By kevin on August 01, 2006 at 3:08am EDT
First off, a little background info. IZO is based on real-life historical figure Okada Izo (1832–1865), who was was a poor swordsman that dreamed of becoming a respected samurai but didn’t even have enough standing to be a ronin. Instead, he trained himself by cutting rats and cats. Eventually, he was trained by Takechi Hanpeita, a ruthless leader in the Tosa Loyalist Party. Henpeita manipulated Okada and used him as a pawn to assassinate many people, including Tosa leaders. When Hanpeita was arrested by the Tosa government and put in jail Okada was left on his own. With no one to back him he has nowhere to go and was soon captured himself. Hanpeita stayed in jail for two years before being ordered to commit seppuku, which he obeyed with stunning brutality and composure, regaining some of his own honor in death. Okada, however, due to his low status, wasn’t given the same option. The film picks up there with “Izo” (Kazuya Nakayama) being crucified for his crimes, hanging on a cross and being slowly impaled over and over with spears, spewing copious amounts of blood and screaming in a scene that goes on long enough to be sufficiently uncomfortable to watch.
That’s pretty much all you need to know about the real person though. This isn’t really a period piece or even a samurai film. In fact, this is one time where it could be argued that the script is based more on the actor playing the character than the character himself. Takechi Shigenori decided to write this screenplay specifically for Nakayama to star in, before even deciding it would be about Okada Izo. Nakayama, 47 at the time of filming, had been acting for 20 years without ever having a starring role. He had been through a lot; both as an actor and in his personal life but through it all he always worked hard and treated others with respect. It would be easy to draw parallels between Izo and Nakayama in that they both spent most of their lives playing supporting roles to more significant people who got all the glory while they toiled. That may be the biggest reason such an insignificant historical character was chosen as the protagonist for a major film release like this. The juxtaposition of Nakamura with the rest of the star-studded cast, mostly in small supporting roles, just highlights this idea further. Of course, their inclusion had the additional side-effect of additional financing and more creative freedom for Miike, so I guess you can only read into that so far.
Upon Izo’s death the rage and violence left in his soul render him unable to enter Heaven or Hell. Instead, he becomes the incarnation of a deep-seated grudge. He finds himself wandering a non-linear path through time on a hate-fueled mission to get revenge against the aristocracy he blames for his current state. On the way he slaughters religious leaders, women, children, and countless others who stand in his way, including mother earth herself (after defiling her of course). This film is a seemingly endless repetition of slaughters that seems to get more and more senseless as it goes on, culminating in a final confrontation between Izo and a mysterious monarchal figure (Ryuhei Matsuda), who is a representation of God.
Partly by design and partly due to Nakamura’s inexperience with a sword the battles aren’t exactly pretty. They mostly consist of Izo flailing his sword back and forth with all the grace of a baseball bat while waves of enemies get in the way of his wild slashes. Through all his murderous travels he’s tailed by a mysterious woman (Kaori Momoi) who plays a fragment of his soul. You could view her as “his better half”, both figuratively and literally, because she actually is his good side and was his wife in several past lives but through some sort of cosmic error they were separated, leaving him all the more violent and confused in this particular existence. Kazuki Tomokawa provides a spastic disjointed soundtrack throughout the film that oddly fits in very well. As a visible character in the film it’s clear he represents another piece of Izo; it’s just not clear which part because he’s never acknowledged directly like Momoi’s character. Like a lot of stuff in this film that’s one of the minor details that’s completely left up to the viewer’s interpretation.
Throughout all the repetitive violence and destruction in Izo there is an unmistakable message being conveyed, that Izo represents our own violent nature as a species and any attempt to alter that course will only lead to more violence. To a lesser extent if those dots were to be connected further one could also say Izo, a sort of political terrorist in his day, represents some of the terrorist groups that have been active in recent years. In trying to get revenge on the aristocracy he despises he hacks and slashes his way through thousands of people, some innocent, some not. The generic group of aristocrats led by Takeshi Kitano’s character just keeps sending more people to get in his way because they’re afraid of him. They feel that they own the moral high ground over him because to them he’s nothing more than a marauding brute, but in thinking that they get a whole lot of innocent people killed in the process. This scenario seems to perpetually repeat itself with all the wars in human history and that is one of the points the film gets across.
Those who pick up IZO expecting stylized violence like other films in Miike’s catalog are probably in for a disappointment. While it is extremely violent, it’s not stylistic in any way. For once, the repetitive scenes of death and destruction actually serve a purpose beyond trying to impress fanboys. Sure the pacing can get a bit tiresome and the narrative can seem pretentious at times, but overall this is a film that has a lot to offer in the way of bizarre symbolism and one of the most star-studded casts in recent memory.