Guilty pleasures are by their very nature hard to justify. Whether it’s music, TV shows or movies we all old something dear that has questionable value, little artistic merit and on the whole doesn’t jive with our usual impeccable (well that might be stretching it) taste. On some level though it doesn’t matter. They’re ours and they’re fun; and in the interest of transparency I’ll let you in on a couple of my guilty pleasures: 1. Loverboy (Don’t mess with Mike Reno!), 2. America’s Top Model (See what I mean about hard to justify?)… and… wait for it 3. “Death Trance”. Now, don’t judge me too harshly! Let me explain! Before watching “Death Trance” I didn’t think I’d like it and while I was watching it I didn’t want to like it. I mean really, why would a guy into Ozu, Teshigahara and Naruse like some sword and sorcery movie that’s all flash and no substance? Well let me explain further.
“Versus” star Tak Sakaguchi plays Grave, a warrior who’s done the impossible: stolen a magical coffin from a guarded monastery that is said to contain the Goddess of Destruction. If the chains that keep the coffin lid sealed are broken then the Goddess will unleash Armageddon. So why would this Grave gamble with the fate of the world? Is he a dark magician? Is he hungry for power? Nope. He just wants a good fight and he can’t find a worthy human opponent! As you let that sink in I’ll tell you about the rest… In order to save the world from Grave’s gross negligence a young monk from the monastery (played by Takamasa Suga) must give chase and face this fierce warrior in battle.
So, as you can see the plot in paper thin and with Tak Sakaguchi on board and the majority of the film taking place in the middle of the woods it feels like a Dungeons and Dragons version of Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Versus”. That would make sense because “Death Trance” is the debut film of stuntman and fight coordinator for “Versus” Yûji Shimomura, but that may be why I enjoyed the film as much as I did. Shimomura shows no restraint with this film setting it in Japan’s Warring States period via a Marilyn Manson concert. Historical anachronisms abound with bazookas go up against katana, traditional Shinto shrines are butted up against medieval European architecture, and in one scene Sakaguchi takes on the evil hoards while riding a motorcycle! It would be painful to watch if it wasn’t evident that it’s all done with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
It was these anachronisms and the gorgeously overwrought zero gravity fight between Grave and The Goddess of Destruction that reminded me of another totally over the top filmmaker: Seijun Suzuki. Okay, okay… I can hear you sharpening your knives already. I’m not comparing the masterful talent of Suzuki to Shimomura’s, but I did see parallels between two directors who are using every visual device at hand, sometimes even going against dictates of plot and logic, to produce overblown, almost decadent pulp films.
So, in the end I think I should get some points for being brave enough to step forward and share my guilty pleasures with you all, but if my love for “Death Trance” has cast my cinematic judgment in doubt then I guess I’ll take my Loverboy albums and go home. Sayonara!