Sabu (2002)

Rating: B-

Dir: Takashi Miike
Star: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tomoko Tabata, Kazue Funiishi

If you didn’t know who directed this, it’d take you a long time to guess it was Takashi Miike; it’s a period TV drama f’heavens sake, made for the 40th anniversary of Nagoya Broadcasting. Yet, as such, it’s impressive: it’s hard to imagine, say, Tarantino, turning his hand to a similar project and delivering such an assured end-product. When Eiji (Fujiwara, whom you might have seen in Battle Royale and its sequel) suddenly vanishes, his friend Sabu (Tsumabuki) tries to discover what happened; he locates Eiji on a prison island, although his pal now claims not to know him. But fate and the passage of time lead to changes in both men and, like any good soap opera, devastating secrets are eventually revealed about Eiji’s ‘crime’. For this film is about true friendship, and how it can endure through anything.

I suspect that, without Miike’s name attached, this would never have been released in the West, and have to wonder how many other solid dramas lurk unseen in Japanese TV vaults. It’s a startling contrast to the dumb spectacles we get here, like recent disaster-TVM (in both senses!), 10.5 – not fast-paced, action-packed or cheesy. Initially, indeed, it may seem slightly dull, and you have to show patience while the story builds, until Eiji gets to the island, where his alter-ego Bushu could give Cool Hand Luke a run for his money. In contrast, Sabu seems kinda bland, and the scenes on the mainland lack as much dramatic momentum. However, the overall impact is more than satisfactory, thanks to fine performances from the two leads, and even at 122 minutes, the time passes surprisingly fast. If all you know of Miike is Ichi the Killer, this will be a shock, but it could be a pleasant one.