To begin with the obvious: Izo is one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times. Viewers complain that it’s overlong and incoherent—and, in their defense, it often feels designed that way. In scene after scene for more than two hours, a samurai finds himself in a strange new landscape, encounters some odd person or people, and then kills them with his sword. The film is pure theme and variation, deliberately lacking consistent rhythm or sense of progression that would allow you to enjoy it casually. Still, nearly every sequence boasts some fascinating juxtaposition—between character and decor, between dialogue and action, in the way images are ordered—that makes it consistently striking to watch, if something of a slog to keep up with. Even admirers say it seems to last for days.
Closer viewing—or, for most Westerners, a bit of research—reveals the film to be dense in references to history, art, and Buddhist theology. Izo Okada, for instance, belonged to an actual band of assassins in 19th-century Japan. Their leader, Takechi Hanpeita, is also a character in the film, and other speaking parts are given to deities, mythological demons, and characters apparently representing abstract concepts. (Like the settings, characters in Izo are rarely identified directly; and to complicate matters further, figures from the past appear in the present and vice-versa.) It’s a fitting cast of characters for a film made up of purposely incompatible material—blunt depictions of violence, philosophical dialogues, horror movie atmospherics, newsreel footage, folk songs. Izo has the effect of seeing the last 150 years of Japanese culture thrown into a blender; to be overwhelmed by it seems to be the point.
This ambitious collage-approach brings to mind some major works of 20th-century Western art: Eliot’s The Wasteland, Picasso’s Guernica, the epic symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich, all of which combined elements of high and low culture to create monumental forms that encompassed both. And like these Modernist touchstones, Izo all but requires the viewer to feel a little dumb: Not every reference is meant to be understood, nor is the logic connecting various scenes. What’s important is the overall density, which forces the viewer to really concentrate on the film, to put aside other thoughts for a while and contemplate some big ideas. (Takashi Miike, speaking more modestly, has said of Izo, “I want people to watch [it] in a daze and just let it flow.”)
Is grand-scale suffering inevitable? If it isn’t, why do advanced societies still allow it to happen? Are atrocities simply a force of rage, a feeling that exists in nearly everyone? These are unanswerable questions, to which Izo responds with an equally inexplicable narrative. After being sentenced to death in 1863, the film imagines Izo Okada unleashing a rage so powerful that it transcends the laws of time and space. He is shuttled him from one era to another (stopping at realms of pure fantasy), seemingly at random. But he’s so angry that all he can do is kill almost everyone in sight. He becomes, in one character’s words, the personification of inhumanity.
Sometimes, Izo emerges in times of great unrest: He encounters fellow samurai from the shogun period, fights war profiteers in the post-WWII era, and (in an especially eerie scene) sees himself reincarnated as a soldier in the Meiji Emperor’s army. Other destinations are simply beguiling: In some contemporary-set scenes, Izo finds himself in an office building, a lavish wedding, and a public school (where children are asked by their teacher to define things like “love” and “democracy” in philosophic terms). You don’t need to be a scholar of Japanese history to get the gist of this: Violence is inescapable, perhaps the only constant element of human history. To explain why is tantamount to understanding how Izo’s been unstuck in time.
In spite of the arresting combinations of sound and image, gorgeous production design (The Buddhist-temple sets are grandly surreal), and a cast comprising a Who’s-Who of Japanese cinema, Miike resists any impulse to make Izo an entertaining film. This goes beyond honoring the weird structure of Shigenori Takechi’s screenplay, which the author has compared to a sutra. The first half of the film moves with pendulum regularity between a slow, meditative pace and faster scenes of violence; this has the frustrating effect of making the movie seem twice as long than had it pursued one rhythm consistently.
The film is more compelling, arguably, during the meditative stretches, since the dialogue provides some ballast for the goings-on. In one recurring episode, a “union of great leaders” composed of high-ranking figures from the past century and a half discuss what to do about Izo’s cosmic disruption. Their meeting space is one of the film’s great images, a combination bomb-shelter and netherworld, and their conversation is equally fascinating. If Izo comes to represent Irrationality, the union speaks for Power itself. The leaders may be articulate where Izo is not, but they understand his ruthlessness. “It is our business to practice control, repression and deceit, as they form human nature,” says one character identified only as “The Emperor” (Takeshi Kitano). It’s a line that would register as non-sequitur in one of Miike’s other films, but given the somber tone of the scene, it resonates like a koan. If these qualities aren’t the foundation of human nature—whose history, Izo reminds us, can be charted as a mounting series of atrocities—then what is?
(It may be worth noting here that Takechi Hanpeita wasn’t exactly the leader of the band of assassins to which Izo Okada belonged. He was more like their employer, and he used the Loyalists of Tosa—as they were known—to assassinate members of the Tokugawa shogunate in an effort to return the Emperor of Japan to power. When the Loyalists were arrested, only Hanpeita was allowed to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide; the assassins themselves were executed. And so, an architect of mass violence was able to die with dignity while those who carried it out were slaughtered like rabid dogs. This would reflect another upsetting constant of human history, and one that Izo duly acknowledges. Before killing his most powerful victims—the great leaders, a monk identified as “the saint of all saints”—Izo righteously accuses them of hypocrisy. It suggests that his rage isn’t as purely irrational as some characters claim, that it’s the product of other forces, just as ancient, beyond his control.)
Surprisingly, the film is most wearying when it’s at its most violent. Miike’s directed some of the most audacious scenes of violence in modern cinema, not to mention dozens of generic crime movies: It’s no secret he can shoot a decent action scene pretty much reflexively. In Izo, the swordfights generally occur in an unremarkable pattern of several-clashes-then-victorious-blow familiar to anyone who’s ever seen ten minutes of a samurai film. There are also a lot of them. The fights’ maddening regularity is the main reason why the film is so difficult to watch, but not for the obvious explanation that they’re too graphic. (In fact, the violence here is relatively restrained for Miike.) The awful truth is that they’re boring.
It’s by now a cliché to say the atrocities of the 20th century were the most inhumane that have yet been conceived. Less often said is what our responsibilities are, as inheritors of those atrocities, in the 21st century. For most people, the default response is a kind of paralysis. The information has been shoved down our throats, and we see enough violence on TV to know it isn’t pretty. (Izo reflects this numbing familiarity with sequences of stock footage that show up throughout the film. They show more familiar stuff: the Nuremberg rallies, the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, et cetera. One of the movie’s great jokes is to insert benign images into these montages—people on amusement park rides, old advertisements—that further deny them any power.) Perhaps that cliché is ultimately comforting: If things were definitively bad in the last century, we don’t have to worry about them getting worse.
And yet the impulse to cause others harm is never far from us. Look at any news report about a terrorist attack or, more tellingly, the way ordinary people respond to them with calls for vengeance. Again, this is nothing new; but how often do we think about the weight of past atrocities when impelled to violence ourselves? The great accomplishment of Izo is that it forces the viewer to do just that, over two hours of unrelenting focus analogous to prayer.
This should not be an entertaining activity, but it’s a necessary one for any conscious adult. And it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed on first attempt. Izo acknowledges this, too, in the presence of Kazuki Tomokawa, a legendary singer-songwriter apparently playing himself. Tomokawa shows up throughout the film as an observer of events, occasionally moved, Greek-chorus-style, to respond in song. As I see it, he represents everyone who is neither victimizer nor victim, but who must confront the horrors of history and live on.
Notably, the center of the movie belongs to him. In an unbroken shot lasting over three minutes, Tomokawa plays a song about remembering a dead child while visiting the zoo. “And you stood there staring through the light of the world,” goes one refrain. Another: “People say another spring will come / But I will still be sad / Because it will not bring back my child.” Delivered in a half-plaintive, half-delirious rasp, Tomokawa evokes timeless sorrow. But in giving it form through melody—turning it into art—he suggests that this feeling may be better understood and, we should hope, transcended.