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Extreme Cinema, in theory if not name, has been around since the day Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali first introduced a razorblade to an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, way back in 1929. The idea of ultra-violence as art or entertainment predates Cro-Magnon Man, yet the arguments made against remain, and most likely always will. Is it wrong to derive enjoyment or learn something greater about oneself and others through violence and degradation? These ever pressing issues of moral objection vs. freedom of speech are probably what maintain a market for the continued production of such films. Several countries and cultures have profited from Extreme Cinema, from the big budget exploits of Hollywood, to the all-singing, all-dancing exploits of Bollywood. Violence generates discussion (who are we kidding, arguments) and discussion generates cash. Until recent years, the true Czars of Extreme Cinema were the Italians, with their many zombie, cannibal, Mondo, and Nazi-sploitation productions. The golden age of Italian exploitation dawned with the eighties, rising dusk onto a new king of all things exploitative: the Japanese. No one, since the death of the grind house and the drive-in, has wallowed deeper in pits of nihilism and violence recently than the Japanese.
young friends
During the sixties and seventies, Japanese colleges were hot beds for extreme leftist political groups. The political climate, like that of the US, was at the height of its post-WWII conservativeness. Some of these groups, like their Chinese, American and European counterparts, would commit acts of violence to prove their points. Usually the violence would rear itself in the form of a riot. A riot often begins as a thoughtful protest, but soon devolves into chaos (though sometimes it’s related to something less political like a sports match). When conflicting opinions are openly and publicly stated emotions will run high, and flooding emotions often give way to anger: if necessity in the mother of invention, then emotion must be the mother of destruction. Kichiku Dai Enkai opens with footage of an escalating violent protest, played against sobering music and grim opening titles. This title sequence successfully sums up the general feeling of the entire film: violence is ugly. Those of you with weak stomachs may want to stop here.

The viewer is then thrust into a developing problem; a political group has been bereft of their leader due to illegal activities, and there is squabbling within the maladjusted ranks. The leader has left his girlfriend in charge while he serves out his jail sentence. As the only female in a group of impressionable young males, sex is her main weapon of intimidation. Time passes and paranoia strikes, and the new leader begins to lash out against an older member of the group that threatens her rule, first by bedding him and then by humiliating him in front of lower ranking members. He leaves, and his return is in question. The younger, less strong willed members are kept in line through physical pleasure, drug use and empty promises, but their new leader is not equipped for the responsibility of maintaining order and focus. The paranoia reaches a fever pitch when the jailed leader commits seppuku insuring that he will not be returning, and that this is not a temporary situation. Then the next in line commits his coup de’tat, and reports the group to the police. Hoping he’s eliminated his competition, he moves in on the remaining members to gain control. But when the police fail in collaring the leader and her flock, they come looking for him.

It’s then that Kichiku Dai Enkai takes a sharp turn into Last House on the Left territory. The trader is dragged into the forest at the behest of the leader to be tortured and killed. Suspense mounts as weapons are drawn and beatings begin. Fear overcomes the group and friends begin to turn on each other. When the line is finally crossed, an orgy of wild sex, psychotic behaviour and graphic violence breaks out. Every conceivable atrocity committable is committed. Unlike Last House on the Left, however, there is no need for a parental or police intervention in the end, the fever pitch burns itself out. It becomes a suicide pact.

in the woods
The plot is told mostly through the eyes of two characters, one a younger member of the group who has just brought a friend in, and the other a newly released friend of the imprisoned leader, sent to serve and to see how things are developing. The kid and his friend seem to be the only ones with any life outside the gang (though this is called a student group, they are never seen in school or even on campus), they both maintain sanity for the first half of the film, and even begin to develop rather loving relationship. This makes their inevitable plunge into violence and treachery the most painful. The paroled convict is the closest thing to a conscientious objector in the story, and thus is the only member most audience members will find themselves able to identify with. This is not to say that he too is not without his violent side, but he does maintain a certain smidgen of conscience throughout the dreadful ordeal.
The first half of the film, before the real violence starts, actually had me on edge more than the latter half. Director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri utilizes uncomfortable close-ups, loose editing techniques, realistic looking actors and atmosphere, and cinema verite visuals to a most disturbing effect. He consistently and uncomfortably equates images of sex to images of violence. Most of these I cannot describe in detail or I risk offence, but there is one incredibly creepy sequence involving the cross cutting of violent sex, the sensual handling of a samurai sword, and the playful laughing and singing of the two sexually ambiguous friends. Upsetting events unfold in an eerie fashion, and build to a climax in the forest.

After the initial bloody climax, the film continues for forty minutes or so. This builds to another, even more outrageous climax, and the inevitable downbeat ending. The problem is, that like many movies before it, Kichiku Dai Enkai’s violence becomes very numbing before its end. I personally found a sense of relief in the first uber-gory sequence in the forest. The gore effects helped remind me that this was only a movie (only a movie…only a movie…). Instead of being disturbed by these oh-so-real events unfolding before me, I was instead admiring a well-executed special effect. I’m the type of guy who watches a lot of gory films, though, so my reaction is perhaps not the best on which to gage a general audience response. I found much more terror in the maniacal laughing and harsh beatings that preceded and followed the event. Most of the films true terror was really in the sound design, which makes great use of heavy breathing, laughing and screaming.

A bit of research (or a simple listening to Tom Mes’ introduction) reveals that this was all loosely based on a true event, but it seems to ode a lot more to the grind house horror flicks of the seventies than to real life. Wes Craven’s aforementioned Last House on the Left (another film I can admire, but not recommend) and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre are the real granddaddies of this particular movement. Both films are entrenched in political messages that are commonly lost in the seas of ultra-violence (to be fair, Texas Chainsaw Massacre features very little on screen carnage). Kichiku Dai Enkai suffers the same lost message, or at least it will to most viewers.  Weather this is a mark of failure on the part of the filmmakers is definitely up for argument. Those of you familiar with Craven’s opus, keep your eyes peeled for an homage near the end of the film that, like many of the set pieces, I cannot describe here.

blood on the flag
Though the characters are well portrayed by the young and inexperienced cast, their real motives are never revealed. I understand that portraying the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ makes for a more visceral experience, but would’ve found the proceedings more powerful had I understood the characters and their pasts better. When the characters I was able to identify with were thrust into difficult positions, I was able to question my own actions in the given situation. I’d prefer that Kichiku Dai Enkai had inspired a bit more introspection, because I think that horror works better when it strikes too close to home.

Kichiku Dai Enkai is presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio, and is thus obviously not anamorphically enhanced. In some of the shots found in the special features, the film can be seen displayed in a 1.78:1 ratio, but I’m sure that was just for the theatrical release. I’m going to guess that this was the director’s preferred ratio, and it works well for the feel of the film. Sometimes the film appears quite grainy, and there are some shots that are very hard to make out, but this is in keeping with the style of the rest of the film. Like Cannibal Holocaust or The Blair Witch Project, some of the most horrifying shots are the ones the viewer can’t quite make out. This isn’t a knockout transfer, but if it were, it would probably seem out of place.

Most of the film’s ability to get under the viewer’s skin is found in its sound design. Artsmagic has crafted a genuinely upsetting 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix, that isn’t all that absorbing in its directional effects, but in its contrasting noise levels. Like I mentioned in my review, Kumakiri’s use of human made noises is a cheap and ingeniously effective way to increase the tension—solid work.

It’s worth noting that my review copy was the PAL, all region version released in the UK (it’s listed as a region two release everywhere I’ve looked). The box art states that this is an uncut version of the film, and since I have not seen the film in any other version, I’m obliged to assume this is truth (though I have been fooled by box art before). I mention the regional orientation for two reasons: one, I was shocked that the BBFC hadn’t removed any of the violence (specifically not the sexual violence), and two, this version is (almost) identical to the US release in features, but only one disc in length. I’m not an expert when it comes to encoding and digital compression, by any means, but the reasoning for the extra disc in the States is rather baffling.

young friends in trouble
Things start with a well made, but long trailer (too long if you ask me). It shouldn’t take four minutes and twenty seconds to entice a viewer into watching a film. Under a sub-menu we find a generous serving of interviews, the first of which is actually an introduction with Artsmagic’s resident Japanese cinema guru, Tom Mes. Mr. Mes gives the viewer a quick over-view of the film’s history, from its inspirations to its acceptance by high-ranking members of the Japanese film circuit, along with its many awards. Kichiku Dai Enkai ran for years on the art house circuit before finding its way into a more mainstream horror circuit in other countries. Mes makes it hard for non-believers to not support the film and like it for what it is, though he can be caught not so gracefully checking his notes during the monologue. Features like this remind us all why DVDs are so nice to have, one can gather the meanings of foreign or difficult films, and appreciate them on a whole new level. This ‘introduction’ runs a little long at about twenty minutes, but is a nice addition regardless.

Also under the interview sub-menu is an interview with the director. This basically restates most of what Tom Mes already told us, but in more detail with a more personal slant. Kumakiri, who has a noticeable cold (or drug) problem, sniffles his way through a series of questions posed by an off-screen commentator with an incredible amount of warmth, especially for a guy who’s made such an angry film. His recollections of his school, the environment in which the movie was made, are not the most positive. He mostly used it as a warehouse for free supplies. The production consisted mostly of friends that had been involved all along, which he says helped maintain a sense of integrity. He makes the statement that film students shouldn’t aim to make student films, but to make real films, and openly admits that he may have failed in attaching a deeper meaning to the film.

Back under the first menu is ‘The Making of Kichiku’ and ‘Reaction to Kichiku’. Though separated on the disc, these seem like they were original produced as a single documentary. In the first part we are treated to raw footage of the films production. There is a lot of giggling and joke making, and the players appear to be having a blast. Everyone on the crew marvels at the gore effects like a teenager reading a new issue of Fangoria magazine, and production appears to have shut down every time they appeared on set. The actress involved with the most harrowing effect (at the films finale) really gave it her all, and was put in mortal danger by the novice explosives crew. Kichiku Dai Enkai was about one misplaced explosive away from a real snuff film. The ‘Reaction to Kichiku’ feature mostly consists of tour footage and acceptant speeches. Together, these docs run about forty minutes. Also included are solid bios and filmographies of the main players.

insain woman
For those with the curiosity and stomach for a raw, punch-to-the-crotch type indie film, I’d recommend viewing Kichiku Dai Enkai at your earliest convenience. Arthouse fans should be warned of the severe violence, and gore hounds should be warned of the leisurely pace, but both will probably find the film intriguing, if not entertaining. Those of you who worry about others judgment of you may want to steer clear, because this is the type of film that those who don’t understand will think you are sick for watching. Is it art, exploitation, or both?