Judge Joel Pearce almost became unstuck in time watching this crazy Takashi Miike flick.
The world can never be changed.
Izo may well be Japanese cult favorite Takashi Miike's philosophical magnum opus. While it does have the director's signature flair and some compelling concepts, we as viewers ultimately become much like its hero: meandering aimlessly through time and space, wishing for something to end our pain.
Facts of the Case
After being captured and crucified by the Shogunate, Izo (Kazuya Nakayama) returns as a vengeful spirit, doomed to wander through time and space for eternity, carrying out the sort of violence that marked his life. Izo is alone in this journey, save for a strange woman (Kaori Momoi) who follows him, and a guitar player (Kazuki Tomokawa) who takes occasional wailing solos as war footage runs in the background. On his journey, Izo kills samurai, yakuza gangs, businessmen, and families at an amusement park. No one is immune to his wrath.
Some people will be offended by this review. "You just didn't understand it," they will say. "It's a deep philosophical exploration of human suffering." To those people, I will respond now: No it's not. While Izo is decidedly political and philosophical, as demonstrated by the stock footage of war and the inclusion of bloodied Japanese soldiers from World War II, I found no real depth at any point. Inane babbling and philosophical obfuscation is not depth. I find it gets tiring after about an hour. Consider the following statement, narrated towards the end of the film:
"What is striking the ground with voices is the confused sound of blood in a shining person, and what belongs to only me is dropping one after another."
The film is loaded with such "Izoisms," none of which help to explain who Izo truly is and why he is forced to endure this continual suffering. There are dozens of other familiar faces, but all of these characters were probably only hired on to do a single day of shooting. None of them gets any real screen time. There are only a pair of truly significant characters. And so, instead of layers of meaning or thoughtful ideas, there are simply sequences of violence occasionally interrupted by impenetrable dialogue and heavy-handed imagery. At 130 minutes, Izo runs at least half-an-hour too long.
I am pretty sure I understand the film as much as anyone is supposed to. Izo represents the evil and violence of humanity, and once he has begun down his bloody path he is unable to find rest, not even the from the reassurance of death. The historical footage is there to remind us of the horrors we have witnessed in the past century, and that Izo is really just a symbol of these horrors. I don't think a more thorough knowledge of Japanese history, literature, or philosophy would give me any more insight than that. I could be wrong, but I don't really care at this point.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't want to imply that Izo is a film without merit. As with most of his films, Miike demonstrates here that he has a keen eye for visual storytelling, making me almost wish it had been filmed with no dialogue at all. The pain that Izo experiences and his journey through time are purely visual, and the film would have been far less boring without the long expository segments. Even with these segments intact, it is a powerful visceral experience. The violence is bloody and slick, and Kazuya Nakayama injects his role with a feral intensity that I have rarely seen.
Unfortunately, some of Takashi Miike's other tendencies are also present here. It was clearly a rushed and inexpensive project, albeit an ambitious one. Some of the visual effects are distracting in their execution, especially some cheesy bluescreen work at the end. Also, the editing of the fight sequences is not up to par with what we've come to expect in the genre. If a director is going to tell a story primarily through vicious fights, they ought to be well filmed. At best, the fights in Izo are breathtaking and beautiful, but there are also some very rushed, cheesy moments. I respect Miike for his ability to produce such an endless stream of films. At times, though, I wonder if I wouldn't rather get a couple films like Audition each year instead of five or six like Izo.
While I was disappointed by Izo, I have little negative to say about this DVD from Media Blasters. The transfer is attractive, with a beautiful image transfer and solid stereo tracks in both Japanese and English (Since it makes little sense anyway, I highly recommend the Japanese track in this case). The extras are found on the second disc.
It is a very full disc. First up is a production featurette, which shows a lot of production footage. "Secrets of Izo" is the real production feature, running almost an hour and a half, centered on interview footage with Miike and the cast. They don't, of course, actually reveal the secrets of the film, but they create a lot of smoke and mirrors. Following that, there are ten minutes of footage from the premiere. The disc is rounded out by a large collection of Miike trailers and a photo gallery.
Those that find Izo to be a thrilling, meaningful experience will be thrilled with this DVD. This would, however, be a poor choice for those wanted to get acquainted with the work of Takashi Miike for the first time. It also shouldn't be blindly grabbed by fans of Ichi the Killer and Dead or Alive looking for another pure burst of Miike-style violence. It's a frustrating film, one that is unlikely to gain as large a following as Miike's best work. At least we know there will be more from him soon.
Fantastic visual experience or not, Izo is as guilty as its hero.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Production Feature
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