A bit of a new direction for Sabu, although this makes for a less entertaining film. However it won prizes at international film festivals (Berlin and Cinemanila, plus a nomination in Chicago), so it's still worth checking out.
Mind you, it's only a shift of emphasis, not a volte-face. Sabu's first five films had been super-unpredictable black comedies in which the protagonists' fates are determined more by luck than by their own actions. They had yakuza, violent death and chases. Dangan Runner had lots of running. Drive had lots of driving. These are hard, unsympathic movies and at least one of them (Unlucky Monkey
) went over the edge into the land of "Finn Doesn't Care About These People", but they're also shocking, cool and sometimes explosively funny.
Blessing Bell though was Sabu's sixth film and it:
1. Doesn't star Shin'ichi Tsutsumi for the first time in a Sabu film, instead promoting Susumu Terajima to lead status.
2. Goes more slowly. It's another road movie, with a lead character who's always on the move, but this time he walks. This stops the film from being any kind of action movie and instead focuses our attention on the people he meets and the meaning of those encounters.
3. Doesn't concern itself with yakuza, criminal activity, on-screen killing and a protagonist who's in danger of getting murdered. Admittedly there's still a sprinkling of most of those elements, but for once Sabu hasn't built his plot around them.
That said, I think the themes are still Sabu-ish. He's just coming at them from another angle. This film, you see, is all about death. Terajima is a factory worker who's lost his job and has no real hope of finding another at his time of life. This is a well-known phenomenon in Japan and it's not unknown for such people to commit suicide. Terajima doesn't do that, but he does start walking. Where? Why? When's he planning to stop? Don't know. Does he have any goals or ambitions? Don't know that either, although he does listen to what people say to him and sometimes react to the things he sees. All we know is that he never stops moving forward and whatever his life used to be like, he's leaving it ever further behind.
It's a metaphorical sort of death, which is occasionally at risk of becoming literal. Note the scene where he crosses a main road without paying any attention to the traffic going past. That's twice as freakish in Japan, by the way. Japanese people could be living in a town with no vehicles at all, but would still wait for the crossing signals to turn green before they walked.
What's more, though, I think everyone Terajima meets is in some way looking at the boundary of life and death. I don't think I'm exaggerating, either. I'd need to double-check, but I think I really do mean everyone. That's what I call thematic consistency. There are suicides and people who wanted to commit suicide, but didn't have the nerve. There's killing. There's an unusual kind of near-death experience. There are even ghosts. There's a man who's dying of cancer and a bar with little angels hanging from the ceiling. This is obviously of interest in itself, but its greater significance is that we're following the journey of Terajima and wondering where his experiences are going to take him.
One last quirk: Terajima never speaks on his journey. He has conversations, but they're all one-sided conversations with people who are happy to do all the talking and don't seem to notice that Terajima never responds with more than an exhalation, a sob or a "hmmm". This isn't a particularly deep man. He's walking away from his life, after all.
It's an odd, quiet and deceptively philosophical film. Sabu is a writer/director whose natural filmmaking vocabulary involves physical action, not words. Thus on the face of it, this looks like a slightly boring film about an unresponsive, wordless man walking through a bunch of random scenes. Well, it is. However the themes are screaming out if you're willing to pay attention to them, as are secondary motifs like money and means of transportation (shoes, bicycles, etc.) I don't know if I'd recommend the film, though, especially to someone who'd never watched any Sabu before. It's relatively low in entertainment value. It's not cool, scary or funny, although the ending has unexpected charm. However I found it interesting in a slightly distant way and I admire Sabu all the more for turning away from a winning formula in order to strike out in slower, more thoughtful directions instead.