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Artsmagic DVD // Unrated // June 29, 2004
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted May 31, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Courtesy of madman Takashi Miike, the man behind Foduh: The New Generation, Visitor Q, Happiness of the Katakuris and Ichi the Killer, Sabu (2002) is a period drama about two friends, one of whom is unjustly imprisoned and how their bond survives despite the nature of the upper classes that conspire against them. Your average Miike fan wont find the twisted high octane sickness he is most well known for, Sabu is more like a Shohei Imamura film and contains a quieter style Miike has previously hinted at in his prolific resume, like the sweeter scenes in Dead of Alive 2 and Bird People of China.

Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara- Battle Royale 1&2) and Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki- Tomie: Re-Birth) are steadfast childhood friends who find themselves separated when Eiji is sent off to the island Ishikawa prison/workhouse. When Sabu inquires into what has happened to Eiji, he is met with a wall of silence as the higher ups begin to fire or punish anyone who pries too much. Eiji, framed for stealing a gold cloth, becomes sullen and shuts himself off from his fellow inmates and the outside world, including Sabu, who, after finding out about Eiji's imprisonment, ignores his employers orders and tries to visit Eiji. Sabu remains steadfastly devoted to his friend and fears that Eiji's burning desire for vengeance against those that framed him will ruin his life when he gets released.

While Sabu is a simple, small scale drama, it's understatement simmers so low, I couldn't help but fell pretty lukewarm on the movie. If you add that tone with the way the plot flows (or drips), it amounts to a film with almost zero dramatic tension. It moves at a pace and is stylized in a way that you never feel some explosive moment is around the corner. So, by the films end, you don't feel your heading towards any big climatic and revealing moment. And, guess what? One never comes.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting the film for its desire to keep things simple, and I far prefer my drama to be elegant and understated instead of over the top. However, you've got to be going somewhere. The film has two chances for some mystery or tension- one, built around the fact that Eiji could ruin his life once he is released by going after someone he wrongly believes framed him, and two, by the viewer not knowing who did it. The culprit is revealed, to us, early on, and never really capitalizes on Eiji going after the wrong. When he does find out who framed him, the films lackadaze tone already lets us know he will most likely let them off easy.

So, is the point supposed to be that he learns some lesson about people during his imprisonment, a lesson about judging people too quickly, that people can surprise you with hidden traits, and about the pointlessness of an angry vendetta? Maybe. Still, if that is the point, if his imprisonment leads to his losing his anger, well, being imprisoned made him angry in the first place. For all we are shown, he wasn't someone with a huge burden of anger that needed to be excised, so it seems to be a moot point.

Perhaps the root of the film being less than perfect lies in the sketchy characters. Their freindship as kids is shown in an prelude and during the credit montage we see them grow up, but then the movie just starts with Eiji sent to the prison camp and Sabu worrying over his disappearance. Actually knowing who they are and their personalities seems largely assumed. The film was based on a popular novel, and, in the novel, I'm sure the character details and unspoken feelings were more fleshed out. I certainly felt like I was missing something.

The DVD: Artsmagic

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, it was a tv movie and Miike is a fast working, cult film maker, so most of his productions fall into the cheaper territory. The image is soft, but that seems to plague nearly every other Japanese recent release (I'll just throw out Tomie and Cure as other examples). The contrast and sharpness are on the dull side. The color pallette is very warm. Well, despite it looking less than stellar, being a fan of Japanese film, it actually was just what I expected it to look like since these softer transfers are the norm. So, it wont amaze you, but it gets the job done.

Sound: Dolby 2.0 Stereo Japanese language with optional English subtitles. The sound is good, dialogue and score are clear, and it has well executed, subtle atmospheric fx (like some ambient insect noise that fooled me into thinking they were outside my house). Sometimes the subtitles go by a bit too fast, and they have some errors like the overuse of the word "blockhead" and a few spelling flaws like "may be" instead of "maybe."

Extras: Chapter Selections---- Tv and Movie trailer— Filmographies for Miike (the most extensive, including a bio) and the five principal actors.— Promo Material Gallery and Original Poster.— Interviews, Takashi Miike 1 (8:55) and Miike 2 (1:26), Actors Fujiwara and Tsumabuki (3:53), and Actresses Tabita and Fukiishi (1:33)— "Making of Sabu" Featurette (21:21).

Conclusion: This is one of those reviews that probably reads more like a whine than it was meant too. The movie does have a good story, an interesting co-plot involving Sabu and Eiji's unrequited loves that I didn't even get to in my review, and nice looking direction, but I felt it just meandered into nowhere. Still, I think its good enough for Japanese film fans to glean some entertainment off of it. And Miike geeks wanting to look at another side to the director will find it a welcome curiosity. The DVD has some fair extras and okay transfer quality, making it worth a rental or a casual purchase.

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