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  • Benjamin May

Izo (2004) Review

Sometime during the late Endo period, noted samurai Okada Izo is tortured and ritually slain upon a crucifix. His soul does not die, however, embarking on a period hopping journey through space and time. Fueled by bloodlust- and with occasional pauses for philosophical rumination- the vengeful spirit of Izo murders with impunity, slaying any and all who cross his path. Whether or not his appetite for revenge is satiated- and if his soul is cleansed by all the bloodshed- remains to be seen in the strange, stylish thrill-ride that is Takashi Miike's 'Izo.'

An action epic with a metaphysical foundation, 'Izo' is a bloody odd film from a director who specializes in them. Written by Shigenori Takechi, the film has a non-linear narrative structure that jumps through time periods like a springbok, and can be a little confounding and hard to follow. The journey the titular character goes on is intensely violent and frequently exciting, though uneven and imperfect. Throughout the film, thrilling battle sequences are interspersed with plodding, dialogue-heavy scenes that frankly don't work.

While one can appreciate the fact that Takechi and Miike are attempting to add another dimension to the tale, amid the madness of time-shifting, gore-splattered fight scenes, philosophical ponderings are jarring and out of place. The narrative becomes imbalanced, and the film's pacing suffers as well. Which is not even to mention the fact that the philosophy at the heart of 'Izo' is rather shallow and simplistic, and could easily be expressed in a more eloquent, understated manner. Fans of Miike will probably be left a little underwhelmed by the proceedings; some may even be bored.

Though, to repeat oneself, the action in 'Izo' really is pulse-pounding stuff. Expertly choreographed, the battles are fast and frenetic; and will surely have you on the edge of your seat. Federico Benvenuti and Ravindra Pratap Singh Ricky of the stunt team do marvelous work and the displays of swordplay in the film are breath-taking. In fact, the brilliance of the action unfortunately underscores again the deficiencies of the story and dialogue. It's a real shame Miike didn't have a screenplay to work with as strong as the action in his film.

What he does have is an emotive, off-beat soundtrack from Kazuki Tomakawa that is unforgettable and unique. Tomakawa periodically turns up in the film to serenade Izo and the audience, like the minstrels in 'Cat Ballou,' or Jonathan Richman in 'There's Something About Mary.' Tomakawa sounds a little bit like a Japanese Tom Waits, and the intensity and weirdness of his songs and his performance suit the crazed events of 'Izo' perfectly.

The film also boasts stylish cinematography from Nobuyuki Fukazawa, who has for many years worked on the show 'The Woman of S. R. I.' His muted efforts give the film an assured, stark visual style that is arresting and admirable. The set and costume design is also striking, with the titular character's main outfit being especially notable. Additionally, while Yasushi Shimamura's editing is a little loose during the dialogue scenes, he cuts the battles together masterfully; and his work deserves praise.

Also praiseworthy is Kazuya Nakayama, starring as Izo. Nakayama has a strong presence that dominates the screen, and his performance is steady and impressive. He handles himself well in the fight scenes and manages difficult dialogue with a remarkable ease. The character and his motivations may be somewhat recherche, but Nakayama is consistently commendable. His supporting cast are all terrific, but get very little to do in comparison. Kaori Momoi and Takeshi Kitano are particularly good and, though on screen for a short time, leave an indelible impression on the viewer.

At the end of the day, Takashi Miike's 'Izo' is a bit of a mixed bag. Though containing thrilling action sequences that will have you glued to the screen, the dialogue is mediocre and overly wordy. Additionally, the film's philosophical cogitations come across as a little half-baked, and the non-linear narrative structure can be confusing. The film does feature a great Kazuki Tomakawa soundtrack and a strong central performance from Kazuya Nakayama, as well as fine cinematography from Nobuyuki Fukazawa. To cut a long story short, 'Izo' is a film both muddled and memorable; another unique offering from one of the strangest directors in cinematic history.


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