When I like a film maker, I usually avoid reviews of their films. I like Takashi Miike, so he falls into that category, but I couldn't avoid noticing the buzz around his 2004 all star opus Izo. The advance word was pretty negative and audiences seemed to be downright confounded. When it made the rounds at festivals, it proved to be too violent and exploitative for the arthouse crowd and too oblique and surreal for the horror/fantasy buffs.
Could it be possible that the man known for his bizarro cinema like Happiness of the Katakuri's, Fudoh, Dead or Alive: Final, Gozu, and Visitor Q had one-upped himself? Well, he certainly comes close.
Samurai Izo Okada (Kazuya Nakayama) is instructed by his revolutionary leaning lord, Hanpeida, to go on a killing spree. Izo does as he is told and is captured and crucified for his actions. But Izo's spirit will not rest and he becomes a conundrum within the fabric of the universe. Separated from all sense of space and time, Izo wanders across the world and the beyond, cutting a path of destruction, intent on destroying... well, everything, any man, god, spirit, or entity that enters his path.
That is basically it. Izo is a sort of Terminator-Billy Pilgrim, a being of pure destruction with a grudge against all that exists who is dislodged in time and space. He falls into an Edo era setting where a group of SWAT-geared soldiers machine gun him. A band of samurai soldiers chase him through the neon streets of modern Tokyo. He comes across imps disguised as insurance salesman, abbots, a voluptuous mother Earth figure, 60's era youth gangs, ex-lovers, other wandering swordsman spirits, zombie WW2 soldiers, a fragment of his own soul, businessmen, families, yakuza, and a sort of council of the universe made up of a Chairman, Aristocrat, Scholar, Financier, and a General. No one is spared. As Izo degenerates with each killing, he is reduced to a more demonic state.
Izo is repetitious. Pretty much, the film is made up of Izo dropping into some time and place and hacking away at whoever's there, meanwhile the god-like counsel sits and frets over what they are going to do with this unstoppable irrationality running around, and every, now and then, Japanese folk legend Kazuki Tomokawa sings a number that adds an emotional exclamation point to a scene. The repetition seems to be the point- violent actions just have the same result, no matter the time, the place, or person, destruction is ultimately fruitless. This is punctuated by a scene where Izo has all but run out of people to fight and cut down, reduced to a slobbering, monosyllabic demon, literally running like a hamster inside a huge infinity symbol floating on some celestial plane of existence. At two hours and eight minutes, it does feel overlong, and one justified complaint is that the film could be easily sheered of a couple of scenes and be twenty minutes shorter.
One of the oft quoted labels I kept seeing associated with the film was that it is pretentious. Okay that is fair, but not really in the most negative connotations of the term. It is showy, what with its epic length, all star cameos, and splashy direction, but it is also very straightforward and clearly is not aiming at any severe high mindedness. I guess audiences were confused because of the non-narrative structure, lack of a fleshed out character thread, and how it was clearly patterned to be as an esoteric mindfuck. The philosophy is actually pretty simple, so I guess maybe the typical cinema audience thought it was a head-scratcher because it lacked a traditional cinematic three act, here's your hero milieui.
Basically, Takashi Miike has delivered a film that is a sort of cross between a Terou Iishi bloody horror action exploitation and Alejandro Jodorowsky surreal epic. With scriptwriter/co-collaborator Shigenori Takechi (the two previously worked together on Agitator, Graveyard of Honor, Deadly Outlaw Rekka, and Yakuza Demon), Miike indulges his more experimental side, which seems to be his current career projection, balancing his output between pure commercial fare and more "out there" work.
Like the film or not, Miike and the producers made this project go from a direct to video film to an all star, festival contender. The cameos are a who's who of Japanese film, Kaori Momoi, Ryhuei Matsuda, Tsurataro Kataoka, Yuya Uchida, Hiroyuki Nagato, Hiroyuki Matsukata, Mickey Curtis, Ken Ogata, and the Beat man himself, Takeshi Kitano. And, just for good measure, you've also got beloved athletic beast and K-1 freakshow Bob Sapp.
I think the film definitely has its faults, the primary one being its length. Miike is one of cinemas most twisted and often violent filmmakers, but Izo is basically an anti-violence film. Not surprising, actually, since Miike has also delivered some very gentle films and making violent films doesn't mean you condone violence. I found much to like. There are many jaw droppingly stylized scenes that will stick with you. There is a great bit where Izo tumbles into a wedding, filmed upside down, and then careens into a middle school where a chorus of schoolgirls confront him. In a forest, a genuinely gentle moment occurs when Izo's soul-fragment, Saya, cradles and exhausted Izo, carefully picking nits out of his hair. And, I had a good laugh at some Miike-ish humor: when Izo confronts the council, the scared academic figure nervously offers Izo an honorary degree of Doctor of Interfering with Everything in the Universe. And, I even thought the Kazuki Tomokawa numbers were pretty cool.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Good image. Overall resolution is quite good and there don't appear to be any technical stumbles. Since the feature gets to utilize the disc space and the audio channels very simple, compression is kept to a minimum. The film is a bit grainy in some parts, a stylistic choice. Colors are strong. Contrast is in good shape. Miike is in full play mode here, delivering scenes made to look like worn out 60's samurai films as well as acutely composed shots of pure beauty. Sharpness is crisp.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, English or Japanese language tracks. Optional English subtitles. Well, some disappointment that there isn't a full-bodied surround presentation. The Stereo track is relatively strong and the soundtrack bristles with sharp fx and meaty, centered dialogue. Very nice subs, a good translation with no grammatical errors.
Extras: A second disc of extras includes: "Making Of" Featurette (19:32).— "Secrets of Izo" Featurette (60:25).— Theatrical Premiere footage (11:13)— Takashi Miike Trailer Reel (includes Izo trailers).— Production Still Gallery.— More Media Blaster's release trailers.
I strongly suggest diving into the "Secrets of Izo" before the "Making of" featurette. "Secrets" contains a lot of informative stuff, particularly Miike delving into the intent behind the film, as well as a lot of technical behind the scenes bits. Also curious is how many of the actors repeatedly say they signed on without fully understanding the script, yet they wanted to be involved because of Miike and the producers passion behind the project. The "Making of" is a little more basic and promo oriented, actors paying lip service to the film, and cute little text pop-ups on the behind the scenes stuff. Finally, the Premiere footage has a line-up of he key actors and Miike briefly talking about the film, making wise cracks, abd dishing out some praise before the film is screened.
Conclusion: A hack-and-slash art film. This is the kind of flick that I think will potentially bore and probably baffle most moviegoers. Hell, even though I like it, it is the kind of film that I could rewatch five years from now and have a totally opposite reaction. So, suffice to say, viewer beware. Most folks will want to give it a rental. But, for lovers of the odd and peculiar, and Miike, if it sounds appealing, give it a shot. This is a solid DVD, nice image and sound, and the extras add some insight and manage to help smooth out an oddball flick.