First time I watched this, I thought of Miike as a provocative ultraviolent action and horror director, based on Dead or Alive and Ichi the Killer and Audition. Most people still do, of course, since his quieter films (Bird People In China), his children’s films (Yatterman, The Great Yokai War) and his oddball art films (Gozu, Big Bang Love) don’t get as much attention. It turns out Izo is one of the art films masquerading as an action flick, and with that in mind, I enjoyed it much more the second time around. There are accepted ways of shooting action scenes or dialogue scenes, and these are not they. Miike uses strange and varied techniques to suit his strange, upsetting movie.
Taking the final scene of Hideo Gosha’s Hitokiri – the execution of homicidal 19th-century samurai Izo Okada – as its starting point, this was never meant to be any old chambara, but a meditation on mankind’s eternal propensity for violence and destruction.
From the oft-repeated plot description:
We learn that among Izo’s various guises was a doomed soldier who had to leave his lover (Kaori Momoi) to fight in World War II. He spares neither Buddhist monks nor schoolchildren, and eventually, Izo confronts Mother Earth (Haruna Takase) herself.
“Acid-folk” singer Kazuki Tomokawa is incredible, even if I’ve no idea what he’s singing – I have the old Cannibal King version of the DVD with no subs during the songs. Izo is crucified at the start of the movie, and born at the end, so I’m afraid a simple plot description won’t cut it, even if the songs were some sort of commentary. Lots of fun along the way, as he destroys hypocritical institutions, slaying religion and government (Beat Takeshi Kitano plays the prime minister and Ryuhei “Nightmare Detective” Matsuda plays the emperor), and a big fight with muscular black samurai Bob Sapp (a former Minnesota Viking) is an oft-cited high point. But he also spends lots of time killing innocents, moving down the weary ghosts of WWII soldiers, getting badly hurt and slow-morphing into a red-eyed demon as the frequency and repetition of the fight scenes start to wear on the audience.
That repetition is why many people seem to hate this movie. It’s accused of being slow and overlong, which I would partly agree with, but it’s more varied and interesting than the also-slow Sukiyaki Western Django – and even that one I expect will improve on a second viewing. Tons of cameos significant to people more familiar with Japanese cinema than I am. Learned from Midnight Eye that the soldiers stabbing Izo to death in the opening scenes are Kenichi Endo (father in Visitor Q) and Susumu Terajima (Takeshis’).
To begin with the obvious: Izo is one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times. . . . The film is pure theme and variation, deliberately lacking consistent rhythm or sense of progression that would allow you to enjoy it casually. Still, nearly every sequence boasts some fascinating juxtaposition—between character and decor, between dialogue and action, in the way images are ordered—that makes it consistently striking to watch, if something of a slog to keep up with.