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» » Sabu (2002)

Short summary

A tale set in the Tokugawa Era. Framed for a crime he did not commit, Eiji is subjected to the harsh realities of the Ishikawa Island workhouse. Sabu, Eiji's longtime friend, must discover who is responsible for Eiji's incarceration, before the prison life consumes him completely.

User reviews


  • comment
    • Author: BOND
    Sabu is a simple, straight-forward friendship/love story with few surprises, very unlike Miike's more popular movies (which have been recognized as some of the most disturbingly shocking and violent films of all time). But what makes this movie better than just an average movie of the week is the direction. The opening 10 minutes are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. And throughout, Miike shows everyone that he can handle a story without sex or ultra-violence with one of the greatest styles the cinema has known. The movie itself is worth seeing at least once, but the directing gives it replay value several times over.
  • comment
    • Author: Ylonean
    Think of a Takashi Miike film and what immediately springs to mind? Guns, leather coats, hit men, demons, yakuza, violence, torture and blood. Lots and lots of blood. 'Sabu', however, is far removed from the usual fare in Miike's canon. Miike has ventured into gentler waters elsewhere in his oeuvre (think 'Ley Lines', 'Bird People in China'), but 'Sabu' stands apart from these again in that it's a period drama based on a renowned Japanese novel; 'Sabu' is rather more Merchant Ivory than anything in Ichi's warped universe.

    The film opens with scenes describing the childhood friendship of the eponymous Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki), Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Nobuko (Kazue Fukiishi) in rural seventeenth century Japan. Sabu and Eiji are orphans who are set to work for a master making paper screens. Though firm friends, their paths diverge dramatically when a bolt of gold cloth is one day reported as stolen from the workshop. Eiji is accused of the theft and, although he violently protests his innocence, he is sent away to an island prison camp as punishment.

    At the camp, Eiji becomes sullen and withdrawn, refusing to speak to his fellow inmates and shunning offers of friendship, making himself very unpopular in the process. Sabu, on the other hand, devotes a major part of his life in attempting to keep their friendship alive. He visits Eiji on the island, even after Eiji makes it plain he wants nothing to do with him. The extent of Sabu's friendship and almost obsession devotion to Eiji dominate most of the film's running time and is fully realised at the finale, when Sabu tries to protect Eiji from his own worst enemy – himself. In so doing, Eiji himself comes to appreciate facets of his character he wasn't previously akin too, and though both Sabu and Eiji are revealed to be flawed personalities (Eiji and his self pity, Sabu and his obsession with his friend that sees his own life slide off the rails), they come to understand both themselves and each other a little better by the time the credits roll.

    It's this ongoing concepts of flawed characters unable to find an inner peace that provides the engine that drives 'Sabu' along, but it's an engine that is built for a leisurely cruise, not a speedway, and the movie unfolds at a sedate pace for virtually the whole length of it's two hour running time. Although opening with a trademark unnerving/surreal shot (in this case of a hanged woman), Miike never lets the film run away with itself, preferring to let the emotions of the characters drive the plot. Indeed, 'Sabu' unfolds at the laborious pace of a nineteenth century novel, with the pace of the story telling more in keeping with Dickens or Mann than the kinetic pace fans of the director are more accustom too.

    Toward the middle of the film, there are scenes in the prison camp where a new prisoner arrives and starts throwing his weight around, taunting Eiji and spoiling for a fight. At this point I half expected the Miike of old to raise his head and for the protagonists to start wearing each other's blood, but to his credit, the mayhem and violence never appear. For all his restraint though, these scenes are jarring and feel shoehorned in as a kind of sop to those yearning for some violent action. They spoil the flow of the movie, serve no real purpose save introduce a subplot that never really develops and it would be no great loss if they were taken out.

    At times though, the whole of the plot is outshone by Miike's direction. Each shot is framed to perfection with the care and attention of a master painter, be it a haunting image of the hanging woman, a riot on a beach at night or the marvellous circularity of the opening and closing shots of a bridge spanning water. Such meticulous attention to detail almost gives 'Sabu' a picture book quality – a story told in static frames rather than motion. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that 'Sabu' was made specifically for Japanese television, not the big screen where these images would truly shine.

    'Sabu' is not a film for anyone looking for a quick fix of sex and violence. What it IS however is a good illustration that the art of film-making has not yet been completely buried under an avalanche of CGI and predictability. 'Sabu' is by no means without it's flaws (the lead characters, for example, although well played, are largely unsympathetic and verge on the annoying in their cloying self pity), and there is nothing on show here to suggest that it was made on anything but the smallest of budgets. Yet the attention to detail and obvious love of the craft of film-making that has gone into every scene shine through, making 'Sabu' an immensely rewarding experience for those with the patience to follow it through to the end.
  • comment
    • Author: Zyangup
    First things first, this isn't a Samurai movie as it is sometimes advertised. It's a period film set in the time of the Samurai, but the main characters are just normal folk. I might also mention that despite the film being named after the character Sabu, it spends almost the whole time focussed on his friend Eiji (played by Tatsuya Fujiwara of Battle Royale fame).

    It's hard to recognise the influence of director Takashi Miike here, as it features none of his usual over-the-top madness. However, it's another film that shows the director to be capable of far more than just shocking the audience with violence.

    However, I still reckon it amongst the weakest of 20 or so Miike films that I've seen. As a drama it's quite well made, but I was left largely unmoved by it. I wasn't quite sure what message or feeling I was meant to take away, and after 2 hours I felt that I still didn't really know or understand the characters that well. It felt like we were just getting part of a larger story, and what we glimpsed wasn't enough to fully appreciate it.

    That said, it was nice to see Tatsuya Fujiwara in a non-Battle Royale setting, though the film indicates as one might expect from one so young that his acting really isn't that great without Kinji Fukasaku and a strong screenplay behind him.

    Overall, I feel that it's a film I could have appreciated more if I'd known up front what it was about (no Samurai!), but that I don't expect to watch again any time soon to find out.
  • comment
    • Author: Madis
    Takashi Miike has directed some very, very unusual films. Some have been hilariously strange and off-beat (HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS), just plain odd (BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA) or super violent (AUDITION and ICHI THE KILLER). As for me, I have loved some of his films but also found his violent films so sick and graphic I couldn't stand them--it's all a matter of taste--I just don't want graphic violence in my films. But, I wasn't at all prepared for SABU, as it seemed nothing like the other Miike films I'd seen. I was worried it would be too violent (it wasn't unnecessarily so) and hoped it would be weird and unconventional (it wasn't). Overall, it was a finely crafted but extremely conventional film about a man who is unjustly sent to debtors prison and becomes violent in order to cope with it--and praying for revenge when he one day is released. As far as this plot goes, it has some very interesting elements and twists (particularly towards the end), but the film also is a bit dull in spots and I was tempted several times to stop watching. While I am glad I stuck with it because there was enough payoff at the end to justify seeing it, it wasn't a particularly interesting film or anything that seemed out of the ordinary. I'm sure Miike's rabid fans out there would thoroughly disagree, but I think the ordinary viewer could take or leave this film.
  • comment
    • Author: Zainn
    This is a really instructive example of the directorial skills that Takishi Miike exhibits in most of his films. His abilities are often lost on many viewers because they're too infatuated with cowheads, necrophilia, and bazookas. A coherent, dramatically-charged jidaigeki like this might challenge the patience and attention spans of some Miike-devotees. There are long stretches of this film that feature two characters facing one another and speaking. Being more plot-driven than action-driven, I can see how some might be bored to death, but it's this more cerebral pacing that highlights the kind of mastery that Miike is capable of. This movie should go a long way towards silencing critics who accuse him of being too dependant on yakuza mayhem and the usual clichés (bestiality, scat, necrophilia, homosexual rape, mutilation, etc.) That being said, this is a competent period film that stands on it's own. It is only slightly apparent to the viewer that it was made for television - it really has all the trappings of a regular film (casting & sets). All of the actors nail their performances and the "making of" featurette included on the R1 DVD shows the care and commitment that went into producing it.
  • comment
    • Author: Delari
    As mentioned in another review, this film should probably have been called "Eiji", because he is certainly the focus of attention. The slight plot revolves around a perceived injustice against him and its eventual resolution. The supporting cast are more sketches than characters, but the narrative survives the demands of this televisual simplification.

    As a historical document it's beautiful. Perhaps Miike wanted to show, much like Kurosawa, that even in the era of the Samurai, ordinary people also led lives tinged with drama.

    I felt that there was a hint of predetermined running time (perhaps two one hour episodes?) which led to a bit of a lull in proceedings around the hour mark. I resolved my putative ennui by resorting to the time honoured British tea ceremony. By the time I'd finished my refreshments, the plot had picked up again, and fortified by some quality tiffin, I thoroughly enjoyed the denouement. I'd guess that this is the Japanese equivalent of those great period dramas that the BBC excels at. I don't watch television, but I would if it could consistently offer a dramatic emotional diet as rich as this.
  • comment
    • Author: MeGa_NunC
    Coming from the prolifically warped Takashi Miike, this is a surprisingly straightforward psychological period drama. As witnessed and protected by his self-effacing best friend Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki), pretty boy Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) receives proper comeuppance for his arrogance through being wrongfully accused and punished for a crime inspired by his allure. The bootleg U.S. DVD by Ctenosaur is a work of love. Highly recommended.
  • comment
    • Author: Malodora
    I find myself comparing this to the French miniseries, "Compte de Monte Cristo", and to "Manon des Sources - Jean de la Florette". Sabu, too was apparently produced for TV, and I admire the audience and director/producer/art director that permitted such a work to come to light. This is not a work produced for the lowest common denominator.

    The photography - the palette - the attention to small historical details, to nature, to emotions is fine.

    But I think of structure - ideas like exposition, rising action, peripetie, moment of final tension, denouement - and of Compte and Manon - and the French works seem more selective in their focus, as though examining a small group (the key parties to the action) under a microscope. Each fully. The good and the bad have their reasons, their views of life. Rising moments of tension are interspersed or silhouetted against pastoral moments or even comic or rustic relief.

    Here, in Sabu, I sometimes felt the scenery stole the show - i.e., that the action or development stalled. I sometimes felt the focus was confused - that more attention should have been given to Osue, Sabu, Onobu - and certainly more to Roku and to the old fellow prisoner who is so supportive.

    But I don't suggest Sabu fails to expose and delicately develop a host of characters - it does, but leaves us wanting more. And I sense a certain ideal "ratio" between the length of the film and the height and depth of its emotional swings has been violated. In Sabu, I find the rise and development of such moments too lengthy, or too understated to support the film's overall length in full dramatic fashion.

    Still, there are wonderfully moving and touching moments, people we wish we could know better, even a growing understanding of a society and a time in history. Characters who appear cruel become sensitive and supportive, characters who appear innocent have their failings, and there's nature and fate and a possibility of achieving true happiness through resignation. Its world may be more accommodating than that of Manon.

    I highly recommend this film. Despite weaknesses it's thought provoking. It's beautiful. It's humanist. I'll rate it a 9.
  • comment
    • Author: Gholbirdred
    You know, not only have I never seen a Takashi Miike movie quite like this, in some ways this movie is different than any other Japanese movie I've ever seen as well. It shares conceits closer to Mexican cinema and melodrama than Japanese drama styles and Miike's themes. And of course, still, it is a very Miike movie.

    Because of the fast and continual production of his oeuvre, Takashi Miike films can sometimes look like the cheaply produced videos they are and have a very thrown-together editing, but that has never been a problem for him because his style and sensibilities have vastly outweighed his production values, like any good independent and maverick filmmaker. Later movies of his look better and are better crafted, but this earlier work is noteworthy because he slows it down a bit and fills the story with gorgeous, every-frame's-a-still-picture-for-a-gallery imagery. From the opening shot of a hanging woman to the burning building to the closing, this movie is very visually pleasant to watch.

    It's also a somewhat strange story. Sabu is a young man tortured with guilt and grief for his friend Eiji, who was sent to a worker's jail after being framed for stealing gold cloth. Eiji is much more patient and in control, planning his vengeance as he fights off the low-lifes in the jail and protects the weaker inmates. What's interesting about that is that the title character is actually incredibly melodramatic and inactive, which is not typical in most narratives. Eiji, the more dynamic and interesting character, would be a much more appropriate name for the movie; Sabu is more a supporter.

    Still, Miike isn't one to get caught up on narrative theory, preferring instead to take it where he may. This is actually a much more sober and patient Miike than many of his fans may be used to, but still contains his trademark violence and style--only now the "excesses" are put into the cinematography and background instead of the action. Another good film by another continually amazing auteur.

    --PolarisDiB
  • comment
    • Author: Stanober
    The title is taken from the male protagonist of the original novel, but the screenplay changes the opening and closing to the viewpoint of one of the female characters. The central portion still features the two male characters, but we never find out what happened to them. I think this is why reviewers found the ending unsatisfying.

    It has an all-star cast with young up and coming actors and Kenji Sawada grown much more rotund than his younger idol days. It is reputed to be Takashi Miike's first jidaigeki period film.

    Technical type comment. I own two copies of this film. The ArtsMagic copy has a very good "making of film" bonus that is English subtitled. This is all too rare for Japanese films. It also has subtitled interviews with the director and cast. But sadly the transfer of the feature film is much too dark. I didn't see anything in the background, some sets are very dimly lit, and it made for a rather dreary viewing experience. I suppose the darkness suits the Dickensian nature of the story. The disc bonus menu has annoying mismatch between the titles and the place to point your cursor.

    A few years later, I bought a Chinese-made high-bit copy and when I viewed it I was amazed to see much more detail in the background. It much improved the viewing experience. So you need to see both to optimize experience of this Miike film. I do not own a Japan-made copy, but it could be the best of all.
  • Credited cast:
    Tatsuya Fujiwara Tatsuya Fujiwara - Eiji
    Satoshi Tsumabuki Satoshi Tsumabuki - Sabu
    Tomoko Tabata Tomoko Tabata - Nobuko
    Kazue Fukiishi Kazue Fukiishi - Osue
    Kenji Sawada Kenji Sawada - Okayasu
    Naomasa Musaka Naomasa Musaka - Matsuda
    Tatsuo Yamada Tatsuo Yamada - Ryojiro Kojima
    Yoshiki Arizono Yoshiki Arizono - Yohei
    Keisuke Horibe Keisuke Horibe
    Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
    Ken'ichi Endô Ken'ichi Endô - Giichi
    Mayuko Nishiyama Mayuko Nishiyama - Osono
    Ren Osugi Ren Osugi - Heizo (as Ren Ôsugi)
    Hiroshi Tamaki Hiroshi Tamaki - Kinta
    Yôji Tanaka Yôji Tanaka - Toku
    Yujiro Taniyama Yujiro Taniyama
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