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Review © Larry D Burns, 2004.

Directed by Takashi Miike, 2002, 90 min, starring Tatsuya Fujiwara, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Ren Osugi, Tomoko Tabata, Kazue Fukiishi, Yoshiki Arizono and Kenji Sawada.

When one thinks of Takashi Miike, one conjures up images of flying body parts, blood and guts galore, sex, violence, degradation of women on film, all that fun stuff. For anyone who has seen any of his cinematic carnage carnivals, most will agree that this is one director who embodies the word EXTREME. In fact, he's known for it. In the pantheon of Japanese filmmakers, he delivers some of the most shocking images ever put to film. Of course he doesn't hold that distinction exclusively, but for the general fans of Japanese cinema, he has been associated with violence on film as much as M. Night Shyamalan is associated with surprise twists at the end of his films. Yet, for all his reputation as being a shockmeister, one does pose the question: can he make a sensitive film? In this one, he comes pretty darn close.

Sensitivity is not usually one of Miike's selling points. In fact, much has been said about his portrayal of humanity on film – or lack of it in most cases - as much as the violence in it. Most of his characterizations are boxed in - gangsters, prostitutes, hapless victims - you get the picture. Multi-layered, multi-faceted characters aren't exactly his specialty. So imagine my surprise upon viewing Sabu when I found myself actually caring for these characters. Perhaps it's because the novel (by Shugoto Yamamoto) it was based on was written with sensitivity and heart. But any film adaptation can still fall under the good book/bad movie category by completely screwing up the adaptation - especially if a filmmaker such as Miike would put his trademark gore into a sensitive piece of work.

Yet while watching Sabu, I didn't feel like I was watching a Miike film at all. That might be construed as either good or bad, depending on how much of a Miike fan you are (or aren't), but I credit the director for doing something he's not generally known for. Granted, I haven't seen all of Miike's filmography. Die-hard fans might pounce on me and throw this obscure film or that obscure film out of his body of work to defend his sensitive filmmaking capabilities. All I'm saying, as a random Miike film viewer, and one working within the confines of the 'extreme' genre, this is one film that really stands out.

Why, you may ask? Well, for one, it's a period piece: a jidaigeki, otherwise known as a period costume drama – not hitherto known as one of Miike's favourite genres to work in. Indeed, this is supposedly his first serious attempt at such a stylistic piece. Don't let that fool you into thinking that that means it's all shrine maidens, flower-arranging and pretty landscapes, though. This is still Miike we're dealing with, remember. ;-)


Set in the Tokugawa Era, Sabu centers around three characters. Eiji and Sabu have been friends since childhood. They've gone through a lot together. Eiji has always been dubbed as a troublemaker and Sabu always manages to come to his aid. They befriend a young woman named Nobuko, a girl who seems to be fated for prostitution by a man who years earlier tried to do the same to her sister, resulting in her killing herself. Eiji gets framed for stealing a piece of gold cloth and given his dodgy reputation, is sent off to an island prison camp, unbeknownst to Sabu.

He proceeds to find out what happened to Eiji, much to the chagrin of the town. For in an era where honour is such a high commodity, criminals are better left forgotten, even by those who care about them. Sabu forgoes this practice and finds out about Eiji's crime. Knowing that he is innocent, he goes about investigating the true culprit, enlisting the help of Nobuko and several others. The plot then twists and turns in a very slow and unexciting manner until the inevitable revelation and conclusion.

In terms of plot development, nothing much happens in the film. It's all emotion. The seething anger of Eiji and his unbending quest for revenge. The pain and worry of Sabu and his fight to prove his friend's innocence. All this melds into a dramatic piece that is surprisingly affecting and - I'll say it again - sensitive piece of work that despite the reputation of its director is worth looking at.

And it is pretty to look at. The film has excellent cinematography -- rain, rivers, bridges, cherry blossoms, horizons -- some feel small, other as large as life itself. And the actors don't hurt either. Pretty boys and pretty girls abound in here. Any fangirl would be pleasantly rewarded by looking at the two leads. Yet they don't just preen and primp and look good for the camera - they play their roles with absolute conviction and substance.

Satoshi Tsumabuki, for all his pouting lips and puppy dog eyes, plays the role with convincing sensitivity and inherent goodness that his performance would put Sal Mineo to shame. In contrast, Tatsuya Fujiwara seethes anger, albeit forced at times, much like he did in Battle Royale. Yet there's something beneath that harsh veneer that begs to be adored. His is a performance that's almost like a puzzle waiting to be solved. It's certainly much more than meets the eye. He goes from convicted felon who simply want to erase his existence to scorned individual hell bent on revenge to sensitive friend who says “Yeah, the world is alright after all.” It takes a special actor to go though all these subtle emotions and still keep his core character intact and not go all Sybil.

This being a Miike movie, it does have its share of violence. But it is confined mostly to fistfights and lashings, and for the most part it is mild and in its place – completely valid and essential to the storyline. The women are still pigeonholed at times, but portrayed with unusual nobility and accuracy for the era, despite being subjected, in one case, to the usual Miike sexual degradations. The men are either/or, thugs or good guys. What do you expect? It's a Miike film.

Despite that, the film succeeds in affecting you. There are scenes of bittersweet emotion that will surely get to you. It's long, a little over 2 hours, and you do feel it quite a lot at times. Yet I feel the film couldn't have been told any other way. Turning it into a fast-paced race against time search for the truth could have turned it into a cheap courtroom thriller. Miike knew the pace it should have and kept to it, resulting in a languid cinematic experience. Or maybe he just got lucky. ;-)

It is often easy to judge a film as good or bad. But once in a while a film comes along that defies those two adjectives. Much like an experience one would have in life, good or bad is relative. And that's what this film is - an experience. It's a slice of life in an era that is unfamiliar to most of us, an insight into an alien culture and timeframe, and this is a film that allows us to share in that experience. There's something in here for everyone, albeit in small doses. It's a perfect Sunday afternoon film, where you're well-rested and relaxed and not agitated or easily bored. Enjoy this film for what it is - a languorous exploration of love, justice, honour, and friendship.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 7/10 – a good storyline slightly marred by slow pacing
Violence: 6/10
Sex: 1/10 – the geisha are awfully pretty
Satoshi Tsumabuki: Blub/10
Tatsuya Fujiwara: Very much still the Undisputed Champ of Frightwigs ;-)
Frightwigs: MERCY!/10
Visuals: Absolutely ravishing
Spartacus-style Moments: 1
Number of Hankies Needed: about 20, by the end
Buckets of Tomato Ketchup: a hefty eezy-squeezy bottle should do it

Films in a Similar Style: Zatoichi, Samurai Monogatari, Ran... in fact, anything by Akira Kurosawa

*** Recommended! ***

This film is released by Artsmagic.

Sabu Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Takashi Miike
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Satoshi Tsumabuki


http://www.artsmagic.co.uk and http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ - Sabu is available direct on Region 0 from Artsmagic, who very kindly provided us with the screener copy used for this review. There's also a specific page for the movie here: http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/sabu/
http://www.nixflix.com/reviews/sabu.htm - I think this reviewer has basically read our minds 100% ;-)
http://www.destroy-all-monsters.com/sabu.shtml - an excellent review at the ever-sparkling Destroy All Monsters
http://www.thegline.com/dvd-of-the-week/2004/05-16-2004.htm - a brilliant review as ever at The Gline
http://www.foutz.net/movies/sabu.shtml - Foutz.net have an interesting historical insight into the real-life background of the novel on which Sabu was based
http://www.reelfilm.com/sabu.htm - I'm guessing Reelfilm weren't quite as keen on this movie as we were - an interesting and (almost completely!) opposing viewpoint by David Nusair

this review (c) Larry D Burns, 2004. all other text and webdesign (c) 2002, 2003, 2004 M. Apple Collingridge, A. Collingridge, Larry D Burns, Koch. All characters, situations and images remain the property of their respective owners. The text and webdesign of this site may not be copied, reproduced, mirrored, printed commercially or ripped off in any other way. Do not hotlink directly to images hosted on this site.