Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/23/05 23:32:20

"What the hell was that?"
1 stars (Total Crap)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I'm tempted to just leave my review at that, but that would be unfair to a whole bunch of people. The people making comments, for instance - "what the hell was that?" would be no longer or informative than what they wrote but still be given greater weight. Then there are the good people who organized the festival and treated me rather like a real member of the media, probably expecting a certain amount of write-up in return (admittedly, probably more laudatory than this). And then there are the readers, who might take that the wrong way and say, bah, he just didn't UNDERSTAND the movie.

Which, I'll readily cop to. Understand, I'm not a guy who goes into a Takashi Miike movie without expectations - I've seen a few, and been able to look past the sensationalistic exterior to see the substance underneath; I had some idea of what to expect. I still suspect that one would have to be a little more familiar with the Japanese mindset and cultural landscape to fully understand this one, and there are minutes I simply missed, because my eyes were closing or wandering from the picture/subtitles. Heck, I'd be tempted to disregard anything a reviewer says after he admits to momentarily succumbing to heavy eyelids during the movie, but let me say that I had no problem staying awake for Buppah Rahtree, which I saw immediately after Izo as the last movie of a five-movie day, so it wasn't just a late hour or fatigue - Izo itself knocked me out.

Which is curious, considering how grotesque and repugnant it is. I can usually count on something as nasty as Izo to at least keep my attention, or get me worked up enough to stay alert. But this is one of those paradoxical movies that is both perverse and deeply boring. There's just only so many times that you can watch a brutal swordsman cut a bloody swath through people before you have to start wondering, what goal is he so desperate to reach, and is it particularly interesting?

The movie starts out provocatively, with a bearded figure being crucified (it may be Jesus, or just appropriating the imagery). It's Miike, though, so mere crucifixion isn't enough; the centurions on either side of the cross gore him with their spears, causing more blood to gush than the human body can possibly contain. Maybe this is supposed to be Izo, although it didn't look like the same guy to me. At any rate, soon, an anachronistic samauri (Kazuya Nakayama) appears in Tokyo and starts killing people. He kills men. He kills women. He kills schoolchildren. Meanwhile, a corrupt group of establishment types, fearing that Izo is coming for them, hunkers down and sends various warriors to fight him.

The film is a full-on assault on the audience's patience. It's shot on murky stock, if not video, and is as such one of the drabbest, murkiest pictures one will see without it being too dark to see what's going on. Izo is followed by a folk balladeer (Kazuki Tomokawa), and seems to spend a fair amount of time in the city's park areas, which are sometimes like an overgrown jungle. However, that's just sometimes; the world around him will change without notice or reason. And the cutting people up is just numbing after a while. That's when violence becomes truly gratuitous, I think - when it doesn't provoke any sort of reaction, not even on the meta level of how curious it is that it's not provoking any reaction.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is how boring Takeshi Kitano is in his role as the head of the evil/complacent establishment types. This is the first time Kitano and Miike have worked together (though at one point Miike was going to direct Zatoichi), and it seems like it should be more exciting than it is. Instead, it's just more dull time spent. This endurance test clocks in at just over two hours, and is probably one of Miike's most impenetrable pictures. He's a fascinating director, a guy whose good movies are truly amazing, but whose misfires just as astonishingly bad.

This is one of those misfires. And yet, I'm still looking forward to his next movie.

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