Extreme horror is an interesting subset within the wider genre of scary movies as a whole. For some, it is a wholly unapproachable category to be whispered of but avoided. To other gorehounds, rattling off the specific films you’ve seen can function something like a badge of courage for what you’ve endured and come out the other side from. To some degree, it can be hard to pin down exactly what constitutes “extreme” and you have probably seen this in conversations on horror all the time. For one person something like The Poughkeepsie Tapes can be paradigm-altering and yet a detractor is not wrong to suggest that it pales in comparison to something like A Serbian Film. There’s also something of a debate as to the purpose and validity of such films, but that’s not of particular interest to me. The point of all this preamble is to simply state that as someone that indulges in the world of horror, you likely already know whether you dig these sort of movies or not and that should be taken into consideration before approaching this film.
Takashi Hirose’s Brutal is every bit deserving of the moniker of an extreme horror film. While Hirose has several shorts credited to his name, this is the first full length feature that he has directed, handling writing duties as well. Clocking in at just over an hour, it delivers an incredibly, pardon the pun, brutal experience that is sure to delight fans of splatter movies and be just a step too far if you are not already open and immersed in this subgenre. It stands as a prime example, like many of its contemporaries in this field, of just what amazing and impactful special effects work can be done on a tight budget when you’ve got some passion fuelling things.
Often other films in this style are accused of lacking any meaningful plot or, at best, just being a simulated snuff film. Though the short runtime keeps things pretty tightly paced, there is the kernel of a quite interesting story at the heart of things that elevate the material just a bit for me. Following the old saying ‘there is somebody out there for everyone,’ Brutal asks us to consider what this might mean for a pair of unhinged serial killers.
Visually, the film is shot well, barring one curious decision. The entire footage is cast with a digital effect simulating the look of a damaged film reel not unlike a sort of 70s grindhouse movie. I really appreciate the idea and I get what they were going for, but it felt like a stark contrast that never quite added up to anything beneficial. The actual footage is clearly shot with a modern digital camera and honestly, for the budget, it looks great. For me, the grindhouse effect cheapened the overall feel doing more to highlight the low budget of the production rather than accentuate its impact in any meaningful way. You can also often tell that it is on a very short loop, which feels a bit strange. The sound design is adequate and backed by a great score. The film opens with explosive heavy rock that really amps you up for the chaos to come and, again, keeps the movie well deserving of its name.
The story is divided into three chapters aptly titled “Man”, “Woman”, and “Man & Woman”. In the first segment, we are introduced to a nameless serial killer, the titular Man (Butch) of the chapter, who has abducted several women and has them at his mercy. This film pulls no punches out of the gate as one of the first things you’re presented with is the killer socking one of his victims square in the face and then pummelling her until she throws up. It’s hard to watch, but again that’s the point of this genre. They don’t spare on the blood either. Once his actions escalate, everyone and everything in his apartment winds up stained red, making for some pretty haunting visuals.
Over the course of his rampage, and through several sets of victims, we acquire a few facts about the killer. He’s clearly messed up in the head, best accentuated by perhaps my favorite scene in the film as he starts having a conversation with the severed head of one of his victims. It is a moment that is very well executed and injects a sort of awkwardly comedic tone that breaks up the intensity and puts you in that strange place of wanting to laugh despite how messed up the actual scenario is. We also learn that by way of his murders he is seeking something or, perhaps, someone. It is a little vague, but it seems to be some sort of jacked up idea of true love. In one segment, a victim offers to sleep with him in exchange for her freedom which only serves to throw him into a bout of anger. Notably, however, all his victims are women.
In the second chapter, we are given another nameless serial killer this time, surprise, we have our “Woman” (Ayano). She also seems to function like an inversion of the “Man”, killing only male victims. Much of the events in the first chapter start and cut around between the killer already acquiring his victims so we’re never quite sure the full extent of his MO. Here though, we get a few scenes that make it clear she is preying on men that are lured in by her beauty. Otherwise, it’s much the same as the first chapter with some really hard to watch kills unless you’re a veteran of these kinds of films. Don’t worry, they doesn’t discriminate, there is plenty of genital mutilation going around between both killers. Just like our first killer, she also seems to be seeking something. Perhaps, another person with the ability to understand who she truly is.
The final chapter is unfortunately the shortest. I think it is a slight let-down because this is where the most interesting ideas are in regards to what story is present. You might guess from the “Man & Woman” title it involves our two serial killers crossing paths. What ensues is absolute insanity as the duo goes from trying to kill one another to passionate love-making intermixed with their more depraved and violent tendencies. It wraps up in a bit of an odd conclusion that I’m not so confident as to what it is trying to say given the seemingly apparent thesis statement set up in the first two chapters. I’ll leave it for you to discover, but it definitely left me wanting just a bit more.
I think that is where this film falls into a sort of odd place. The narrative that is present sets up quite an interesting idea. If you’re coming at it just to experience a crazy bloody extreme horror film, those elements may make it feel like things are just a bit too dragged out for what might have been better served as just a short film. If you’re there for the story and those headier themes, there probably isn’t enough actual meat here to wrestle with the idea. If we had some more flashbacks and a deeper look at the mentality of each killer, then perhaps it would succeed, but that would be asking for more runtime and in that way sits opposed to the first camp. Ultimately, I do think it was an interesting experiment to try and wedge in some deeper questions.
For full disclosure, this is not a subgenre that I actively and voraciously indulge in. I don’t go seeking for it, but am glad to watch one when it comes on my radar by recommendation. That said, with my own choice I would more readily lean into watching something like Brutal over say, one of the August Underground films. Not to definitively suggest that one is better than the other in any way, but to my own tastes the layer of having these deeper questions to focus on appeals to me more. I think it is important to understand your own tastes and limits when it comes to exploring horror. For some, the first few moments of the film will be enough to know you need to shut it off and that’s okay. If you love this subgenre, however, then Brutal is an absolute must watch that you need to check off on your list.
I checked out the film via Midori-Impuls’ media book release. Based in Germany, the company focuses on promoting the film industry of Japan and licensing titles that have not been sufficiently published in their country. While Germany is the primary area of interest, many of their releases also include English subtitles. Worldwide there’s a distinct lack of accessible releases for movies like Brutal, so I think the work they are doing is incredibly important to connect such films with their potentially wider audience. Considering specifically extreme horror, there are a handful of companies globally devoted to such releases but it is nice to see another willing to include them within the range of their catalog.
The media book format is simply gorgeous and is sure to be tempting to collectors like me, standing as quite the definitive edition. These releases are also limited run, sometimes with exclusive covers or other extras like a director autograph, and numbered for even more collectible appeal. Their release for Brutal includes the film on both Blu-ray and DVD. For the sake of transparency, the booklet of included interviews is presented only in German. The disc menus and special features appear to only be available subtitles in German as well.
As one might expect, for Brutal the Blu-ray disc is Region B and the DVD is Region 2. Unless those happen to be the correct release region for you, it will mean that you need an all-region player. However, if you are a collector or even just a connoisseur of Japanese cinema, it is honestly to your benefit to have one and, as an advocate for them myself, I really think it is worth it to have the ability to access top quality releases like the work Midori-Impuls has put in here.
You can pick up Brutal and their many other releases from a range of suggested retailers found here that are best suited depending on where you happen to be in the world.
Dustin is a potentially overqualified office worker who has a lifelong love and fascination with Japan and all things Horror. With a bachelor’s in English Literature and a master’s in Library Science, he devotes way too much time to researching and thinking critically about the media he enjoys. When not celebrating trashy horror films, anime, and idol music, he can be found raving about all things genre cinema as a co-host on Genre Exposure: A Film Podcast or indulging a passion for storytelling through tabletop roleplaying games.