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6th Dec 04
A vengeful assassin spirit embarks on a killing spree through time and space as he attempts to find reason in a place where Reason doesn't exist.
Takeshi Miike has had quite a successful critical run of late, what with Audition, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi The Killer and Gozu all kicking up a fuss on the genre scene, so when the London Film Festival announced a screening of his latest film, Izo, tickets were snapped up pretty sharp-ish and a full-house greeted the UK premiere of this prolific Japanese director’s latest.
Described as the first ‘philosophical splatter film’, Izo begins with a graphic male ejaculation scene (no, not really an actual shot, I’m talking graphic as in ‘old-text-book’ style animation) as part of a documentary about sperm production before whizzing through some jarring wartime footage and finally settling on an execution scene in 1865 of the 28 year old Izo Okada, a lowly samurai. Izo is tied to a cross with two guards standing below who proceed to spear Izo several times.
Zipping forward to modern day (through some great edited footage of Japanese history), Izo returns as a warrior spirit who possesses the body of a homeless man in Tokyo. Now hooded, he embarks on a mission in the woods. We are then introduced to a strange man in white who wraps himself in the coils of a rather large snake, who is aware of Izo’s impending arrival.
Cutting back to Izo then, and he encounters a man on a hilly footpath. Izo doesn’t take too long dispatching this first man, and we are promised much gore to come, as the bald gatekeeper dies a swift death, his crimson blood flowing into the river. Indeed, this is just the start of an extremely gory killing spree as Izo begins a ‘revenge rampage’ on everyone he sees. In fact gore is probably the best term to use here, as Miike obviously loves his ‘edgy’ gore style of filmmaking so much he has literally outdone himself with this film, as Izo is pretty much wall-to-wall blood’n’guts throughout.
Sounds exciting yeah? Unfortunately not, for this is all, for the most part, very boring. Having obviously spent some time deciding to make a full-out gore-fest with faux-philosophical dialogue, it appears Miike has forgotten the first rule of film-making and decided to forget about including anything like a satisfying plot, logic, or (most unforgivably) entertainment.
The film seems to take an age to get going, mainly because it takes a while to understand what is really going on. Who is this Izo guy? What happened to him? Who’s the dude in the white with the snakes? How come Izo can travel through time and space? Why is he killing everyone?
Just when we think we’ve got a hold on things, the film decides to jump off at surreal angles, such as a trip to visit Mother Earth, and all of a sudden we begin to get confused as to whether we’re watching a dream, or a flashback, or an imagination. We’re never really sure what we’re supposed to be watching, where or why. At about the half way point we learn that basically Izo is on a mission of revenge against – get this – the whole world! This basically means that Izo is free to kill everyone he sees as he searches for some God to try to find some sort of meaning to death. Yeah,, exactly.
What we’re left with is a series of moving images (mainly gore effects) with absolutely no emotional engagement whatsoever. We can’t relate to Izo, we can’t relate to anyone he meets, as it soon becomes apparent that everyone he meets is going to die in the next few minutes anyway. And seeing as Izo is seemingly immortal (he suffers many, many wounds that never seem to have any effect), what’s the point of watching. It feels like a video game, where all that is involved is killing lots of people, then killing one ‘big’ monster, before having to repeat the whole level again with different backgrounds.
Most of Izo victim’s are aggressive to him, but there are many times when you are crying out for some sort of explanation as to what the hell is going on. And when you really want some clarity, you get some bloke with a piano singing full songs about snails or some other Buddhist teachings. And you know you must be watching a shit film when even the appearance of ‘Beat’ Takeshi can’t lift things (he lasts about five minutes by the way).
It turns out that nothing can actually stop him because Izo is negation himself, a contradiction spewed up by the ‘perfect system’ that is Japan (I’m reading the notes from the screening rather than having worked this out by watching the film by the way), except for maybe the godlike emperor (oh, that explains the guy in white with snakes then) and the eternal goddess of mercy. Right. So, not similar to The Matrix at all then. By the end, you’re just hoping against hope, that maybe Izo might actually come across someone who can kill him so that the bloody film can finish.
Yet Miike is still one of those people that can achieve truly memorable imagery. Great gore effects include a stunning post-sword slash shot of Izo’s mother as she leans between two trees and a top-half body slide of an extremely large black English-speaking end of level master. Oh and there’s also that memorable moment when Izo’s ex-lover pulls a sword from a very intimate hiding place.
Most of the film certainly looks good, and Miike is never afraid to shock, as he shows victims of all ages including children, and although scenes such as the mass killing in the school, or the fight in the paper corridor are striking within themselves, they merely serve to remind us that the good set-pieces have not been merged together to make a complete whole.
One or two moments then, but generally a huge disappointment, as it is far from Miike’s best work. You may get some kick out of the relentless gory effects, and philosophical tone, but by the end you will probably either be bored, or confused, or like me, both. Overlong and over-complicated.
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