Sabu deserves to be much more famous than he is: he’s a master of coincidence comedy, he has a soft spot for the underdog, and his storylines go where no storyline has gone before.
We’re introduced to our uptight hero straight up, via his doctor explaining the cause of his headaches. Yet another Sabu salaryman, whose parents suicided and left him, whose job is unfulfilling, and whose personal life is non-existent, is the victim of tension headaches. No, really? His life takes a sharp turn when his car is invaded by three bank robbers, and he’s very soon sailing off Planet Real and into the uncharted bounds of Planet Sabu.
For starters, you’d think that the robber they’re pursuing would be skipping out of town with all due speed and stashing the dosh, wouldn’t you? Well, he tries, but there’s a minor hitch: while changing cars, he manages to drop his keys down a rabbit hole. Alice and the White Rabbit went down the rabbit hole and came out again, but Sabu’s mind works in weird ways, even compared to Lewis Carroll.
One of the bank robbers is instantly recognisable, even through a ski mask: Susumu Terajima, Kitano’s favourite sidekick and a veteran character actor. He gives a short but memorable stint as a preacher turned bank robber turned punk rock newcomer/star. He achieves the latter by bursting on stage after haranguing a heroin addict for wasting his life, all while on the run. His performance somehow combines the inspirational fervour of Martin Luther King with the frenetic stage presence of Iggy Pop, although he doesn’t drop his dacks and waggle his willie.
Another face that will be familiar to viewers of Ichi The Killer is that of Matsuo Suzuki, who played the bunny-eared detective twins in Miike’s infamous blood-fest. He plays a small-time criminal and now blackmailer, who comes unstuck through a freakish series of coincidences and a gold pen. Just goes to show that crime doesn’t pay.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about this film was the way the lead actor hardly spoke at all. After all, he’s a downtrodden salaryman, even when bizarre things happen. Decades of introspection don’t vanish overnight, even under the most extreme provocation. And the provocation gets pretty extreme: bank robbers, annoying relatives, gang members’ girlfriends, and demanding ghosts all do their best to break our man’s composure. For much of the time he’s either clutching his aching head or staring disbelievingly at the latest addition to his mental disturbance in-tray. And these silent, staring moments are handled beautifully by Sabu: a touch of comedy, a touch of melancholy, and a chance to draw breath before the next assault.
It’s very difficult to describe most Sabu films, but they’re usually enjoyable, and this one is no exception. They require a healhy dose of disbelief-suspension, but only in the sense of believing the coincidences: the characters are always internally consistent and quite credible, even when they do take to the stage to abuse a bunch of punks. And they are supposed to be fantasies, not documentaries. Put real people into fantastic situations, and you might well get something that looks like a Sabu film, although it could never be as much fun.