Takashi Miike’s Izo is in some ways the movie he has been trying to make his whole career—one which sums up his ambitions, exceeds all his earlier works, and may end up alienating everyone involved. Izo springs from the one question that Miike’s been revisiting through every movie he’s ever made—why are we such violent monsters?—and asks that question in the form of a movie that has no linear plot, no roots in objective reality, no hero to empathize with, no speck of hope, no ultimate answer (not that there could be one), not even a beginning or an end.
Understand something: I’m not lambasting Miike for all this, I’m praising him. This sort of thing is far from easy. Look at Chuck Palahniuk, who for all of his initial promise as a writer has turned into the postmodern equivalent of Stephen King. His idiosyncrasies have turned into personal clichés. Miike sometimes veers close to that, but with Izo he’s turned such quirks to his advantage, or at least to serve the movie’s greater purpose. This movie will draw few admirers. It is pretentious, exasperating, repetitive, violent, gory and obscurantist—and I defend it for exactly those reasons. I’m sure even Miike would agree that no one’s obliged to like it.
Izo would nominally be a samurai movie, but it’s closer to a very small group of films I call experimental epics—Koyaanisqatsi, Saló, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left for the East?, Mind Game, Casshern, and most of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films. Izo also owes a great deal to Nobuo Nakagawa’s infamous Jigoku, about one man’s experiences into death and the karmic realms beyond. Come to think of it, this movie picks up where that one left off: imagine the murderous, iconoclastic Shanao of Gojoe coming unstuck in time like Slaughterhouse-five’s Billy Pilgrim, raging against the curse of having ever existed.
At least the film begins on a vaguely conventional note, with a condemned samurai—the titular Izo—receiving a death sentence on the cross. Rather than finding oblivion, however, he wakes up in a trash-strewn alley in the present day, wanders out in a daze, and encounters one figure after another from his own past. His mother, his rivals, his one-time lover—all of whom he slaughters angrily. Each successive murder propels him through time once again, renews his certainty in vengeance as his right, and make him all the more difficult to kill. He may get shot or stabbed, and he may bleed or experience pain, but his rage keeps him from being released from existence.
Izo’s reincarnation and killing spree come to the attention of an authoritarian panel of—spirits? Entities? One of them is played by none other than Takeshi Kitano, and the bunch of them are lorded over by the etherally handsome Ryuhei Masuda (of Gohatto and 9 Souls). They are dismayed by Izo’s violations of the laws of Man, God and Nature—but mostly their own laws. “Control, suppression and deceit are human nature,” they argue, and order this irritating glitch-in-the-system ironed out. He dares to defy authority by not dying—i.e., not surrendering to the fate due every human being, and thereby transcending mortality in a way reserved only for the controllers.
No boundaries of genre are respected in Izo. There are moments of deranged black comedy, as when a couple of mild-mannered businessmen suddenly sprout fangs and stab people to death with kitchen knives. One moment a Matrix-like SWAT team is chasing Izo through an Edo-era village; the next, he’s being pursued by samurai through contemporary Tokyo. An army of katana-swinging hatamoto is followed by a gang of yakuza armed with baseball bats and shovels. Eventually we realize that all of them—not just the people from Izo’s former life, but the authority figures who want him dead, too—are all reflections of him as well. The one authority he cannot escape is himself. In the end, maybe the real dreamer is not even Izo, but the whole of the human race, unable to wake up from the nightmare of a history written in blood (and sperm).
“Difficult” doesn’t begin to describe Izo; it is made up almost entirely of scenes that seem designed to test an audience’s patience, or squeamishness, or both. In one unpopular moment, Izo appears in an underground cave and rapes (if that’s the word for it) a female figure—giving birth to the whole of the human race, himself included. The one scene that seems to draw the most objections is when Izo materializes in a grade-school class, then draws his sword and slaughters everyone—but it’s already been made clear that he doesn’t see the rest of humanity as being anything but beasts anyway, children included.
Izo is also loaded with things that even to fairly knowing audiences don’t make a lick of sense. One element that other people have not applauded are intercalary appearances by legendary Japanese folk singer Kazuki Tomokawa, acting as a kind of surreal Greek chorus for the various goings-on. This is, in a way, the movie’s biggest flaw as well as its greatest asset: its intentional esotericism. If, for instance, you have no idea who Tomokawa Kazuki is or what he would represent (think something like Japan’s own Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie), you’re not likely to appreciate Izo as anything except a barrage of weirdness with no center—nor enjoy the fact that he gets a long, unbroken shot to himself to perform, and make it clear why he has had a cult following in Japan for thirty years.
On a bigger scale, though, all of these pieces do fit into the whole, even if only as metaphors or allusions. For me it made sense in the shadow of having read Richard Rhodes’s Why We Kill, which argues (among other things) that violent people are made, not born. Izo’s violent nature, and by implication ours as well, is “self-made” in more ways than one. He starts his career as a gentle young farmer who is given an opportunity he can’t turn down—to serve his lord and fight well—and becomes “violentized” (to use Rhodes’s term). He becomes what his world demanded of him—only a little too well, so much so that the very conceits whose existence depend on him being that way are also threatened.
At the same time, there’s the element of choice in his actions: No, Izo didn’t choose to be reborn any more than any of us chose to be born, but he certainly has chosen violence as his answer to all that. So has everyone else in his life—or is that simply what he’s elected to see? And as we go further into the movie and see Izo incarnated again and again—here as a WWII officer fighting for Japan, there as a peasant eking out a meager existence, somewhere else as a salaryman on trial for murder—he’s less like some individual aberration and more like what’s inside all of us at any given moment. Izo is in all of us, and we are all in him as well.
Takashi Miike’s films polarize everyone in their path, fans and detractors alike. I have never met anyone who has liked all of his films, myself included: I thought Ichi the Killer tried to have its guro cake and eat it too, and I feel his endless delvings into the yakuza underworld have been coming up increasingly redundant as of late. Even if Izo is a self-indulgent mess—and that’s highly debatable—I found it a refreshing new path for him, and I do feel Miike had good reasons to make it. I am also more patient than most, and the parts of the movie that other people found boring or redundant I found hypnotic and insistent.
Miike himself has described the movie as a mantra, a way of exploring the same basic idea through various facets of meaning. Most movies are merely concerned with a contrived plot, a way of hustling a bunch of characters along to a happy or sad ending. Izo is not about a plot, but it has a story, one which neither ever really began nor ended, so a linear plot would not serve its intentions. We see pieces of various parts of his life linking up and creating drama that fuel the film’s forward momentum, much as Izo’s anger sends him hurtling forward again and again towards—what? The further Izo goes, the more he becomes a monster of instinct, and the more nihilistic his fury becomes—not because he kills, but because he no longer has any element of choice.
Miike’s movies all have a great, flamboyant look to them. Izo is equal parts serenity and frenzy, and also comes with an enviable cast of Japanese stars and Miike-gumi: Kitano, Masuda, Susumu Terajima, Mickey Curtis, Kenichi Endo, Renji Ishibashi, Ken Ogata, Mitsuhiro Oikawa (of Hazard City and Casshern), Yuya Uchida (Miike’s Rekka), and even former Chicago Bearsman Bob Sapp in a hilarious walk-on as a fighting monk. Most of these actors are used in much the same way as the Izo himself: as totems or typecasting symbols, rather than fully-developed characters. That works, though, because that’s the way the movie itself operates; it’s not a case of wasted opportunities. If you’ve seen Kitano do his stone-faced tough-guy shtick in any of his other movies, you already know what’s behind it, and the movie capitalizes on that feeling. Likewise, the movie uses other totemistic elements from Japanese history (i.e., Hiroshima) to evoke the ghastliness and hopelessness of Izo’s plight.
The “mantra” description brings to mind a story, which serves as a fine analogy for my feelings about Izo. John Cage was once teaching a music-appreciation class, and decided to play a recording of a Buddhist service for discussion. After twenty grueling minutes of microtonal chanting a woman stood up and screamed “Turn it off, I can’t stand it any more!” Cage took the record off, and instantly another man protested: “What’d you take it off for? I was just beginning to get into it!”
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