The prolific Japanese director Miike Takashi (1960-) is notorious for the cartoonish ultraviolence of the yakusa (gangster) movies he has churned out. Though I saw and hated “Ichi the Killer” (2001), the other Miike movies I’ve seen are atypical: the odd road movie “The Bird People in China” (1998, shot in Yunnan province), the character-driven “Last Life in the Universe” (2003) and “Sabu” (2001). the former set in Thailand, the latter in 19th-century Japan.
One of the odd things about “Sabu” is that Sabu (Tsumabuki Satoshi, fresh from “Waterboys”) is not the main character, nor is he the narrator. The main character is Eiji (then 19-year-old teen favorite Fujiwara Tatsuya, star of two “Battle Royale” movies) who had protected Sabu as a child. They work together making rice-paper doors and windows, Sabu making the glue, Eijii being a skilled paper-hanger.
Eijii is framed for stealing some gold cloth. As he says, had he stolen something, he would have hidden it, not placed it where it could easily be discovered in his work bag. He is condemned to the work camp on a Ishikawa Prefecture island. Sabu is ordered to forget about Eijii, and when he goes to the island, Eijii refuses to meet him, but Sabu persists (and loses his job as a result). And Osue (Fukiishi Kazue) and Satoryu (Tabata Tomoku) both wait for him, not marrying anyone else. (I’m not sure if they know each other, though Osue overhears Satoryu suggesting to Eijii that he marry her (Satoryu).)
Considering that there must have been some paperwork accompanying the prisoner to the penal colony, I don’t understand why Eijii’s refusal to state his name leaves the administrators in the dark. They decide to call him Bushu. Eijii/Bushu is very tough and practically catatonic, but becomes respected not only by other prisoners but by the guards for reasons that are opaque to me.
Although the movie runs two hours, there is much that is opaque in motivations, not least why Eijii was framed (eventually the reason is given, but that simply shifts the question to why framing him would achieve its purpose). Eijii is made to bleed several times, so the movie is not entirely lacking in Miike’s trademark blood splattering. (A sword is drawn twice, but slashes no one; the big fight involves a cherry-wood crutch and a knife.) Also, there is a big fire during a typhoon (does that sound like piling on?it does to me!)
Sabu seems ineffectual, even wimpy to some, though to me he is single-mindedly devoted to his childhood protector and willing to make sacrifices including taking the rap for framing Eijii so that Eijii will vent his wrath on Sabu and marry Osue instead of hunting down and killing whomever framed him. (Sabu does not know who the culprit was, and the viewer knows that it could not have been Sabu.)
I found the first hour of the movie confusing, the mystery (who framed Eijii) awkwardly done, but redemption came (in multiple steps) in the last half hour, and the making-of featurette increased my essem, appreciating what Fujiwara Tatsuya endured in long hours and freezing cold (the movie was filmed in December, partly on location in bustling Kyoto, partly on an Ishikawa island, and partly in the Toei Kyoto studio). The DVD includes an 8.5-minute interview fielding general questions (wuth Miike expostulating on the difficulty of making movies for adults rather than teenagers), and a second 1.5-minute one about the two leading actors in which he reports that Tsumabuki sought to express nonverbally the lines Miike assigned him (reminiscent of Steve McQueen). Each of the two female leads has a little over a minute in another bonus feature. The two male leads appear in costume together, appreciating each other. And there are trailers and tv spots.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray