Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 128 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens on Aug. 21
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Swords are coming out all over. That’s the impression I get watching recent swashbucklers from not only genre veterans like Kihachi Okamoto, who staged a comeback with the samurai comedy “Sukedachiya Sukeroku” in 2001, but also auteurs like Takeshi Kitano, who had never touched a sword in his directing career before remaking the Kenji Misumi classic “Zatoichi” — and raking in 2.85 billion yen last year.

But Takashi Miike? He likes violence well enough, as shown by the creative ways he has injected everything from slow torture to mass slaughter into his more than 50 films, but somehow I never saw him doing the samurai thing. It would be like Quentin Tarantino making a cowboy movie.

Miike, however, likes trashing critical preconceptions about as much as he enjoys messing with prop blood — thus his interest in “Izo,” a genre-bending film whose sword-for-hire hero ends up battling not only his own demons, but the forces that rule the universe as well.

More than his first samurai movie, though, “Izo” is Miike’s attempt to transcend genre conventions and make an outsized auteurist statement about big questions. His true role model is, not Tarantino, but Akira Kurosawa.

The element of play is hardly absent — this is a Miike movie after all — but he is also making his deepest examination yet into the nature of rage, violence and, by analogy, war. Can an anger that transcends death and time ever conquer its objects, which are finally as numberless as the stars? Can a man who has become a vengeful demon — and abandoned his humanity — find peace? Do the forces of darkness rule this world — or is there hope that the forces of light might prevail? The idea of Miike, the ultimate cinematic bad boy, solemnly posing these questions may seem absurd, but he takes his cosmic interrogation to the limit — and beyond.

This is less a new departure than an extension of his usual method — Miike’s been bucking against rules since the start of his career. But the old prankishness — the sense that he’s having a good laugh at the squares — is largely gone, replaced by an intensity that batters the audience into dazed submission. “Izo” is the nearest cinematic equivalent to war. I wasn’t watching this movie so much as embedded in it.

The first shots are fired — or rather first stabs are made — in 1865, when the shogunate is on its last legs, but still capable of punishing its enemies. One is Izo (Kazuya Nakayama), an assassin in the service of a Tosa lord and Imperial supporter (Ryosuke Miki). After killing dozens of the Shogun’s men, Izo is captured and crucified. Though he wears a look of beatific resignation with his arms lashed to the cross, Izo cries out in human anger and pain as two pikesmen (Kenichi Endo and Susumu Terajima) pierce him fatally with their blades.

Instead of being extinguished, however, his rage propels him through space-time to present-day Tokyo, where his finds himself one with the city’s homeless. Instead of resigning himself to his strange fate, he transforms into a new, improved killing machine, his entire soul enraged by his treatment in his past life. His response to the powers-that-be, whose predecessors put him to death, is the sword.

His ability to leap through time, slaughtering as he goes, attracts the attention of the lords of the universe, who are like a pre-war House of Peers, in office for eternity. Though hardly a threat to their power, his transdimensional killing spree is annoying, like static in the music of the spheres.

Izo, however, is not about to bow to anyone, even the lords of creation. From a feudal-era hit man, he has become a mad dog, afraid of nothing and no one. He even invades a temple sacred to the Peers and slaughters its head priest (Hiroyuki Nagato). Finally he rapes Mother Earth herself (Haruna Takase) and unleashes chaos on the world. The Peers, led by the Prime Minister (Beat Takeshi), decide to act, calling on allies from all eras, from samurai swordsmen to the yakuza.

From here on the film becomes an on-screen abattoir. Often in a Miike film — see “Koroshiya Ichi” for a good example — the extreme violence takes on a darkly comic tone, but in “Izo” there is no letup. Streaked with blood and gore, Kazuya Nakayama, as Izo, charges through scene after scene, slashing tirelessly away, as though he trained for the part like an Olympic athlete. His performance makes the exertions of Aya Ueto, who cut through 200 enemies in the climax of Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Azumi” (2003), look like a stroll in the park.

There is a method in Miike’s madness — or at least a point. Together with scriptwriter Shigenori Takechi, a frequent Miike collaborator, he is making a larger statement about the insanity and futility of violence, murder, war, with Izo as the ultimate terrorist. In “staying the course” the Peers only fan his flames of rage. His lover from a previous life, Saya (Momoi Kaori), proposes another way — sexual healing. There is also the Emperor (Ryuhei Matsuda), who wields the sort of power George Bush could only wish for.

Draw all the contemporary parallels you will, the pounding Miike delivers is wearing. I liked “Izo” for its ambition and sheer chutzpah — but by the end, I was glad to get out of Baghdad.

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