Japanese cinema has had more than its share of outlandish filmmakers over the years. From the stylish, innovative crime and exploitation pictures of Seijun Suzuki (still active in his eighties) to the transgressive work of the madly prolific Takashi Miike (whose films are often as questionable in quality as they are in taste), Japan has had plenty of "bad boys" sitting in the director's chair.
Still, it's hard to figure why the vibrant, downright entertaining films of Sabu (a.k.a. Hiroyuki Tanaka) haven't found a bigger cult following in the U.S. To be sure, none of his films are nearly as shocking as those of the anything-goes Miike, so they may be less likely to grab attention in a country reluctant to embrace foreign films at any level. But Miike's films (the slow-burning, ultimately wince-inducing "Audition" is probably his best known) are prone to put as many people off as turn them on. Sabu, on the other hand, delves into the dark side with less sadism and more accessible humor, but with a distinctive panache that makes him a crowd-pleaser. A too-easy association might be made to the too-frequently referenced Quentin Tarantino (a very different sort of director), but at least the comparison gives an idea of where Sabu stands: an artist bringing a touch of the renegade into the mainstream.
If I were a publicist, I would try selling Sabu through two of his wilder movies, "Unlucky Monkey" (1998) or "Monday" (2000). Both give the audience a real charge with their audacious visual energy and stories filled with surprise about central characters thrown into violent circumstances that quickly get beyond their control. Those are both darned good films, but I recently discovered "Postman Blues" (1997) and its mixture of the bittersweet and the just plain goofy makes it more than deserving of a little more exposure.
"Postman Blues" casts the director's favorite leading man, Shinichi Tsutsumi, in a part not far removed from ones he would play in the later two films. Again he is sort of an everyman caught up in a whirlwind of chance and misunderstandings, eventually racing against time and newfound enemies. But unlike its successors (both of which hit the gas early and rarely let up), this film takes a more casual pace initially, though there are several unpredictable twists long before the frantic finale.
Our hero is a depressed, lonely postman whose route takes him to the home of an old school chum, now a gangster in some obvious trouble. The postman is invited in, only to notice his old pal's hand bleeding profusely and his severed pinky finger on the kitchen table. Later on it becomes clear the gangster's self-mutilation was an act of contrition demanded by his crime boss. That becomes problematic when the finger slides unseen from the table into the mailman's bag.
Drunk and melancholy, the mailman arrives home unaware of the appendage he's carrying. He begins to carelessly go through the private mail in his bag, finding himself drawn to the letters of a young woman dying of cancer. Waking up from his stupor, he decides to track the girl down at the hospital to give her support.
What he doesn't know is that he is being tracked as well. Some clueless cops working surveillance on the gangster decide the postman also must be up to no good. Through some unfortunate coincidences (including the discovery of that missing digit) and their own out-of-control imaginations, they turn this ill-fated postman into a menacing drug dealer, terrorist and possible serial killer.
Meanwhile the postman has befriended a real killer, a hit-man also dying of cancer, while becoming romantically involved with the girl at the hospital. Killer Joe (Ren Osugi in a warm, winning performance) is on the downside of his deadly career, and he opens up to the postman about his secretive profession and his personal doubts. Joe is a movie-made assassin and his competition in a humorously implausible World's Best Hit-man contest includes a couple of notable movie icons. Those who have seen Luc Besson's "The Professional" will smile in recognition at the gunman called Leon, while Hong Kong aficionados will get a kick out of the aspiring killer named Brigitte Lin, who dresses exactly like the actress of the same name in Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express."
Ultimately though, "Postman Blues" is about a lot more than movie archetypes. If anything, sickly Joe represents how real life never matches the glamorous illusions of film. Sabu obviously enjoys giving his audience their money's worth in terms of action, humor and the occasional crazy twist, but in this film he also savors that bit of sadness always lingering beneath our constant desire for escape.
A warning: the usual DVDetours note about films mentioned being widely available from online rental services does not apply here. But high-quality, all-region DVDs of "Postman Blues," "Unlucky Monkey" and "Monday" are available from Green Cine. I'm not sure why other services are not carrying these films (most do carry some selection of imports), but more power to Green Cine for making Sabu available stateside.
DVDetours™ has no connection to Green Cine or any other online rental services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund