That was odd, even for Sabu. If you want a label, call it realistic surrealism. Well, at least until the hallucinated devils.
To refresh your memories, Sabu is the Japanese actor/writer/director whose earlier films had been Dangan Runner
, Postman Blues
and Unlucky Monkey
. All three of those were black comedies with yakuza, killing and a plotting style that treats the characters as the playthings of a cruel universe, thus making them genuinely unpredictable. However this unpredictability was starting to become familiar, so for this film he's changed his style. It's disconcerting and deliberately paced (i.e. slow), but personally I thought this really worked. It means you're slowly spiralling towards on the weird stuff instead of having it thrown at you immediately. I found it almost hypnotic. There's still no one like Sabu.
In addition I'd call this his most important and significant film to this date. Dangan Runner
was an indie throwaway. It's full of personality and peculiarities, but it feels like a small film. Since then he's been getting steadily bigger, but for the first time with this film he's chosen a single protagonist and given him a huge personal journey that ends in grandstanding lunacy for which I'm struggling to find reference points. There's a big confrontation that I'll probably end up likening to Gandhi, Satan, the Joker and/or a pisstake of cheap sentiment in syrupy Hollywood movies. Until now, the protagonists of a Sabu movie would run around like rats in a trap until something violent and probably terminal happened. This time though, it's different. This feels like a movie with rich themes and a lot to say about them, albeit often in a sidelong way.
It starts small. For the first half-hour, there aren't even any yakuza! Our protagonist, Shin'ichi Tsutsumi, is a man with no past and no personality. This is literally true in the framing sequence as he wakes up in a hotel room with no memory of how he got there, but effectively so in the flashback sequences from the last few days. The first one takes place at a funeral. At this point, Tsutsumi's just one of a bunch of mourners in black suits. We've no idea why he's there, what kind of person he is or what he does for a living. (Later it'll be assumed that he's a salaryman, but that looks like a guess based on the fact that he's still wearing his suit.) This is a very Sabu scene, in which everyone does the right thing at a stately pace with the greatest respect, but even so the scene somehow manages to go from "gently surreal" to "you have got to be kidding me." In its understated way, it's also really funny.
That's a weird start to the day. After that we see his relationship with his girlfriend, in a scene which says an enormous amount about him. I want to call him a doormat, but he's not. He's just a nice, quiet guy who's never been pushy. However when trying to explain what happened to him at the funeral, he suddenly sees the absurdity of it and starts laughing.
Needless to say, the absurdity keeps going. We see slow, odd things happening to Tsutsumi, usually drawn out longer than you'd expect so that you'll start laughing and yet you don't know why. It's not dreamlike, but that's not a ridiculous word to use. After a while these strange things include yakuza, which gets Tsutsumi taken against his will and plied with dangerous levels of alcohol. That memory loss starts making more sense. There's what appears to be an existential revelation, which involves (as all the best existential revelations do) a pump-action shotgun, a hot girl and dancing like a crazy man. This is where Tsutsumi starts becoming almost a walking metaphor. He's got this happy, innocent smile that becomes the film's key image, more important even than the albino Japanese Satan and his hellspawn. It would be wrong to say that Tsutsumi turns into Batman's Joker, but he does have an awakening into something bold and mad enough to bear serious comparison.
However at the same time, he's never just a movie cartoon. The film wants to know why he's doing this. We see that he's real in his letter to his family in that hotel room. He describes himself as until now having been always "too scared to do anything bad", always being used by others. The film suggests that maybe he was being possessed by devils, which is obviously goofy fantasy and yet also clearly a metaphor for all kinds of real-world explanations. Why should a supposedly good person snap and start doing bad things? Note incidentally that the first thing to happen to Tsutsumi in the hotel room is that a packet of "purification salt" falls out of his pocket, related to protection from evil spirits, then at the other end of the film I think he shoots that devil. Look at how high he's holding that gun.
The most extreme scene is the Mexican standoff. That's where you really see how far Tsutsumi's character journey has brought him and how bold Sabu's being in his themes. Then it goes still further into treacly Hollywood bollocks and your jaw drops... until you realise that Sabu's deliberately milking the preachiness and self-congratulation, exactly as he'd previously been playing up the ridiculousness of pretty much everything we've seen so far. I think it's the slow-motion that most underlines that. Oh, and the shotgun hole he's about to blow in it. That's the most dangerous scene in the film, since I'm sure quite a few in the audience won't realise that this is a parody of sentimental treacle and instead underestimate him, assuming he's playing it straight. It's preachy, but it's preachiness from a bleakly whimsical writer/director with a deadpan sense of humour and a history of amoral death, killing and cruel fate. There's a lot to process in that scene, much of it on levels that a less idiosyncratic director than Sabu simply wouldn't have had available in the first place.
This film is risky. Not everyone will connect with it, but that's Sabu for you. I didn't like Unlucky Monkey
. This film's offbeat patience is so slow-burning that I'm sure a lot of people will simply give up on it. He'd get me laughing at things that you might say theoretically shouldn't be funny. Meanwhile Shin'ichi Tsutsumi is extraordinary, always staying truthful and detailed even as he takes us on a journey from milquetoast up to being an odd, incomprehensible thing comparable with Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
. Seriously. I'm not kidding. In summary, I loved this film. It's capable of being almost operatic, yet it's also understated and mundane, resulting in a viewing experience that plays like nothing I've seen before.
Very odd. The more patience you bring, the more you'll laugh. Adored the drunken dancing, by the way.