Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Takashi Miike’s Izo

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Takashi Miike’s IZO :

Is Chaos Director an Incomprehensible Demon-Man?

by Neil Young

“The most important director working in Asia right now” is Park Chan-Wook – according to esteemed Edinburgh magazine The List in their ecstatic (“film of the year, no question”) review of OLDBOY. A grand claim, and one guaranteed to set off frenzied debate among cinema’s mushrooming band of “Asia-philes.” Among the more obvious candidates: Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-Wai; Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang; Japan’s Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-Eda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa; China’s Jia Zhang-Ke and Zhang Yi-Mou; Thailand’s Apitchatpong Weerasethakul; not to mention Park’s compatriots Bong Joon-Ho and Hong Sang-Soo.

And surely Takashi Miike would also find more than a few passionate advocates – on his day, Miike can be one of the world’s most original, inspired and accomplished film-makers. He’s certainly among the most frenziedly prolific, with more than fifty features to his name since 1991’s Eyecatch Junction. This workrate – unmatched by any director with international renown since the death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1982 – has perhaps inevitably resulted in a somewhat uneven level of output, but when Miike is good he can be very good indeed: 2003’s supenatural yakuza epic Gozu suggested an artist reaching the very peak of his powers, and became only the fourth Miike title (after Audition, Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris) to obtain UK theatrical distribution.

Since then Zebraman and One Missed Call have maintained Miike’s presence on the international film-festival circuit (Kikoshu and Koshonin have so far failed to travel very widely beyond the far-east), but ever since advance word started to spread about the project originally entitled Izo : Kaosu mataha fujori no kihin there was a distinct feeling that this might be “the big one” that would lift Miike up to the next level of major-league international auteurs.

Linguists deciphered the title as “The Chaos is an Incomprehensible Demon-Man” (although some sources came up with “The Crotch”). But what really whetted the appetite was an online trailer featuring none other that “Beat” Takeshi himself. “A very awesome trailer that just makes this movie look like there is no way it can suck,” was one typical reaction on the internet’s many discussion forums devoted to Asian cinema. frothed another post.

Next, the official Izo website’s Japanese text was translated into an English synopsis: We begin in 1865, when the Shogunate is on its last legs, but still capable of punishing its enemies. One is Izo (Kazuya Nakayama), an assassin in the service of Hanpeida (Ryosuke Miki), a Tosa lord and Imperial supporter. After killing dozens of the Shogun’s men, Izo is captured and crucified. Instead of being extinguished, his rage propels him through the space-time continuum to present-day Tokyo, where he finds himself one with the city’s homeless. Here Izo transforms himself into a new, improved killing-machine, his entire soul still enraged by his treatment in his past life. His reponse to the powers-that-be, whose precedessors put him to death, is the sword…

This stoked the on-line Miike-watching community even further: “man – that just sounds KICK ASS” enthused ‘Carnage’ on www.kungfucinema.com. More sober commentators were taken aback by Miike’s apparent change of direction: he’d never before tackled the samurai genre, and this development was compared (by the Japan Times’ incomparable Mark Schilling) to “Quentin Tarantino making a cowboy movie.” This wasn’t all – experts on Japanese cinema realised that Miike and his scriptwriter Shigenori Takechi were once again taking on material of a legendary nature in that country, just as they’d done in 2002 when adapting Goro Fujita’s novel Graveyard of Honor – the basis for Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukusaku’s 1975 classic of the same name.

Released in 1969, Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri (“Person-Slayer”) – also known as Tenchu (“Heaven’s Punishment”) chronicled the trail of blood left by super-samurai (“amazingly strong, considered almost undefeatable”) Okada Izo in the 1860s, leading up to his capture and crucifixion. The film was known for many years as a “lost masterpiece,” having been withdrawn from circulation under mysterious circumstances following the death of one of its stars, ultra-controversial, ultra-right-wing Japanese author Yukio Mishima – via the same ritual-suicide seppuku as his character in the movie.

So is Miike’s Izo a remake of Hitokiri – or, as the early sequences suggest, a sequel? After brief but confusing black-and-white documentary footage about human sperm, we see Izo being crucified on a battlefield that looks like Golgotha relocated to the Somme. But it rapidly becomes clear that the Hitokiri parallels are essentially something of a (blood)red herring. Neither remake nor sequel, Izo instead rapidly establishes itself as a gore-drenched reverie on the idea of Izo – which Miike uses as a launch-pad to blast off into regions even he has never before traversed. It now seems amazing that Gozu should have inspired any confusion at all – Izo makes Gozu looks like Janet and John.

This is a film which utterly defies synopsis, just as it defies any attempt at objective interpretation. It defies, rejects and mocks rational analysis – indeed, it seems odd to even describe it using conventional syntax and punctuation. Instead of paragraphs, words and letters, Izo calls out for symbols, squiggles and jagged lines. The traditional film-critic apparatus isn’t quite up to the task – but Izo could only really exist as a work of cinema, even if at times it resembles nothing less than a wildly elaborate, non-interactive video-game: the character of Izo must negotiate various “levels” as he caroms through the space-time continuum, and the body-count as he slashes his way back and forward across the decades is nothing short of astronomical.

The audience, like Izo himself, struggles to make sense of the carnage. Because Miike and Takechi have abandoned linear narrative to come up with a cubist/surrealist kind of philosophical horror-comedy: try to imagine Luis Bunuel and novelists Haruki Murakami and William S Burroughs collaborating on a demented manga version of Highlander and you might be somewhere near the mark, although several of the pages seem to have been lost and the remainder jumbled randomly out of sequence.

We can’t say we haven’t been warned, however: “He is irrationality,” someone admiringly remarks of Izo very early on, and Miike – whose identification with his indefatigable “hero” becomes increasingly apparent – takes this as his cue for a series of dazzling, dizzying leaps in time, space and logic in a strenuous attempt to disorient and disconcert. Some of these are blackly comic – “that hurts” is the film’s running gag, spoken by characters who have just endured some agonising indignity. Look out for the amazing “wedding-crasher” scene, a brief, blood-stained riot, filmed entirely upside-down. Most of the film’s many episodes are savagely violent, others are bafflingly verbose. The action is punctuated by a nonsensical ‘chorus’ in the form of scratchy-voiced 60s folk-singer Tomokawa Kazuki, whose extended contributions rapidly grate on the nerves.

Indeed, the film itself often seems deliberately constructed to confront, subvert and generally question audience expectations (the Kitano appearances, for example, are perversely brief and inconclusive) rather than satisfy them, as keen to alienate and repel viewers as reward them for their patience. Over the course of 128 minutes, this adds up to a somewhat self-indulgent, self-parodying, wearing experience – especially as the film peters out on a wildly pretentious low-note that will leave most patrons heading to the exit in a state of bemused disgruntlement,. Even seasoned Miike devotees have struggled to hide their disappointment: Mark Schilling describes Izo as “the nearest cinematic equivalent to war. I wasn’t watching this movie so much as embedded in it… I liked Izo for its ambition and sheer chutzpah – but by the end, I was glad to get out of Baghdad.” The film’s philosophical concerns and apparent seriousness – Izo is described as nothing less than the very spirit of war itself – sit awkwardly alongside Miike’s characteric larkishness: the director himself says “It’s a crazy film! The way it turned out is really very funny and crazy.”

Miike deserves our respect for so tirelessly seeking out new ground – and his failures are more interesting than most directors’ successes – but sometimes he ventures beyond the point where we’re willing to tag along. Emphatically not suitable for newcomers to Planet Miike, Izo looks unlikely to obtain even the limited exposure afforded to Gozu in the UK – this is one for film festival crowds only, and it’s had a mixed reception at such events in London and Leeds (the story was similar included Vancouver and Pusan). Rather than the great leap forward many of us had been hoping for, Izo – to take a charitable perspective – represents a blowing-off of steam. Miike stands at a fascinating crossroads in his career – in 2005 his many projects include a trio of firsts: his first English language feature Dragon Fin Soup; his first children’s film, The Big Spook Show starring cult favourite Chiaki Kuriyama, aka Gogo Yubari from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill; and his first theatre production: Tarantino has reportedly begged him to direct a play chronicling Gogo’s twin sister, who didn’t make it past Kill Bill‘s earliest drafts. If even one or two of these tantalising prospects come off, we’ll look back on Izo as performing an invaluable role in the development of the tireless auteur. Or perhaps not – perhaps this could mark the beginning of the end, the moment when we all stopped giving Miike the benefit of the doubt. And that would really hurt.

31st October, 2004

article written for IMPACT magazine, December 2004

by Neil Young