Little does Judge Joel Pearce know that the translation of this Japanese movie's title is "whiny little crybaby."
Other people don't matter.
If nothing else, Sabu is further proof that director Takashi Miike is not only one of the most prolific directors in the world, but that he is also shockingly versatile. Certainly, this film is not likely to satisfy those that are expecting something like Audition or the Dead or Alive trilogy, but it reveals a more sensitive side of everyone's favorite Japanese cult movie director.
Facts of the Case
Sabu is a television drama from Japan that is based on a classic novel of the same name. It takes place during the Tokugawa Era of Japan, but doesn't have any samurai action. Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Dragon Head) and Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara, Battle Royale) have been friends since childhood. Eiji's troubled childhood and misfortune extends into his adult life when he is framed for stealing an expensive item and sent to an island work camp.
Sabu, who is actually a bit of a whiny brat, will do anything in order to uncover the truth about his friend's incarceration. Unfortunately, everyone else in town believes that Eiji is guilty, except for Osue (Kazue Fukiishi), the girl who loves him, and Nobuko (Tomoko Tabata), a local girl who has many troubles of her own. As this group of friends battle on the outside to clear Eiji's name, Eiji has to fight for his life in prison. While he is there, he makes a few enemies and a lot of friends.
The plot of Sabu seems to be influenced heavily by both The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables. It is interested in justice and revenge, as Eiji survives countless hardships leading up to a moral decision of whether to forgive or punish the people that framed him. It is also interested in studying the whole of the legal system though, taking a close look at how the prisoners order themselves and interact with each other. At times, though, it feels more like an adaptation of a Dickens novel. The streets of Tokugawa Japan are about as depressing as those of Victorian London (although a bit cleaner). The poor feed on the poorer, and Sabu's attempts to do the right things are challenged at every turn. As well, Eiji and Sabu both seem to be as downtrodden and abused as any Dickens hero. There is one character at the bank whose job consists of repeatedly picking up and dropping a bag of money, which is the kind of menial life that our heroes live.
As these characters move towards the end of the film, many interesting ideas are explored, especially the concept of luck and fate. Eiji has been trapped by his bad luck for his whole life, but when he is able to start wielding some power in his life, he must learn how to use it responsibly. The discovery at the end is that we can't really be sure why the things that happen to us happen, but that in time, the reasons for things will start to become clearer. Eiji's journey from being trapped by fate to making his own important decisions is a fascinating one.
There are times Sabu feels trapped by its television origins. However, the quality of the cinematography and art design never indicates that it was released on the small screen. It is obvious that it was shot with a widescreen presentation in mind, and it looks fantastic. The dull colors of the prison island are offset with the rich colors of the town.
On the most part, the performances are better than expected for a television drama as well. Tatsuya Fijuwara is excellent as Eiji, by far the most complex character in the film. Although he spends lots of his time being beaten up and otherwise mistreated, he does a good job with the difficult choices he has to make, and the reasons for acting as he does are subtle and believable. He has definitely grown as an actor since Battle Royale. The weakest work comes from Satoshi Tsumabuki, which is bad considering that he is the title character. His constant moaning and crying gets tiring, and he never seems as important to the story as he ought to. Both Tomoko Tobata and Kazue Fukiishi do well with their limited roles.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problem with comparing Sabu with great literary classics is that it does not really belong among them. While it does have some strengths, it also has a number of flaws that prevent me from recommending it as strongly as I would like to. The first of these problems is definitely in the script. As always, the compression of a novel to the film format means that a great deal of information had to be taken out. In this case, it's obvious that enough has been taken out that most of it is extremely confusing. The basic plot points were delivered heavy-handedly at the beginning, but many things were not explained clearly after that, so I spent much of the first half of the film trying to figure out who people were. This time spent trying to figure that out was time I didn't spend trying to figure out who framed Eiji, which brings me to script flaw number two. The framing of Eiji is obviously meant to be a mystery, but the plot does not press forward to reveal that truth. As a result, it lacks momentum and suspense that would have made it a much more exciting film to watch.
The other thing that will prevent many viewers from enjoying Sabu is the pacing. By the time I had reached the end of the film, I had become drawn into the characters and the action. Because it was so slow, however, it took me a long time to get there. There are long sections of the film that tend to get downright dull. When this is combined with the cheesy sentimentality of the scenes with Sabu, these early scenes are even more disappointing.
ArtsmagicDVD has presented Sabu on an acceptable disc. The video transfer lacks detail and has quite a few compression artifacts, as well as a bit of edge enhancement. It is better than many low budget Asian films I have seen on DVD, but it still only suggests what this film could have looked like with a high quality transfer. The black levels are good but tend to overpower, and the colors are well represented. The only audio option on the disc is a fairly lackluster stereo track, which makes sense considering the origins of the film. Still, the dialogue is always clear and the music is mixed well, so I have no major complaints with it.
While many companies don't seem to care about bringing quality special features to imported films, ArtsmagicDVD has done a commendable job with this disc. They include the typical trailers and cast/crew bios, but they have also included several featurettes and interviews. First up is a featurette on the production of the film. Rather than focus on interview spots with the cast, this heavily narrated 20 minute piece focuses purely on the filming process and behind the scenes footage. It does give some important context, and it is interesting to watch Takashi Miike editing the script on set.
Next up are four interviews with the cast and crew. The first is an interview with Tatsuya Fijuwara and Satoshi Tsumabuki, who answer a few general questions. This is followed by two interviews with Takashi Miike, who talks about a variety of aspects of the film. The final interview is with Tomoko Tobato and Kazue Fukiishi. These are much shorter, but it is always interesting to see how actors and directors from different cultures approach their work.
The disc also includes some promotional material, laid out on individual screens with a button to translate each part of the text. It's nice to see ArtsmagicDVD go to that extra effort to translate the Japanese taglines and promotional blurbs. Some of the articles included discuss the novel that the film has been based on, which is often used in Japanese classrooms. Obviously, the special features on this disc aren't as impressive as those on some of the best Hollywood special editions. Still, this is a disc that's sure to please fans of the film.
Although it is admittedly flawed, I think that fans of costume dramas that are willing to be patient with Sabu will find it satisfying in the end. Because of this, I am recommending a rental for most people that are interested, although some foreign movie fans will want to add this disc to their collections.
I still have no idea how Takashi Miike manages to pump out a dozen films a year, but I'm certainly not going to try and stop him—especially if he can keep releasing films of variety and quality. Everyone else is also free to go, except Sabu, who will be held until he learns to stop being such a crybaby.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Production Featurette
Review content copyright © 2004 Joel Pearce; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.