Back in 2005, when Yuji Shimomura's Death Trance was just released, I was one of the first people to catch this film. Ever since I've been reading nothing but negative reviews, so over the years I started to wonder if maybe I had missed something. If maybe I was just a little too excited back when I first watched it. Somewhat hesitantly I gave the film another chance, expecting to be disappointed. Instead, I fell in love with it all over again.
For better or for worse, Death Trance is Versus 2. It's not an official sequel to Versus, nor was Ryuhei Kitamura himself directly involved with the project, but behind the scenes, the connections are more than obvious. There is of course Tak Sakaguchi playing pretty much the same role, there are the setting, plot, and characters that take quite a few cues from Versus (though Death Trance is based on a manga), and there is the fact that Yuji Shimomura served as action director for Kitamura's cult hit.
If you didn't like Versus, you probably won't appreciate Death Trance either. The film is as in your face as can be, trying to be as cool as possible for as many consecutive minutes at a time. There's a plot but it's flimsy and serves as little more than a hook for some cool fight sequences and great dress-ups. The music is loud, and the visual style is all over the place. Shimomura knows no shame, nor does he hold back. He just wants his film to be as awesome as can be. For some, this might trigger the exact opposite response, but at least Shimomura gives it his all.
The plot is about a holy coffin, guarded by a monastery of monks who kill whoever tries to come near it. One day the entire monastery of monks is obliterated by a rogue samurai. He takes the coffin and heads towards the Forbidden Woods, where, as legend has it, his wishes will be fulfilled once he opens the coffin. When word is out that the coffin is on the move, a myriad of interested parties show up, trying to steal the coffin away from the samurai.
Visually Death Trance is a pleasant mix of different styles. The dynamic camera work sporting strange angles come right out of Versus, while the stylish finale is reminiscent of Aragami's climatic duel. Then there's a fun stop-motion sequence, some harsh color filters, and a hefty dose of CG to liven things up. On top of that, the costumes are absolutely amazing and Shimomura makes great use of the setting to add some extra atmosphere. The only downside is the quality of the CG, which at times really is subpar.
The soundtrack is a mix of high-octane music genres, alternating between nu-metal and drum 'n bass-like tracks to keep the vibe going. I'm definitely not a nu-metal fan, but I felt it did suit the film as it helped the soundtrack to match the loud and in-your-face visual style. I would have preferred a few extra drum 'n bass pieces, or at least some faster metal tracks, but for a film soundtrack the selection is probably edgy enough.
Tak Sakaguchi shines again as the rogue samurai. It's not a very challenging role and you may even wonder how much actual acting was involved, but Sakaguchi has the perfect aura to play a character like this. His smirks, grins, and general apathetic behavior are spot on. The secondary cast isn't bad either, though this isn't the kind of acting that will win the cast any prizes. There's even room for Kentaro Seagal (Steven's son) who, I have to admit, does a noticeably better job than his dad.
Death Trance is a very simple film. Beyond being as cool and badass as possible, the film has absolutely zero pretensions. To get to that point everything is allowed, from anachronistic elements (bazookas and motorbikes) to larger-than-life characters and overly-long fight sequences. It's delivered with enough tongue-in-cheek humor to erase any trace of seriousness, even still not everybody might pick up on that.
Death Trance didn't perform well internationally, possibly explaining why this is Shimomura's only film to date. In the meantime, he kept busy doing the action sequences for like-minded films (Yakuza Weapon, Deadball), but his return as a director seems most unlikely. A real shame if you ask me, even though for now the market isn't looking for films like these. Death Trance is good fun that doesn't overstay its welcome, a film that should get a fair chance from all Versus fans out there. You might be put off by its eagerness to show off, but at the same time that's probably the film's biggest strength.