Both directors, undoubtedly, made good films. But who wins?
In 2002, producer Shinya Kawai issued a challenge to two directors – Ryuhei Kitamura (Verses, Godzilla: Final Wars, Azumi), and Yukihiko Tsutsumi (Twentieth Century Boys trilogy): see who could make the best feature film featuring: as few actors as possible, one setting, and a battle to the death.
One is a film about a Samurai and a goblin. The other is about two actresses. For such a limiting brief, it’s impressive how completely unlike the other’s each film is. Ryuhei Kitamura, who will later gain fame internationally for his film Azumi, brings the fantastical element he is so good at. He eschews reality for something that closer resembles a fable, or a folk tale. A man wakes up in a mysterious temple… There’s no pretence of realism anywhere at all. 2LDK is the opposite. Some of the violence is cartoonish, sure (otherwise the whole thing would have been Hostel levels of disturbing), but it keeps a straight face throughout. The violence is slow, in that way that two people who have never fought in their lives will fight.
Both directors do wonders with the single-set idea. Kitamura turns the temple from a place of healing and peace, into the battleground of a war god, while Tsutsumi takes the already uncomfortable act of staying in someone else’s house with a stranger and cranks it up to eleven, turning it into a madhouse of violence. Interestingly, like in the background of a Street Fighter game, both sets feature a silent third party. Aragmi has Kanae Uotani as “The Woman”, who witnesses everything, and 2LDK has a parrot which sees everything unfold. Whether this was part of the brief I have no idea.
The acting in 2LDK feels more natural. Eiko Koike and Maho Nonami play their respective versions of unhinged well, and completely differently, while on the flip side Takao Osawa and Masaya Kato choose a hammier route. It’s not entirely their fault – they story practically demands it, but nevertheless, it does still mean the majority of the film is scenery-chewing and this does have the added side-effect of taking the audience out of the film a bit.
If we’re taking the Duel Project title literally, then, solely for its fight sequences, Aragami wins, hands down. Its slick choreography beats 2LDK’s clumsy catfighting no contest; they have more energy, look sleaker and well-prepared, and are generally more exciting. Where 2LDK wins is in its buildup and slow introduction of its characters. The story is small-scale (they both are, but this is one is considerably more small-scale), and it benefits strongly from that. Aragami certainly had an easy story, but it was marred in too much exposition and needless details. 2LDK gives us two facts: these girls are after the same job, and they hate each other’s guts. It goes along shockingly naturally, while at times Aragami feels a bit contrived. And the result of each of their duels? Well, both films end well, if a bit predictably. Neither is really better than the other; they were both the inevitable end for each story.
At the end of all this, one thing is certainly clear. We should get some Hollywood directors drunk and get them to do something like this.
Verdict: Judging from the score below, 2LDK wins by the tiniest of margins. Aragami may have a good story and excellent fights, but 2LDK is more engaging for its first half, and thus has a more satisfying payoff.