Izo: Hacking a Way Through Cinema

by Tony Nigro

The time is the late Edo period, and samurai assassin Okada Izo is strung up on a cross where he is repeatedly stabbed in his sides. Repeatedly. And again and again. And again. Blood flows and it would appear that Izo is dead. So opens Miike Takashi’s Izo.

A short while later, Izo is picking himself up in a dirty alleyway. The time is possibly now, and the location is presumably Japan. Later Izo is in a bamboo forest so beautiful it could put the most classic chambara to shame. Later he’s in a contemporary schoolroom. All along there’s killing, and lots of it. Plus some stock footage for allegorical weight.

So it goes.

Miike’s head trip chambara follows Izo’s soul as it violently ravages time and space. At a running time of two hours plus, the film makes a point of its length. Repetition and and overall lack of coherence seem to mimic its themes about the eternal nature of violence. This all sounds well and good in the abstract, but as a visceral viewing experience (and whoa, the movie is visceral) Izo leaves something to be desired. It operates on rules of time and space similar to those in Slaughterhouse Five, which is to say that time and space only mean what is convenient to any given moment.

What’s good for Vonnegut is “meh” for Miike. So it goes.

The film’s point is made in the first few minutes, and after that it’s just eye candy. Problem is that the point isn’t much of a new one. The remixing of stock footage from throughout Japan’s modern history (mostly from World War II) with Izo’s spectral killing sprees through time tell us that, duh, violence is timeless, part of human nature, etc. Along the way there’s passionate defamation of authority — government, religion and the like — plus some sweet cameos and a featured role for Kitano Takeshi (and his decapitated head). But after Izo does the Billy Pilgrim bit a few times, the message is clear and elaboration is desired.

This is not to say that Izo isn’t amazing to look at. What we’re left with is a mesmerizing fever dream full of color, anachronism, and head-scratch-inducing imagery. Greek chorus-like musical interludes are provided along the way by Kazuki Tomokawa, who functions something like Jonathan Richman in There’s Something About Mary but sounds more like a Japanese Tom Waits. The set pieces are as surreal and alluring as the violence is consistent — Izo strolls through a field of flowers, hissing women converge on him in school hallways, his dead lover pulls a sword from her crotch — yet I didn’t retain enough because there wasn’t much to chew on. I found myself watching not for the story or themes or action or even the fucked-upedness of it all (and there’s plenty of that to spare). For me it was the visual experience through and through, with an occasional WTF thrown in for flavor.

Every time I see a Miike film, I wonder about his other work that doesn’t make it Stateside. Is it more Gozu or The Bird People in China? Ichi the Killer or The Great Yokai War? All of the above? One of the exciting things about Miike isn’t a predictable style or cult factor, it’s his total inconsistency. In any given Miike film, you might get the leaps of logic and temporal disorientation seen in his segment “Box” from Three… Extremes or the formal tics of Rainy Dog. You might just get straight genre like in One Missed Call or the beginning of Audition. Yet calling anything in a Miike film “straight” can be a mistake, for no matter how plain things seem there’s always a feeling that anything could blow up at any moment, that the cop and crook could form into a giant phallic robot, or that the beautiful girl could hack limbs off and stick needles in someone face. Or not. That’s the kick of Miike, or at least his films that have made it to the U.S.

Miike the worker is so overly prolific that in my more cynical moments I have Shakespeare conspiracy theories about just who he really is, if he ghost directs, and what he actually contributes to a production. Making a film is a lot of work, but if he followed the more corporate structure of American production, Miike could prep a shoot, be on set for a while, prep a new project in the off hours, have his cut, and move on to a new project before anything is completed, leaving the remainders to second units, producers, assistant editors and the like.

In a nutshell, hack work.

Regardless of the truth about Miike’s process, many of us prefer to imagine him as the auteur of chaos who has painstaking control over every frame, every line, every bodily fluid squirted on set. In this light he’s a mad puppeteer in sunglasses, a genius who does not sleep, a demon who breathes fire, an artist who eats babies.

In a nutshell, the only person who could make Izo. So it goes.

//

originally published at (A Superhero Named) Tony

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