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Movie review: IZO

December 21, 2005

IZO

Kazuya Nakayama
Dir. Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike has often sworn off any attempts to glean subtext from his pulpy genre films, even though he often tugs at the edges of commenting on Japanese society. He’s taken on the paid dating phenomena in Visitor Q, the dissolution of the extended family in Happiness of the Katukuris, racism several times, and some say Audition is a feminist empowerment story. He’s treated each subject with such distance and brutality it’s easy to accept his claim that his movies are all about sensation and less about intellect. That will be harder to do with Izo, a wildly ambitious film stuffed with Monty Python like violence, coal black humor, and bizarre experimental touches.

The Izo character is very loosely based on the legendary Tokugawa era assassin Izo Okada. He was instructed by Hanpeida to kill everyone who supported the shogun over the Emperor, and put to death by the Emperor after his capture. In life, Izo was a pawn. In death, the Buddhist version, he roams through time as a force of nature, of death. He’s confronted in the afterworld by all his enemies, and he slashes through everyone of them in Miike’s over the top comic fashion, acts which take up 70% of the movie. The gods are aware of Izo’s Thanatos quest and set out their minions to stop him.

They can’t, of course. Izo is an idea, and you can’t kill an idea. Izo is as close as we may see to an onscreen personification of the director. He is an arm of revolution, a cinematic revolution in Takashi’s case, and as Hanpeida says in the film, like Pol Pot believed, the tool of revolution is to kill. Izo aims to kill all orthodoxy, the orthodoxy of Japanese society, academics, business, government, crime (represented by the ultimate smooth criminal, Kitano Takeshi) . . . but not creativity – that god seems to be on Izo’s side.

Perhaps it’s Takeshi’s insistence on denying subtext that makes this attempt at explicit meaning so problematic. He thinks everything has to be explained, so in between thrashings, nipple peeks, archival footage and star cameos, the maniacal action stops for some exposition. Also, do we really have to see everyone one of Izo’s victims go down in a pool of ketchup? It’s the same problem I had with Kill Bill, so you killed all 88, couldn’t you just show 44? I know, there’s some meta-ness going on there, action is meaning, etc. Still, an hour and a half in, it just becomes tiresome.

There’s a lot to like in Izo, like the tribute Takashi pays to his heroes (Suzuki Seijun is all over the movie, and there’s a neat homage to Bruce Lee’s Game of Death that doesn’t delve into cinematic larceny, take notes QT). Some of his exteriors are Ozu gorgeous and he even manages to portray a woman And a romantic relationship sympathetically, rather than pathetically. This isn’t a case of Takashi’s reach exceeding his grasp, it’s a case of his grasp on the AVID controls being stronger than that of an editor. There’s a lot that could have been trimmed from the film, though I’m sure he believes that in this Every thing Has Meaning picture nothing could be cut. That is, except many limbs.

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