Takashi Miike made Izo fifteen years ago, but it feels like the kind of movie someone would make at the end of their career—one which sums up a lifetime's ambitions, exceeds all one's earlier works, and may end up alienating everyone involved. Most every movie Miike has made revolved around the same question—why are we such violent monsters?—and Izo answers it by way 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 definite beginning or end. 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 has come unstuck in time
Izo would nominally be a samurai movie, but it’s closer to a very small group of films I think of as, to use a term Roger Ebert once employed, 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 partly conventional note. A condemned samurai—the titular Izo—receives 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 Matsuda (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 genre, no inhibitions, no boundaries
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 a female figure—giving birth, it is implied, to the whole of the human race, himself included. In another endurance-test moment, 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.
The burning man
If all of this wasn't dislocating enough, Miike stops the action dead every so often for 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 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 decades.
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 They 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.
I have never met anyone who has liked all of Miike's films, myself included. I thought Ichi the Killer tried to have its guro cake and eat it too. Even if Izo is a self-indulgent mess—and that’s highly debatable—I found it a refreshing new path for him then as I do now, and I do feel Miike had good reasons to make it. I also admit I am probably 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 or even a story, but it does have a theme, so it doesn't need a linear plot to function as it must. We see various pieces of Izo's 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 has elected again and again to respond with violence.
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.
Storm the reality studio
Watching Izo again after many years away from it brought back to mind an author I have thought about only intermittently during that span of time, but who has returned to my attention lately, as time has been kind to his ideas: William S. Burroughs, the hallucinatory streetcorner preacher of 20th-century literature. Many of his books were extended allegories about systems of control vying for power over humanity, where characters with names taken from mobster, junkie, and grifter culture ("The Subliminal Kid", "Mr. and Mrs. D"). "With your help," Burroughs wrote in Nova Express, "we can occupy The Reality Studio and retake their universe of Fear Death and Monopoly." Izo plays like one such storming of the studio, with images as jolting, gruesome, and haunting as anything Burroughs put on paper.
The “mantra” description brings to mind a story, which serves as a fine analogy for summing my feelings about Izo. John Cage was once roped into teaching a music-appreciation class with no time to prepare. Lacking for anything else to do, he 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!”