Costume drama + Takashi Miike = Surprisingly good.
Robert P. Beveridge | Cleveland, OH | 08/03/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Sabu (Takashi Miike, 2002)
To say this movie surprised me would be an understatement. I guess it shouldn't have, being a made-for-TV film and all, but for me, the name Takashi Miike brings to mind the tongue hitting the floor in Audition, the claymation lava swallowing everyone in The Happiness of the Katakuris, or the fountains of blood showering from the doorway in Ichi the Killer. Tokugawa-era costume drama with not a hint of Miike's excess? Say it ain't so, Jack.
Well, it's so. And even more surprisingly, Miike pulls it off with his usual flair.
Based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto (as yet, unfortunately, not translated into English; I'm getting to the point where I'm desperate to learn Japanese simply so I can read novels on which Takashi Miike movies are based), Sabu is the story of two friends, Eiji and Sabu, who grow up together. While both have somewhat rowdy childhoods, as they grow up and enter into their professional lives as paper-hangers, Sabu becomes the studious, staid "good kid," while Eiji retains his high-spiritedness. Eiji is fired from his apprenticeship, and a few days later disappears without a trace; Sabu, though forbidden to do so, must track him down. (There's much more to it than this; I'm covering about the first half-hour of the two-hour film in the synopsis. But from there, everything turns on minor spoilers.)
Miike has always been a director who, even when working in the normally-mindless action-flick genre, has been a master at creating characters with real depth. Here, with a more character-based story, he shows his full range of ability. Sabu, Eiji, and many of the minor characters in the film are exceptionally well-drawn. The film moves along at a rather slower pace than the American filmgoer will likely be used to, but you won't care; you're busy enough getting to know these wonderful characters.
Not to say there aren't some problems with the movie, but they are sins of omission, rather than commission; one assumes the novel has none of these flaws. Given that Miike was probably stuck with a time slot and needed to work within it, some of the film's minor characters get little screen time, but do things that make it seem as if they were major characters in the novel (Roku the pimp being the best example of this). Miike keeps them here, and gives them enough that we know they're important, but it would have been nice to get a little more time with them.
For those avoiding this because of the celebrated Miike violence, don't. The film contains the odd fistfight here are there. Swords are drawn in the movie (three times, if memory serves), but no heads or other limbs get lopped off, no one gets more than a black eye and a nosebleed, and no small animals spontaneously explode. This may, in fact, be Takashi Miike's least violent film to date, so if you've been wondering what all the fuss is about but scared away by the gore factor, this is the perfect place to get an eyeful.
Sabu is a film not to be missed, both for the hardcore fan of recent Japanese cinema and the complete neophyte. As it's now available domestically on DVD, hopefully Takashi Miike will find himself with the far wider American audience he so richly deserves. ****"