Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sabu is a name you should probably know

For years he was quietly one of Japan's best directors, somehow evading much international recognition while producing consistently astounding films. His first five movies all featured the same lead actor, Tsutsumi Shin'ichi, and are pretty much exactly the kind of thing I'd like to see Eclipse do box sets of.

Dangan Runner, his first film, is the simplest to explain -- three men are chasing each other, on foot, for the entire movie. Pretty much the entire thing is constructed of their respective reactions to things they all three pass. Enjoyable, but definitely a low budget stunt, and more of a promise than a success.

Postman Blues followed, and is still his finest film. A black comedy about a simple postman mistaken for a serial killer by the police, it cross cuts between events as the appear to the postman, and how they appear to the police, manufacturing humor from Sabu's fascination with coincidence and misunderstanding.

Unlucky Monkey is the only one of his films released in the US, as far as I know...and I only know because I randomly found it on the shelf a year ago. Animeigo has released a number of titles that really deserve to be seen, and has simply not managed to get any buzz going on them. Unlucky Monkey is certainly worth picking up, but it was also my least favorite of Sabu's early films; I can't specifically remember why, but I think it just didn't pay off as well. Despite the US release, I can't even find a trailer on Youtube.

Monday was the first one that actually grabbed any international press. This time, Tsutsumi Shin'ichi plays an ordinary salaryman waking up in a hotel room with no memory of the night before. As he ransacks his pockets, slowly piecing together the events, he realizes the police surrounding the building are there for him. It also has the best trailer by far.

Drive was Sabu's final collaboration with Tsutsumi Shin'ichi, and their biggest hit. Tsutsumi had been a stage actor who rarely made movies, but he pretty much used Drive as a springboard into film, and has become one of the more reliable leading men in Japanese film. Drive's success owed a lot to Shibasaki Kou, who had filmed her small role in this just before Battle Royale made her a star. But in many ways it represents the culmination of the themes that ran through all of Sabu's early films. Tsutsumi plays an uptight salaryman in love with a girl he's never spoken to; when three bank robbers jump into his car and order him to follow their driver, who's made off with the cash, he does so...but never above the speed limit.

Sabu seems to have had trouble adjusting to Tsutsumi's departure. Blessing Bell was an interesting movie, with Teramachi Susumu walking for a really long time in one direction, then running back the other way, encountering each of the same places in a different light, but more of an experiment than an actual movie, and one that dragged considerably in the early going.

Hard Luck Hero is a project I'm sure he would rather forget, a vanity picture for a boy band that has a few Sabu trademarks, but with no leads who can act, and a script clearly knocked up in no time at all, it was an unwatchable mess.

He's made three films since, but the only one I've even seen coverage of was his most recent film, a literary adaption. I can't tell if there's no buzz because his slump has continued, or because there's just not enough people really paying attention to Japanese film.


  1. Was really impressed by Tsutsumi in the Galileo movie, so I want to check these out. Which one would most likely be available at Tsutaya or similar ...

  2. They were all pretty well distributed in Japan; I grabbed all five from Tsutaya or the equivalent.