Apparently Takashi Miike is capable of more than just throwing gobs and gobs of blood, bodyparts, S&M, and the senseless brutalizing of women at the screen. Go figure. “Sabu” is absolutely nothing one would ever associate with the master of splatter. It’s a quiet and at times contemplative film about people, and not how many arms and legs they can rip out to showcase Miike’s latest “geyser of blood” effect. In short, “Sabu” is as un-Miike as you will ever get from, well, Miike.
The film stars Satoshi Tsumabuki (“Dragonhead”) as the titular Sabu, a passive, ineffectual young man who lives in a small town with his friend Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who is the exact opposite of Sabu personality-wise. Aggressive and stubborn, Eiji has looked out for Sabu ever since they were kids. They are also friends with Osue (Kazue Fukiishi), but it’s obvious both have feelings for her, although neither knows it. One day Eiji is accused of theft and sentenced to an island prison, even though he claims to be innocent.
“Sabu” is a period film, taking place in the time of the Samurai, not that it matters because the film is about everyday people in small towns. Eiji’s incarceration is quick — we don’t see a trial and the film immediately jumps to Eiji being transported to the island as soon as the opening credits dissolve away. We don’t even see, or know, what Eiji has been convicted off until later on. This leaves Sabu and other friends of Eiji, including a working girl, looking for answers. They are simply told Eiji was “fired” from his job.
There are a lot of things to like about “Sabu”. It is visually pleasing to the eye, with a number of moody, atmospheric scenes that look like landscape paintings. Our first image of the film is a woman hanging from a tree, but the frame composition is so haunting you almost forget you’re looking at a dead woman. As Eiji struggles to adjust to life in prison, Sabu stumbles about their small town trying to find answers. The stark difference between the two friends come through — Eiji in prison, going about life perfectly fine using his fists, while Sabu can barely defend himself in the free world.
At its core, “Sabu” is about Eiji’s life in prison, with the side visits back to the village and Sabu little more than diversions. Uninteresting and dull diversions at that. It’s not that Tsumabuki is a bad actor; it’s more that the Sabu character is tedious and annoyingly pathetic. Watching him try to piece together Eiji’s current fate barely registers as worthwhile. On the other hand, watching Eiji maneuver through the political and social hierarchy of the prison makes up the film’s more entertainment moments.
“Sabu” was a made-for-TV movie, but don’t fret. If “Sabu” is any indication, the Japanese have completely different ideas about what constitutes a “TV Movie”. This is feature-length film caliber filmmaking here, not a throwaway 2-hour Lifetime special. Much of “Sabu” looks purposely like a surreal set on a soundstage, with the drab colors in stark contrast to the choice selections of primary colors sprinkled about the scene. It’s a nice film to look at, even if one may find the narrative to be just a bit plodding at times, and the plot to be uninventive.
At almost two hours, “Sabu” is probably a little too long, offering up an ending that seems, on the surface, to contradict the film’s contention that hardship can change men for the better. It’s not a shocking revelation, of course, which seems to point to the film’s lack of real resonance. Then again, I willingly preferred this gray ending to seeing bodyparts being hacked to pieces and female characters ending up on S&M tables being raped or ripped apart, as Miike is wont to do. Even so, the women in the movie seem interchangeable at best, even though one of them provides voiceover narration.
But “Sabu” has done one thing very well, and that is convincing me Takashi Miike is not a one-trick pony. This means, of course, that the man is now officially off my hit list. Time will tell how long he stays off it…
Takashi Miike (director) / Hiroshi Takeyama (screenplay), Shugoro Yamamoto (novel)
CAST: Tatsuya Fujiwara …. Eiji
Satoshi Tsumabuki …. Sabu
Tomoko Tabata …. Onobu