It’s tough for me to approach a Takashi Miike film without certain preconceived notions that may color my view. I’m not really a fan of his work, and generally find them to be puerile and not particularly entertaining. He simply loads the screen with blood, guts and other inappropriate bodily fluids and insists that it’s clever. However, when I heard that Takeshi Kitano was part of Miike’s next film, “Izo,” I was intrigued. I have liked, or at least appreciated, the Kitano films I’ve seen, so I had hopes that this union of titans may come out well. I should have known better.
The first sign of trouble comes in the form of that last resort for heavy-handed hacks — stock footage. It ruined “Casshern”, was the weakest part of “Save The Green Planet” and “The 5th Element”, and “Izo” is peppered with them — everything from birth films to the usual WWII battle footages. The introductory montage segues into the film proper, which opens by lifting the closing sequence from Hideo Gosha’s “Hitokiri”, with the titular anti-hero, historical mass murderer Izo Okada (Kazuya Nakayama), being crucified in Tokugawa-era Japan. Miike barely lets the oil warm up before hitting the throttle, and we get to see Izo repeatedly run through with spears in loving, bladder evacuating detail, a scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
“Izo” consists of a series of set pieces that jump from scene to scene, recalling the structure of “Pistol Opera,” except here Izo jumps back and forth through time fighting hordes of evil agents from random time periods. He rumbles with modern SWAT commandos in an 1800’s neighborhood, Meiji-era police in the back alleys of modern day Tokyo, and vampiric insurance salesmen in some primeval cave. Throughout the proceedings, the film cuts to a secluded cabal of historical authority figures as they cogitate on the irrationality of Izo’s existence — something to do with Izo’s grudge against the authority that made him into a murderer in real life, yet sentenced him to death for those very acts.
Three-fourth of the way into “Izo”, I came to the realization that I felt about “Izo” the same way I felt about “Kichiku.” The two films are surprisingly similar in content, and both purport to convey some sort of message about man’s proclivity towards inflicting horrible violence upon his fellow man in order to gain authority. I don’t know, maybe that blood-soaked sliced Daikon radish was supposed to be a symbol of man’s impotence in the face of violence. However, Miike gets so hung up in beating the audience over the head with the violence part that he forgets the message. As a result, “Izo” becomes an endurance test not of the viewer’s stomach, but of the viewer’s patience, which is the cardinal sin for any film. At least “Kichiku” had the good sense to pull its own plug at around 90 minutes, whereas “Izo” lumbers on for an interminable 128 minutes.
Philosophy not withstanding, a film with this much violence ought to at least be a visceral experience. The crazy thing about “Izo” is that, despite the epic level of carnage onscreen, none of it is exciting. Not once did my pulse quicken while scores of chronologically challenged combatants were repeatedly sliced into quivering sushi. Even the sequence where Izo hacks apart a school hallway full of teenage girls failed to register a blip.
A major part of the problem is Izo himself. By the halfway mark he’s been reduced to a screaming, drooling and convulsing demon complete with red eyes and fangs. Also, a vagabond guitarist keeps showing up regardless of the time period to sing a song that I suspect is supposed to be emotional, but instead sounds like someone is garroting him. By the end of the film, I wanted to get up and strangle the poor bastard myself.
But Miike isn’t done insulting the audience just yet. We still have to endure some of the worst faux philosophical dialogue I have ever heard, the kind of tripe that makes the ruminations on existence in the two “Matrix” sequels sound like recitations of The Vedas. Izo is presented as the personification of evil, vengeance and hatred — all of man’s sinful actions rolled up into one being — and he’s on a mission of divine retribution against the power structure that perpetuates it.
However, the make-up of that power structure is rather hazy — is it manifested in totalitarian regimes, organized religion, or is it just a trait of man? Does Izo represent man’s attempt to ‘get even’ with his self-imposed taskmaster, or is he a manifestation of man’s perpetual internal conflict? In the end, the philosophical statement that Miike is trying to make is that violence is an inherent flaw in man. A vice that is self-fulfilling, yet a shortcoming that man seems unwilling, rather than unable, to rectify. All of this is even made humorously obvious when we see a futile Izo running around on an ethereal Mobius strip.
I kept hoping that Takeshi Kitano’s presence could bring some order to the chaos, but after seeing his performance I wondered why he’s in the film at all. He just periodically delivers preposterous line readings like, “We are but humans, after all. Just a glimpse of a dream…” Quite frankly, I think the fact that Kitano’s face was partially paralyzed in a motorcycle accident is the only reason he was able to deliver these types of lines with a straight face.
“Izo” is the 8th Miike film I’ve seen, and with the exception of “Audition”, I’ve been thoroughly disappointed with all of them. I really can’t see the appeal of Miike’s films, yet I can’t explain why I’ve seen so many of them. Morbid curiosity, I suppose. It amazes me that, with 64 films to his credit, Miike’s work still looks like the product of an amateur. Cast in western equivalents, he comes off as a 3rd rate Lynch/Cronenberg hybrid, but whereas with Lynch and Cronenberg you get the sense that there is a level of background cleverness in even their worst, most incomprehensible works, the same can’t be said for Miike’s. I liken Miike’s films to formless noise — all sound and fury signifying nothing.
Takashi Miike (director) / Shigenori Takechi (screenplay)