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cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Tomoko Tabata, and Kazue Fukiishi

director: Takashi Miike

122 minutes (12) 2002
widescreen ratio 16:9
Artsmagic DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
Takashi Miike has built up a reputation as something of an enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, thanks to 'extreme' pictures such as Audition, his shockingly savage, black comedy of sexual manners. Sabu seems on the face of it comparatively lightweight fare from Takashi. But it's pretty violent considering it's a certificate 12, made-for-TV movie, although given that it's a period piece many of the scenes of hand-to-hand fighting see the 17th century protagonists kicking the crap out of each other in sandals or even bare feet. And the violence isn't the slick ritual displayed in martial arts films; it's messy and brutal as befits a prison drama.

The haunting first shot is of a girl hanging from a tree, a suicide. The narrator, her bereaved and destitute sister, takes up the story, and introduces us to the two male protagonists Sabu and Eiji. Her indenture as a concubine echoes both the theme of sexual abuse and its consequences that ran more darkly through Audition, and the story of Eiji's enslavement: accused of robbing his employer, a crime he did not commit, Eiji has been sentenced to a term of hard labour for. Sabu visits Eiji and is determined to get to the bottom of it, and find out who framed him. The scene of the visit effectively shows the gulf that has grown between the two boyhood friends, as Eiji has become hardened to prison life, while Sabu has remained sheltered from this brutalising experience. It all seems like a fairly straightforward romantic teen adventure, but as we might expect from Takashi, there are a few twists along the way, as we are teased about the identity of the culprit who planted the stolen goods in Eiji's bag.

In the interview that accompanies the Sabu DVD, Takashi points out that as a Japanese cinema genre, costume drama tends to attract a middle-aged audience. This period coming-of-age drama is clearly aimed at younger viewers, and this can limit appeal - certainly to this reviewer. However, despite its edge of sentimentality, Sabu is an engaging story told with considerable energy.

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