It's Sabu's second film as a writer-director, after Dangan Runner
. (Actually he's acting in it too, but unfortunately only for a cameo.) That first film I quite liked, but this one is clearly more ambitious and successful.
It's also harder to pigeon-hole. Dangan Runner
's story is at heart so simple as to be almost simplistic, even if Sabu's doing all kinds of unexpected little things with it. Postman Blues on the other hand is longer, broader and even harder to second-guess, despite the fact that in many ways it's remarkably similar to its predecessor. Both are Japanese gangster films with violence, killing, deadpan black farce and a tendency to underscore the foolishness on both sides of the law. Both have an intricate but playful construction, heavily dependent on coincidence, misunderstanding and complete bloody idiots.
I'm intrigued by the characterisation, because it shouldn't work. Sabu still isn't particularly interested in sympathetic heroes, yet somehow he gets away with it because of his ironic, slightly distant filmmaking style. I don't think we're ever invited to identify with our protagonist, played by Shin'ichi Tsutsumi. We're just watching him. He does one thing in particular that could have ruined any number of lives and as far as I'm concerned is pretty much unforgivable, but the film's neither sympathising nor passing judgement. We don't have to like him. In the end, as it happens, he also tries to do good things for people and I did find myself caring about him, but even now I don't think I really know him that well. He never gets any Hollywood moments. He never talks about his feelings, he never learns the truth about what's going on around him and we have to rely on inference to guess at his thought processes.
It's characterisation through action rather than introspection, which I think is key to making these films work. There's something that slightly rubs me up the wrong way about the Coen Brothers, for instance, despite the fact that I don't think their characters are much more unlikeable than Sabu's. Sabu keeps a slight distance.
The film begins with a look at the life of a postman who's going mad. It looks ghastly. Mechanical, mindless work on behalf of people who are likely to tear up what you've given them as junk mail. Tsutsumi isn't complaining, but you can tell his brains are all but dribbling from his ears. Then one evening he finds himself delivering mail to a man who turns out to be an old school friend, which gets him invited inside to see... well, we're into spoilers already. This isn't flamboyant "wow, you'll never guess this!" plotting, but instead just a film that keeps doing something that doesn't quite seem to belong. Before long the police are convinced that Tsutsumi must be a drug dealer, terrorist and/or serial killer, which is easily the funniest part of the film as these macho uniformed idiots build their tower of misunderstandings until it's a miracle to think that they're allowed out on their own. The psychological profiling professor had me howling. You know he's going to be wrong, but there's a kind of beauty in seeing how magnificently wrong he is.
I think there's a theme here. Everyone's caught up in the romance. The police are doing exactly the kind of thing you see in a million cop shows and grabbing each other's collars in testosterone-crazed confrontations... and they just get people killed. The most important thing in the yakuza's flat is a movie poster of some guy with a samurai sword, whom he seems to regard as some kind of guardian deity. "Watch over me, Ken." The talkative hit man (Ren Osugi) has one scene of the most amazing bullshit, which furthermore gets believed by a woman who should have really known better. Tsutsumi's self-inflicted problems are basically a result of listening to stupid talk.
I also hadn't expected the film to be this funny. These laughs mainly come from the police, but you've got to admire the scene where for a brief gag Sabu does Jean Reno in Leon. It's not actually Reno, unfortunately, but we're still looking at a hit man who's wearing Reno's clothes, carrying a pot plant and saying "oui". I think that counts.
You couldn't call this a cuddly film, but sometimes it has warmth. At times it can even be romantic, although in a very Sabu-ish way. They're damaged, but it's still sweet. I should also spare a moment to talk about the ending, which needless to say kept doing things I hadn't expected and indeed seems to have gone too far for some people, who think it spoils the film. I thought it was lovely. I don't think I've ever seen that combination of brutality and charm, although I did have trouble buying the moment when two men with guns run straight at several dozen heavily armed policemen, shooting a bunch of them... and live. Maybe the Japanese police force has some unusual combat protocols. Hmmm. At any rate it's more effective than the bloodbath at the end of Dangan Runner
, since by that point in that film it had become almost inconceivable that anything else could happen. This ending on the other hand was a true surprise for me, or rather about three or four of them.
I liked this film a lot. It's both remarkable and really rather good, while it's always good to see someone doing something you haven't seen before. If Sabu keeps getting better like this, then we'll have something really rather impressive on our hands. You've got Ren Osugi, brilliantly retarded policemen and an unexpected fondness for snail-mail that almost makes me want to suggest this as a double-bill with Going Postal
. It's lovely when it wants to be, but it's also set in Sabu-world. It's really nice, actually.