Sabu (August 2/04)
The revelation that Takashi Miike directed Sabu is almost as shocking as the majority of his movies. Made for Japanese television, the film contains none of the over-the-top violence or inexplicable plot developments he's become famous for. Rather, it's an incredibly slow-paced and ultimately pointless historical drama based on the book by Shugoro Yamamoto (he also wrote the novels that inspired a pair of legendary Kurosawa flicks, Red Beard and Sanjuro).
Set in 19th century Japan, Sabu follows two childhood buddies - Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) - whose friendship is put to the test when one of them is accused of stealing. Eiji is summarily sent to a work camp, where he is forced to adopt a more violent persona in order to survive. Sabu refuses to believe Eiji is guilty of the crime, and though Eiji won't let Sabu visit him, Sabu begins looking into the matter with the hopes of clearing his friend.
Clocking in at just over two hours, Sabu feels overlong almost from the get-go; the film's plot simply isn't dense enough to warrant such an absurdly padded running time. This is the sort of the story that could've easily been told in less than half an hour, though - admittedly - Miike does a nice job of establishing a very specific sense of mood. Miike, stripped of his ability to toss in R-rated shenanigans, proves that he's able to show a good amount of restraint; as a result, his directorial choices are undoubtedly the most effective aspect of the film.
The real problem is that virtually all of Sabu feels superfluous; once you get beyond the intriguing set-up, the film doesn't go anywhere. Virtually every single sequence in the movie goes on much longer than necessary, often repeating themes that have already been dealt with extensively. While fans of the film will argue that Miike's deliberate pace (which is putting it kindly) allows him to fully develop the various characters, unless you're willing to embrace the film's awfully spare storyline, the whole thing just comes off as pure tedium.