Izo (2004)

Starring Daisaku Akino, Chisato Amate, Mickey Curtis

Directed by Takashi Miike

It’s questionable whether it’s appropriate to review Takashi Miike’s Izo on Dread Central. It’s not firmly in the horror camp like Audition was, nor is it a shoe in due to copious violence and special effects, as was Ichi the Killer. Rather, Izo is a two-hour plus rumination on man’s propensity for violence, what propels him to that violence, and what might be done to quit the endless cycle. If that’s not enough to make it worthy of a horror review, then take macabre solace in the fact that Izo viciously slaughters over a hundred people during the course of the film. For lack of a better term, Izo could be called an existential slasher flick. Well, an existential time traveling undead samurai terminator slasher flick that is…

That said, Jason Goes to Japan it ain’t; this is Miike at his most experimental. The film opens with classroom footage of an animated ejaculation, contains two hours of nearly endless slaughter, and ends with the main character doing laps on a celestial moebius strip. While one could argue that there is a plot, it is so repetitive and takes so long to get anywhere that all but the most patient of viewers will begin to wonder where Miike is taking us.

Izo begins with the crucifixion and execution of Izo Okada, a samurai character from the 1969 film Hitokiri. The Izo of Hitokiri bears some resemblance to Ichi the Killer in that, like Ichi, Izo is a ruthless killing machine, but also a pawn, in control of a puppet master pulling the strings.

The protracted execution scene sets a violent tone for the rest of the film. A crucified Izo hangs on a cross while guards take turns gratuitously impaling him with spears. The porn-style inserts of spears jabbing in and out of Izo’s body goes on for so long that the audience I saw it with, was groaning uncomfortably by the time Izo finally succumbs to his wounds.

It’s unclear exactly what happens next (and this is about three minutes into the film, so the confusion is unrelenting), but it’s reasonable to assume that Izo is reborn, but somehow out of the regular Karmic cycle of death and rebirth. Every few minutes, Izo is dropped, ala Kyle Reese, into a different time period, where he proceeds to massacre everyone he meets, T-800 style. The visual non-sequiturs come hot and heavy, with Izo battling SWAT teams with Uzis in ancient Edo, or ninjas on a freeway overpass. His mission is unclear, but seems to be related to a mysterious group of aristocrats (with Takeshi “Beat” Kitano as their leader!) who have been controlling world events over the ages. If one wanted to make a recent horror comparison, you could say that Izo is to Big Daddy what Beat Takeshi is to Dennis Hopper. That is, an inherently savage guy, trying to bring peace by executing the powerful leaders who are the true progenitors of violence.

During the next two hours we see Izo slaughter his mother, vampire real estate agents (“We sell condos to old people!”), Zombie WWII soldiers, an office full of salarymen, women, children, and samurai by the bushel. Over time, Izo himself begins to take on a demonic appearance; he dons a mask, grows fangs and horns, and his eyes begin to glow blood red.

One the visual front, Izo is pretty standard fare. It’s a dark movie, punctuated by a few calm scenes of color and light. The period costumes and sets seem accurate, but you’re often too confused about the time period to care much. The fight choreography is well done, and if you can stop scratching your head for a second, the action is pretty darn entertaining. The one area where Izo really stands out is the soundtrack. All of the film’s music comes from a single guy (Japanese folk singer Kazuki Tomokawa) playing an acoustic guitar and singing his throat raw. Whenever he shows up he’s drinking water, and trust me brother, after you hear this guy belt, you know why. Interestingly, the music never accompanies the action, but rather acts as connective tissue between scenes, and as a break from the never-ending slaughter. The crowd I saw Izo with spontaneously erupted into applause after one particularly intense song. They need to release this soundtrack, now.

The movie does have a climax of sorts, and should serve to provide some much needed closure to what is admittedly a pretty confusing tale. That said, the screening I saw had quite a few walkouts; and this is at Fantasia, where the crowds are pretty freakin’ open minded and tolerant. Izo certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of Takashi Miike, and want to see where his filmic experiments have been leading him, then Izo is not to be missed.

3 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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