We like to think of art as some abstract concept which, by being positioned just outside the realm of reality, is actually devoid of competition. There is no sense in debating whether Alien or Aliens is better, because, at the end of the day, the whole question only comes down to tastes, yours and those of the person you’re talking to. We don’t think of art as a response to someone ele’s creation, as a means to fight another art piece with. Except, it happened. More than once.
In the sixteenth century, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese actually fought real wars, with actual strategies and very real briberies in the heart of Venice. A battle of will, wit and clout to see who was the literal king of the art world of the city. A rivalry which culminated with pieces such as the Tarquin and Lucretia Titien and Tintoret both delivered to world. But this is a story for another time, as of now, this is just an example, a precedent for what happened in Japan sometimes around 2003.
People were drinking on this very night of 2001, in the CineAsia Film Festival in Cologne, Germany, and Ryuhei Kitamura - who would go on to become famous for movies like Azumi or Godzilla : Final Wars - was sitting alone, not yet known. This might be why he wasso astonished when Yukihiko Tsutsumi, fourteen years his senior, sat in front of him across the table. Tsutsumi at the time was already an established filmmaker in Japan, even though he worked more intelevision, his movie Chainizu dina - pronounced Chinese Diner - had its fair share of success. Truth is, Kitamura also liked the movie and we can picture the happiness which arose in him when Tsutsumi admitted that Chainizu dina was in part inspired by Kitamura’s opening to his Heat After Dark movie. This huis-clos had given Tsutsumi some ideas, wouldn’t it be cool to reduce the cost of filmmaking by only shooting in an enclosed space, with only two or three characters ? At some point, they may have talked about Jam Films, a 2002 Japanese short film anthology on which they both worked, although it appears they never met on set. This first meeting, in a hotel bar in Cologne, Germany, may have been rendered possible through the presence of a third protagonist, that of Shin’Ya Kawai, the executive producer on the aforementioned anthology.
The story goes like this, at some point Tsutsumi wondered if it would be possible for the both of them to shoot two Chainizu dina sequels concurrently. You know, just to compare, just to see which one was the better filmmaker. Spirits might have played a role in the challenge which came up, but machismo culture could also be to blame. But Shin’Ya Kawai thought a Chainizu dina follow-up wouldn’t be this interesting to audience, so why wouldn’t both filmmakers shoot a fighting film instead ? Rules were simple: it had to be done in a single place, have only two or three characters, be shot in a week and one of the characters should end up dead. This would be called The Project Duel, a very good publicity stunt, putting two filmmakers against one another in some sort of art contest. People had consumed alcohol this very night, it was just a regular conversation between filmmakers and producers at an international film festival afterparty. People said they would do it, they were up to it, and they would forget, surely, right?
Which is why Ryuhei, aged 32 at the time, was startled when Yukihiko Tsutsumi called him, back in Japan, a few months after their nightly gathering. “You still okay for the Project Duel?” asked Tsutsumi. “Of course, I’m still up” said Kitamura, whom ten years in the Japanese cinema industry had taught him that producers mostly forget their after-dark promises. The younger filmmaker would be even more dumbfounded when Tsutsumi called him a third time, stating it was really happening. There was only one problem with this phone call, “Cool, I’m shooting in a week. You got one month.” Tsutsumi went on to explain that his movie would be called 2DLK. It focused on two aspiring actresses living together while trying to get a role with the same director and who would soon turn on one another. “So, you’ve got the movie with the beautiful chicks?” joked Kitamura. “Yes” answered Tsutsumi” But you know what you should do? You should do the Matrix with two old farts.” “And then you’d have the idols and I’d have to sell old men to the crowd? At least let me get some beautiful young men.”
Kitamura didn’t have a script at the time, and he was supposed to work on the very big Azumi but he couldn’t back down from the challenge. Even though this meant Mata Yamamoto, the producer on Azumi, would be disappointed by his filmmaker working on two projects at the same time, one of them being of such a small scale. This didn’t really bother Kitamura for whom a movie which doesn’t piss off its producers can’t be a good movie.
On his side, Tsutsumi really wanted to shoot in eight days. But this meant sleeping something like two hours a night. Still, he had gotten hold of Eiko Koike, a former idol and MMA commentator at the time, to play the role of Nozomi, a gentle girl from the rural Nozo island who hopes to break big with the fictitious film Yakuza Wives. Pitted against Koike, Tsutsumi had enrolled Maho Nonami, who began her career by winning a modelling contest and had already appeared in few movies, one of them being the kaiju film Return of Mothra II. In 2DLK, Nonami takes on the role of Lana, a city girl and much more established in her acting career than Nozomi. Before long, Nozomi and Lana begin to hate one another and a deadly serious cat fight ensues, somehow fuelled by both actresses’ aspiration as being a love interest for an invisible character, the filmmaker of Yakuza Wives.
Looking at the making of, the shooting seemed to have been really serious. With so little preparation, and so much establishing dialog, the first day quite went to hell, with Maho Nonami (Lana) being unable to remember her line for the actresses’ first meeting. A circular travelling around a dining table in which Nonami brags about her career while Koike (Nozomi) slowly begins to hate on her in the deepest recesses of her mind through a voice-over. Everything should have gone smoothly after this, but on the fourth day, Nonami fell ill and had to be transported to the hospital. Two days later, it would be her only colleague Eiko Koike’s turn to fall so ill that she’d have to get to a hospital to get an injection. Still, the shooting went on. Watching the movie, you could almost sense when Koike is under medication, but not knowing it only adds to the craziness of it all.
After a while, you can almost see the popping in of facial masks as the crew tries to prevent the spread of theinfection, twenty years before Covid-19. A luck Yukihiko Tsutsumi didn’t get. He fell sick on set, appearing on the later day with a scarf covering his throat and sometimes sleeping… He isn’t alone though, getting only two hours of rest a for a week will do that to your crew, every film technician will tell you this. Still, even though they shot until the dawn of the nineth day, 2DLK shoot was finally completed.
2DLK Summary: Two actresses, one country girl trying to start a creer, and a rich actresses already in the business have to live together while awaiting the result of an audition. This soon proves deadly…
Ryuhei Kitamura had only one week to write his script, and a month to prepare; at least Shin’Ya Kawai, the producer at the roots of all this, seemed to already have secured the finances. The tiny time-frame Kitamura had for pre-production meant he fell back on what he knew best. Chanbara. If travelling worldwide had taught the self-made filmmaker anything it was that the world craved a good chanbara movie and, on second thought, since he was going to shoot Azumi (adapting the shonen of the same name by Yū Koyama) at the end of the year, Kitamura decided Aragami would be good training grounds.
According to Kitamura, he secured Takao Osawa when the actor himself saw the pitch on Shin’Ya Kawai’s desk and was instantly interested. At the time, Osawa was already famous for roles in soap such as Heaven’s Coin 1 & 2. Kitamura also credits his actor for casting Masaya Kato as his opponent, who had already acted for famous directors such as Takashi Miike on Agitator, Takeshi Kitano on Brother and international filmmakers such as Christophe Gans on Crying Freeman. The three other characters who appears on film were all cast by Kitamura himself who had worked with them on previous effort such as his adaptation of Tsutomu Takahashi’s Sky High or his more well-known Versus. Even if Tsutsumi had had the beautiful girls, Kitamura certainly had a lucky draw considering his leads.
With its story involving a young samurai having to fight a god of war in a Buddhist temple under the silent scrutiny of a maid, Aragami holds up pretty well. Even if, while watching the making of, you can almost see the glimmer of energy disappearing from the actor’s eyes as the shooting got longer and longer and the sleep deprivation grew with it. In this document, Osawa appears studious, even though at some point he clearly states he never thought he would be involved in a fighting film. Still, five years later the actor went on to appear in Sori Fumihiko’s Ichi. Masaya Kato, who takes on the role of a playful demon on and off set, appears joyful at first, already used to perform his own stunts and choreography . Even his smile is not enough to hide the fact that by the eightth day, everyone, including him, appears tired. As was the case on the set of 2DLK, some technicians can be seen sleeping in-between takes. Kitamura even states this is what is to be expected of a film crew who havn’t slept for 48 hours.
Aragami Summary: Seeking shelter on a stormy night, a young samourai falls prey to a god of war in a Buddhist temple.
If Tsutsumi chose to take the Ryu Murakami’s road of grittiness and absurdism, Kitamura decided to blend Shintoism and Japanese mythology, pitting a tiny human against a Miyamoto Musashi turned god of war in a sword fight.
So, two Japanese directors decided to fight one another through filmmaking. Both got their films made under the terms they agreed upon but how could a winner be chosen, publicly approved? During the first screening of both films, audience members were supposed to vote at the end of each movie. Legend has it its Tsutsumi’s 2DLK who won by just one vote. A victory History seems to have forgotten for a challenge noone in 2020 really remembers.
This isn’t the only example which can be found of rivalry through art, not even in cinema where the competition between Rick Baker and Rob Bottin to see which transformation of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London or Joe Dante’s The Howling would be the best, is itself pretty notorious.
Still, the Duel Project offered us, audiences, two good movies, not masterpieces but good movies nonetheless, and those are sometimes rare to come by. Sometimes, even in art, a little competition may not hurt…