If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Takashi Miike made a video game… you are a virgin. But Izo is yo’ answer. This is the tale of a samurai who is crucified and punctured with spears, which he feels is unfair. So Izo becomes a “half-dead,” almost invincible spirit and travels through time butchering people. He rampages through social strata and institutions much like the levels of a video game, in search of “divine retribution.” Initially he lectures the “boss” of each level about the failings and hypocrisies of their viewpoint before dispatching them, but as he proceeds he becomes more demonic and almost completely inarticulate. He massacres judges, generals, clergy, yakuza, police, a street gang, political leaders, families and a flock of cowering business leaders. Also, his old boss and his mother. There’s some politically tinged dialog along the way that is pretty much all over the map, but here’s a sample.
Teacher: Okay then, Ms. Sato what is a nation?
Student: Yes. A nation is a vicious delusion that exists only in human minds. It is an imaginary notion of falsehood only there to control and govern people that instinctively gather into flocks. It is the basic principle of the fiction that requires one side to be sacrificed.
This might also answer the question, “what if Bakunin made a video game?”
As is often the case, half my motivation for writing this is reading several other reviews, all of which were terrible. One reviewer told of seeing Izo with a bunch of film school types and how they were laughing derisively at its “absurdity.” This tells us that, somewhere, there is a film school that must be discredited, if not burned to the ground. I mean, let’s give them an enormous free pass for not going into the film familiar with Miike and how he works. Even then, maybe people who study or teach film should be able to discern that, when the protagonist, a samurai ghost, is woken from a slumber in a cave by two dorky guys in suits who try to sell him a retirement property, then he impales one of the real estate salesman, then the real estate salesmen turn into vampires and start girlishly giggling as they pull out knives and stab the guy like 80 times, which doesn’t kill him because he’s a ghost, then he kills the vampires and one of them says, “hell is in your heart, salvation is not in this world. My blood is gushing…” with his last breath, the scene is not meant to be taken 100% seriously. Maybe it is supposed to be absurd. Another, very subtle clue is how 20 different characters say things like “Izo is loathsome nonsense.”
There are certainly philosophical themes present in Izo. “History is written in blood,” is the message of one opinion-maker. I honestly forget if Izo kills that guy, but he does kill 90% of the people who appear on screen, so there’s a good chance. In any case, one can certainly take that as a general theme, especially with the footage of historical monstrosities worked into the film against microscope footage of teaming sperm. I don’t think Miike’s ever really out to bestow lessons and deep thoughts, though, so much as he is out to cheerfully destroy them. If you want to get wonky, it’s a deconstruction of deconstruction. All of the norms, morals and institutions are bogus, based on assumptions geared to benefit those in power. Izo takes them down. To what end? Obviously, none. Total revolution is universal oppression.
I don’t know if I would even go that far, though. Miike just likes to piss all over everything, thus the inclusion of a little parody of the old samurai fight scenes. Other elements, most notably the conclusion, look to me like very funny spoofs of “deep” films ranging from The Matrix to 2001. After killing everyone, Izu arrives at a chamber occupied by celestial beings, dressed in splendorous clothing of old Japan. He decapitates one woman, butterflies swarm from her head and a screen opens revealing an enormous moon. Then her carcass transforms into a caterpillar. It’s all very beautiful and I don’t think you’d be foolish to look for some symbolism, but you have to realize that Miike is always, always taking the piss even when he is kind of being serious. I think that when you are as funny as he is, you just can’t help it. I’m going to stop here and write an essay that should help you feel relatively comfortable with this guy and his movies. Ready? According to wikipedia, Takashi Miike’s favorite film is Starship Troopers.
Not that I think he’s all that hard to “get” or that I’m a genius for roughly understanding Miike’s films. But reading other reviews of his work certainly makes it seem that way. But I’m sure that you, reader, are not nearly as stupid as the average film reviewer. You know, Starship Troopers went over most of their heads too. Seriously. Go look at the old reviews. Miike also lists Lynch as a big influence and there’s a similar problem in viewing him. People feel like there should be something to “get” and if they don’t get it, there must be some kind of fraud afoot. In this case, they conclude that Miike is just arbitrarily shocking and he’s famous because everyone is afraid to say so. As with Lynch, my advice is to forget all of that. If deeper thoughts are stirred, all the better. But don’t be caught up in subtext that is or isn’t there and deny yourself the pleasure of shots and scenes that are, just by themselves, highly entertaining or even beautiful. There’s some undeniable artistry to this shot…
Then, boom! It’s fucking Bob Sapp! If you know who Bob Sapp is, ( MMA’s most [only?] lovable star who is very famous in Japan because all Japanese are racist and they see him as a King Kong figure) this is unbelievably great. But Bob Sapp is still Bob Sapp even if you’ve never heard of him. Just look at him!
As with Lynch, I can understand why Miike might not be for some people. This film doesn’t have much of a plot and I wouldn’t really say it’s a must see for anybody. Miike has done better. But, while hundreds are killed, there is relatively little gore (even Bob Sapp being chopped in half is minimally graphic) or sexual perversion, so watch it with the kids. There are a good number of very funny scenes and beautiful or absurdist shots that demand appreciation. Just don’t be one of these idiots who thinks they are too smart to enjoy it. Be honest with yourself. Do you want to see a ghost samurai running amok on the streets of Tokyo, slicing and dicing a flock of businessmen for no good reason? Of course you do.