enough here to ensnare both casual viewers and the rabid Kurosawa fans. For a start, despite an achingly slow start, and to be frank rather unsympathetic characterisation, once the movie ratchets into gear it does become rather a tense – and violent – slasher. The serial killer conclusion is massively signposted from the beginning: let's be frank – just like the only difference between Clark Kent and Superman are Kent's nerdy specs, the only difference between serial sumo slayer Fujinomaru and psychotic security sentry Fujimaru is, well, two letters – "no". It's clearly deliberate on Kurosawa's part, but far from acting as a plot spoiler, it only heightens the tension as the viewer is left as a passive, but implicit, voyeur in the events to come.

Unusually for a Kurosawa movie, Guard from the Underground is explicitly violent. There's no subtle hints, no cutting away at the crucial moment – it's vicious. Fujimaru is a brutal man and the director has no hesitation in showing us just how sadistic he is. The, at best, vague motivation that he gives only highlights his brutality yet further. Shot a good 80% of the time in shadow, Yutaka Matsushige's performance is never oversold, remaining passive and almost monosyllabic throughout. The final, shocking shot – typical of Kurosawa, and perfectly in character for Fujimaru – can only highlight the fact that it is he, and no-one else, who is in full control of the situation.

That's not to say that this film is tough going. If anything, along with 2004's Doppelganger, this is the most accessible Kurosawa film I've seen. It's in no small part lifted by the Ren Osugi – Taro Suwa double act, the two actors feeding off each other in the scenes they are together. Here, perhaps, are Snowblood Apple's two favourite bit-part actors together in a movie at last: it's not unlike De Niro and Pacino finally meeting on-screen in Heat, only much, much funnier. Osugi in particular hams it up properly, being totally believable yet still utterly odd at the same time. It's a great performance in a movie stuffed full of them.

Don't come to Guard from the Underground expecting it to be anything like some of Kurosawa's later works. It's not – there's little evidence, for example, of his 'dead air' trademark, long pauses or even philosophical musings. He was clearly still finding his feet in 1992, and while that's no bad thing, it could leave some fans disappointed. Instead, though, what you'll get is a claustrophobic serial killer movie with an easy-to-hate bad guy which gently sucks you in before landing you in a hellish vision of fear and the need for survival. A remarkable slasher from Japan's master of the weird.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7¾/10
Violence: 8/10. Not recommended if you've broken an arm lately
Sex: 0/10
Chills: 6/10. Starts off really slowly but builds nicely
Psycho sumo slayers: 1, but a really tall one, so might count as two
Psychotic security sentry: Dear God, don't ask him for a visitor's pass
Ren Osugi: and Taro Suwa? Bargain!

Films in a Similar Style: absolutely none I can think of. Suggestions would be welcome.

*** Recommended ***

This film is being released by Artsmagic in 2005.

Guard from the Underground Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2005

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Makiko Kuno
Yutaka Matsushige
Ren Osugi
Taro Suwa

Links

http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in 2005
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/grdungrd.shtml - Midnight Eye give it the once-over
http://www.flipsidemovies.com/guardfromtheunderground.html - Positive review from Jim Harper over at Flipside
http://www.brns.com/welles/pages/welles1.html - short review, three-quarters of the way down the page if you're looking

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