May 22, 2008

Plot Outline: Izo, a fearless and slightly off-kilter assassin of the samurai world is executed via crucifix sometime in the Japanese past. Being the vengeful and murderous spirit that he is, heading on toward the afterlife for peace and tranquility with no answers to the questions that rage in his mind is not something he wants to do. So he literally rages through the heavens killing anyone and anything that dares block the path between himself and the one who can answer his questions. This sends the heavens into an uproar, and as Izo draws closer, the ancients who stand around bickering back and forth about what to do with Izo count their very last hours.

The Review: Say what you will about Takashi Miike, he knows how to start a film. While watching Izo’s opening minutes, I found myself thinking back to that hyper music video style intro to Dead or Alive, or the equally outlandish, not to mention highly implausable, beginnings of City of Lost Souls. Hey, who could forget the title credit in Ichi the Killer literally arrising from semen? With Izo, Miike is back at it again, with a silent narrative though all the steps of child birth. From conception to flashes of an actual delivery, all by use of old stock footage I imagine he found while raiding some Japanese film vault. It only seems natural for Miike, being the director that he is, to take us straight to the death from all of these miracles of life. He gives us a man strapped to a crucifix, our leading man Izo in true Christ fashion, about to be pierced through the side by a spear – only this is a Miike film, and things have to be taken to extremes. So Izo is stabbed on either sides of his body with spears by two guards who literally jam their blades all the way through to the shoulder blades of our ‘hero’. Miike makes Izo into a pincushion as he is stabbed over and over, and over again. Things are pushed so well past the realm of the plausible that it becomes, dare I say, humorous, in a way only Miike could make. After this we’re thrown into a terrifying collage of images throughout history. A walk through the second world war, including bombs dropping, McCarthur stepping aboard a ship (I believe on the day Japan admitted defeat) and other various scenes of unpleasant thoughts. Scenes of carnage fly by in the blink of an eye, but are countered by children riding in teacup rides and girls hoolahooping. A regular Miike signature. This collage, packed with the opening moments of the film, deserves a mention among the best of Miike’s work – and I get the feeling I won’t be the last to have taken note of this keen editing. Now, all of this, had it been left to its own devices, could have lead to a monumental achievement for Miike. Sadly, that just isn’t the case.

Generally, you all know me, if Miike’s name is even on the credits as a cameo, I’ll be first in line (got fooled on “Isola”, and will be seeing Eli Roth’s newest “Hostel” just as soon as possible) and for the most part I have loved everything I have seen from him, but Izo… Izo I’m not so sure on. I have sided with Miike on just about everything, usually it’s like we’re two minds at work on the same issues, but Izo is just too much at times. If you know me, I often have a low tolerance for pretension. That doesn’t mean I have a dislike for big ideas or non-linear thought in my cinematic diet, I am a huge fan of David Lynch after all (and when it comes to Lynch, the weirder the better), but with Lynch I believe he does the right thing, at least right for me. He hides his ideas and lets his images talk for him. There is no need for him to get one thousand philosophers to work as his mouth piece in order to bogg his audience down with supposed “deep thoughts”. Lynch uses the cinematic medium to deliver a message of his own without the bells and whistles. Watching Izo for me was a lot like watching “Waking Life”, except with a lot more blood. That of course being a film I hated, I’m sure you can understand some of my antagonism. I might just be a simple man, and if I am I’ll accept it, but in matters of any level of pretension I just think that if the audience can’t understand what you are trying to say they should at least walk away entertained in some form or another. That isn’t to say I can’t understand what Izo has to say, I believe I understand it’s core levels and what the character of Izo represents in terms of society, religion and revolution – but I certainly don’t feel drawn to Miike’s conclusions or questions, nor do I think that for such a preachy-lead film that Miike really made his points clear or objective. The tennants of Izo’s philosophy are easily torn down, as all the characters do not seem independent in thought, including the character Izo himself. Everyone acts as puppets in an elaborate play, trying to deliver some monolithic final philosophical idea that never truly emerges.

I just don’t think that Izo delivers, and being that Miike wasn’t the original author it’s hard to tell who is to blame but knowing Miike’s work ethic, there’s no telling where these ideas came from. There are certain aspects to Izo that I might not have the first idea of how to approach and understand as an outsider to the culture, but I have had that handicap my whole time as a viewer of foreign films and have still been able to love films deeply rooted in such a culture. Izo’s religious terms definitely make it more complicated for someone like me to understand, something many reviewers seem to look over as they reach for political allegory’s as the main themes of the film, and I am left to believe that if many writers are correct and that Izo is about the inner beast locked inside of man that always has been and always will be there, then his resolution and ultimate form of suppressing or taming it is through a connection with man’s spiritual side of his higher power. The true meanings behind Izo could be debated until the cows come home, but ultimately only two men are probably sure of what it all means and they’re the writer and director.<br><br> So I imagine the real question must become: Was Izo worth it? Worth making and worth watching I mean, and surprisingly I’m going to answer that yes, yes it was. I don’t know anything on certain terms, maybe Miike was just given a massive budget for a film and in his rebellious ways made one major [expletive] of a film to throw in his audience’s face, something few would fully comprehend just for the sake of fulfilling some artistic need of his, but even still I respect what is at work in Izo and was still compelled to watch every minute of it. Because, regardless of whether I felt it might have taken things to the point of being overblown, Miike’s fingerprints are loaded throughout this film. Not merely just the familiar faces that pop up in the seemingly endless cameo spots, but everything about the film is genuinely “Miike”. From the use of old stock footage as a means to add to the current feature (Dead or Alive II, but particularly III come to mind), rebirth of man in his current form as a way of starting again (Gozu), that already mentioned comparison between children playing innocent games and the violence of the world around them (Dead or Alive II) and Izo himself is an absolute classic Miike character. If you’ve read Tom Mes’ “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike”, he makes it very clear that the majority of Miike’s characters are always isolated outcasts desperately searching for a home of their own. Usually belonging to no side during a time of conflict, and Izo as defined is a complete dichtonomy with the world around him. He belongs to nothing but his eternal search for the answers to the mysteries of life, and ultimately; inner peace. Whether or not I can claim Izo to be an entertaining or easy film to watch (truth be told, at times it’s quite frustrating), but it is important and absorbing if you are a fan of this director. Besides, seeing Miike given a obviously more sizable budget than his usual and thrown together with a cast of… who knows how many stars – it’s just fun to watch him be afforded the opportunity to experiment even this late in his career. Where else will you see Ryuhei Matsuda, Takeshi Kitano, Mickey Curtis, Sussama Terrajima and K1/NFL star Bob Sapp (who is about as big of a star in Japan as they come, both figuratively and literally) all in the same, completely incoherent, film.

As much as I feel like I need to give the film it’s 3 rating, I know somewhere inside of me, I probably love this film. Perhaps over time it will grow on me and through repeat viewings it will all seem clearer to me – but for now, these are my thoughts and no matter how much it pains me as a fan of his work, I have to say Miike did dissapoint me on this one. It’s not quite “Silver”, as this film has a brain and then some, but it’s not leaps and bounds better than it. Just a good bit different.

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