After watching perhaps the most reckless, surreal, mystical-style take on the ultra-bloody grind-house samurai epic, I'm not too sure who is more relentless, its main character- the unstoppable un-dead/spirit Izo (Kazuya Nakayama, likely in the performance of a career, for better &/or worse) or its director Takashi Miike. It's been compared to both Greek mythology and Jodorowsky's El Topo, and I can definitely see credence in both examples. In the first half hour to forty five minutes, actually longer if you account for, um, story, you're not sure precisely what the hell (no pun intended) is going on. Izo, at the start, gets crucified, and then we learn after a while (err, it's pretty obvious) he was quite the warrior and swordsman, who is out for vengeance as he comes back as an un-crushable spirit. Later on, we get a view into what tags along with him, in a female form, as a 'fragment', but for the most part one can only try to assume that Izo is on a collision course to nowhere, a pure embodiment of nihilistic anarchy who could be the Terminator in blood-eyed samurai garb if he/it actually had the mission.
I can't deny that Miike deserves an 'A' for effort on this sort of thing, but it's also the kind of project that veers the closest of all the work I've seen of his so far to that most overused of terms- pretentious (albeit I haven't dug deep enough into his oeuvre to make that definitive). I mean, really, what are we to make of cut-aways at varied, completely random times of newsreel footage of dictators and famous world wars and atom bombs going off in black and white, sometimes in reverse mode, or in sped-up mode? What about a guy who comes in and out of the (very loosely laid) story to do acoustic-guitar musical numbers? It does all connect, I suppose, to the sort of random madness and almost Superman-like ability to not get really that harmed, unless around his quasi-kryptonite of the order of the 'Soul-fragment'. A lot of what ends up popping up as sort of the history of Izo, before he was turned into the ultimate grudge with a sword, would be really interesting on its own, but strung together like this with the rest of the picture made it frustrating for me. Perhaps I wasn't ready enough for all of this, but for all of the virtuosity that Miike is going for with his bloody, full-blown surreal odyssey, only some of it works well while the rest falls into 'huh' mode.
But the rest of this picture is what's almost teasingly ironic about Izo. As a swordplay movie, the kind that delivers the goods on action set-pieces and violence galore, doesn't disappoint, and if anything it shows Miike knows this kind of picture, which is why in a sense he's probably trying to lampoon it underneath the very dark and Gothic exterior. Nakayama is a real force to be reckoned with, and he works well in his all-too-limited role. It's always hard to do variations on the same style of killing- slicing a sword in the blink of an eye, and sometimes seeing the (appropriately) blood-soaked and flesh-torn aftermath, or in an immediate cut-away- and Miike pulls out his entire arsenal of tricks, including a set piece with the one American actor- Bob Sapp- who barely puts up a front either despite his huge size. But even with the creativity in many of Izo's murder sequences jarring and excitingly outrageous, the repetition becomes a little tiresome. And it wasn't that the picture was too confusing, though it does contain that side of the El Topo, where it's basically intentional for it to go in circle's around people's heads.
The messages that barrage the viewer though through the content (like in one scene where Izo is at a school and you-guess-what happens and there are cutaways to classrooms where kids are asked to define 'love', 'nation', and other ultra big words taken for granted) are what become fuzzy or just too off-kilter for their own good. For someone who is usually so sharp on the edge with satire, Miike here is trying to scrape up enough with the action to justify it being there, because, of course, Izo's world is in some otherworldly plain of Greek tragedy, Buddhism, and other factions that are also connected to the true depravities and horrors of the world. But it's too much on one plate, and there's definitely the sense of overload. It's the kind of picture where the director does, more often than not, stumble on his face with his own ambitions; that being said, I'd much rather see a movie by Miike that only reaches up so high to its ideals than for a lesser filmmaker to just churn out typical product. Izo is anything but typical product, and it follows no rules (and destroys much like its character), which becomes part of the problem, at least on a first viewing.
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