“One Cut of the Dead,” a zombie comedy directed by newcomer Shinichiro Ueda, has taken the Japanese box office by storm, much the way “The Blair Witch Project” did nearly two decades ago.

Similar to that forerunner, “One Cut of the Dead” cost almost nothing to make. The officially announced budget was $27,000 (JPY3.0 million). And it was cast with unknowns, mostly through auditions at Enbu Seminar, the Tokyo acting and directing school that produced the film.

Shot over eight days on location north of Tokyo, the film screened at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in March this year, and the following month it had its international premiere at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, where it won the second-place audience award. “Seeing 500 fans at Udine applaud for five minutes gave us confidence,” says Koji Ichihashi, Enbu Seminar president and the film’s producer.

After more festival screenings, where it received a rapturous reception from audiences and critics, “One Cut” had its commercial release in Japan on June 23 on two screens. Boosted by dozens of favorable comments Ueda and Ichihashi had solicited from actors, directors and entertainment personalities, the film sold out screening after screening.

As the film packed in fans, the media took notice. “It became a news item, with newspapers, magazines and TV shows reporting on it,” says Ichihashi. “That hardly ever happens with an independent film here.”

Enbu Seminiar, which occupies two rooms in a weathered Tokyo office building, acquired a partner in mid-level distributor Asmik Ace and the film began to play in downtown multiplexes of Toho, Japan’s biggest exhibitor and distributor.

As of this week, “One Cut” was showing on 200 screens, while its admissions had passed the 300,000 mark. Cumulative box office is near to $8 million (JPY1.0 billion).
Ichihashi confesses that the film didn’t immediately strike him as a hit when Ueda first pitched it. “From the script alone, I couldn’t visualize what the film would be like,” he said. “It was all in Ueda’s head. But when I saw the reaction at the first screenings I realized that it was some sort of masterpiece.”

Questions have arisen about just how much of that “masterpiece” is Ueda’s own creation, however. On Aug. 21 the weekly magazine Flash ran an article on the film with the headlines “Suspicion of copyright infringement” and an interview with Ryoichi Wada, a theater director and playwright. He claimed that “One Cut” was an adaptation of his play

“Ghost in the Box,” which his theater troupe Peace had performed from 2011 to 2014.
Ueda had previously admitted that the film’s two-level structure – a 37-minute no-cut sequence about the zombie invasion of a chaotic film shoot, followed by a recap of how the film came to be – was inspired by “Ghost in the Box.” But he denied that he had simply adapted Wada’s play. In a Facebook post yesterday Ueda stressed that “One Cut” is “an original work that I scripted, directed and edited.” “I will definitely lend an ear to the claims of Wada and his troupe. I feel we can reach an amicable agreement,” he added.

On Tuesday, Enbu Seminar issued a statement saying that “there is no truth” to the Flash headlines and that the article itself was “inaccurate.” “We have been engaged in negotiations with representatives of the play and have been discussing our responses (to their demands), including credits and other conditions… but we strongly resent the insinuations of the article.”

Ueda’s assessment of the controversy to his Facebook friends was more upbeat: “I hope that someday I can make something interesting together with Wada and his troupe. I’m dreaming of that miracle future. Tomorrow ‘One Cut of the Dead” will again screen full of energy.”