Japanese genre filmmakers have an impressive sense of discipline when it comes to their craft. They can crank out material as quickly as any other country’s filmmakers yet they do so in a tight, focused manner. Even in the indie sector, where the budgets are threadbare and the resources minimal, they can still produce an interesting product that has interesting concepts and a distinct style.
Jolly Roger is a notable player in current Japanese genre filmmaking. They’ve only been at it since 2007 but have already produced and/or distributed over 50 films in that time. Their specialty is quick and dirty, super-low budget work handled in a distinctly Japanese style. Death Penalty.Com and Death Penalty.Com: A New Beginning are two fairly recent examples of their output. Both were cranked out in 2011 by director Ryoto Sakamai. These were obviously made cheaply and quickly, using video rather than film, yet they show a conceptual ambitiousness you don’t normally get at this super-low-budget level.
Death Penalty.Com focuses on the travails of a misanthropic “office manager” for a call girl service who quietly resents everyone around him, especially his abusive gangster boss, as he tries to work off some gambling debts. When he gets a mysterious email offering to bump off someone he doesn’t like, he clicks on it and discovers the titular website. It’s a video chatroom where anonymous people wearing masks organize to bump off each others’ nemeses. The idea is that a few members work in a team to bump off another member’s chosen target, thus giving that person an alibi for the killing while also ensuring they don’t know who did it.
The hero submits to this system and assists in killings. Things get complicated when he loses his own target after his boss moves on to another job – and to make matters worse, another game player starts gunning for him after he starts trying to figure out who that fellow player is. He starts to slip over the edge as he manipulates the game to get at his new mystery enemy but the rules of the game seem destined to work against anyone who would violate its system.
The results are clever if not entirely satisfying. Though the concept of the website and its rules are pretty inspired, there’s a better than 50/50 chance you’ll guess who the hero’s mystery enemy is long before that person is unmasked. The film’s slender length (77 minutes) also ensures that characterizations are sketchy at best. The hero gets the most development and he’s painted in a pretty unsympathetic light: it’s a gutsy artistic choice but it becomes wearing when your identification figure in the story is so hard to like. That said, Sakamai paces his film pretty well and uses the lo-fi trappings of his production to create a believably gritty vibe.
Death Penalty.Com: A New Beginning preserves the website concept from the first film but transplants into an entirely new setting and group of characters. This time, the site is a video game being tested by a group of debuggers who are playing out a round of the game at an isolated estate. Of course, things get real when the killings aren’t simulated – and as the ranks of the debuggers are whittled down, a motivation for the murders is slowly revealed. It all has to do with a tragedy from the past that invokes the timely specter of bullying in school settings.
The second film is even shorter than the first, clocking in at a mere 71 minutes, but is even more ambitious in its narrative. The first two thirds plays out like a technology-enhanced slasher flick. The characterizations are as broad as they are thin but the ranks of these ciphers are culled in a fast-paced fashion. Horror fans might quibble with the relative bloodlessness of these killings but the website conceit remains interesting.
The latter third of the film changes direction as the last few characters are forced to confront the fallout of a past tragedy. It goes for a social relevance and some actual emotion but again, the thin characterizations work against these dramatic aims. It also has a weirdly inconclusive ending that just kind of sputters out rather than tying things up.
In short, it’s easy to walk away from these two movies feeling that the short length and deliberately trashy approach work against the interesting website concept in each film. On the other hand, both films have better-than-average plots for this sort of quickie and they’re eventful enough to keep fans of J-horror from giving up on them before the end credits. Your level of interest in low-budget J-horror will probably determine how receptive you are to these films.
DVD Notes: Danger After Dark has recently released both Death Penalty.Com films on one DVD. Each has gotten an anamorphic transfer that does well by the simple, video-based photography style and crisp, easy-to-read English subtitles are provided for each film. There are no extras but you do get both films on one disc.