Non-Stop Thrills, Non-Stop Attitude: Previewing Japan Society's Sabu Retrospective


I have to confess, the temptation to use a corny lead has never been greater. Something like "On your mark... get set... go! --to New York's Japan Society for this exciting, groundbreaking series!"  

In truth, there's not much I can do to prepare you for the rush of blood to your head and heart that this retrospective of Sabu's films will likely trigger. The first such stateside retro for a director who must be considered one of Japan's more interesting auteurs, "Run, Salaryman, Run!" gives U.S. audiences a chance to discover films that have not been readily available in any format. Running January 26 through February 5, the series does more than present a strong line-up that's all but guaranteed to stimulate--uh-oh, I feel another cliché coming on--the brain and the funny bone alike. Since most of these films were made over a relatively short period of time, and quite clearly feature many common elements, the series does what only the best retros can--gives one an opportunity to chart the artistic growth of a compelling talent and have fun while doing so. 

One of these "common elements" is the presence of Shinichi Tsutsumi, who stars in four of the six titles Japan Society is presenting. Always a reliable screen presence, Tsutsumi really shines in these films. Sure, when considering the Sabu-Tsutsumi collaborations, the oft-cited Scorsese-De Niro creative relationship comes to mind but I don't want to dismiss the comparison too quickly just because it's over-referenced. Think about De Niro in Taxi Driver... and then in The King of Comedy, and you'll get some sense of the incredible range that Tsutsumi displays over the course of these films. Alternately deadpan, bug-eyed, smoldering with rage, and brimming with boyish charm, he brings a versatility that underscores Sabu's fluid ways with genre as well as the filmmaker's deeper preoccupations--the ease with which human beings can remake themselves, morally, psychologically, even spiritually. 

On the surface, the main thread that recurs through these films is "straight-laced salaryman awakens to the more primal, more 'alive' being that dwells inside him." And while such an observation explains some of the narrative pleasures of Sabu's films, it also reduces them to mere variations on something like Jonathan Demme's Something Wild or the Hitchcockian trope of an ordinary guy getting caught up in extraordinary events. Nothing wrong with any of that, but what's happening in these films is actually far more complex. They're not so much about uncovering some long-lost bit of core authenticity, but about how, in the end, there is no "core." Hence we have the journey in Monday that sees the protagonist go from meek to out-of-control and then onto a final stage of contemplative equilibrium: the point is not to unleash some inner wild man for its own sake. That's why the yakuza archetype is alternately mythologized and lampooned in these films--it's just one more pose, one more guise, as good as any other and as distorting as any other. All such roles we adopt to the point where we believe they represent who we "really" are just ways of dealing with what's missing from our lives, and in that sense represent internal responses to desire, nothing more. 

So while the "salaryman" persona is a hallmark of Sabu's films, they're not simply more well-intentioned Japanese indictments of conformity and the wage-slave mentality. That's because nearly everyone in these films, from petty crooks to SWAT team cops, are shown as firmly, sometimes lethally, entrenched in their roles. That's why key moments in more than one film involve the act of unmasking oneself, of literally stripping away the false face. If we make the mistake of trying to find the real person under the layers of social construct and learned behavior, however, we run the risk of not realizing that "who we really are" is a choice that we continually get to make. These films, then, are not about discovering some inner Self, but about by understanding that there is no Self and never was one. In this sense, Sabu may be the most Buddhist filmmaker you'll encounter in contemporary cinema. 

With their wild swings of fate, his films not only provide a lot of entertaining twists and turns, but also are subtly about accepting impermanence and going from there. Hence the sudden, often shocking shifts in gear, the terrific false endings, and so on. Yes, these reversals and counter-reversals are sometimes conveyed in very standard ways--what we've been watching turns out to be mindscreen, either a dream or a fantasy. But more often than not, the biggest surprises occur firmly in the reality of the story. A character who's been delivering a monologue will be shown to have been stabbed at some earlier point and slowly dying the entire time. Or a character will casually wander off-screen, and then we'll hear a car collision à la Bela Lugosi in Plan 9. However, many of the most memorably unexpected moments are not violent or tragic, but humorous and playful, and the end result is that the audience is kept in a state of cheerful expectation. The universe of Sabu's films is one in which anything can happen, a prospect both terrifying and liberating.     

Similarly, the characters often behave in ways that surprise us, others, and themselves most of all. Again, although this theme shows up in a variety of ways, it's usually when things turn bloody that we really take notice. Still, Sabu is not making some facile point about how human beings are all beasts whose savagery lies just below the surface, covered by a thin veneer of civilization. Rather, he emphasizes the way we can become killers at the drop of a hat (most notably in Monday and The Blessing Bell) to show the proximity of the demonic and how matter-of-factly it can surface. Sabu doesn't depict sudden violence committed by someone who's "good" simply to undermine the concept of innate goodness, but to show how vigilance is always necessary and personal accountability paramount. Again, it's all about making choices, some with happy results... some not. 

All right, enough tee-up. Let's take a look at the films in chronological order--with the exception of Troubleman (2010), which I haven't seen but to which I'm eagerly looking forward.

 

Non-Stop (a.k.a. Dangan Runner) (1996). January 29 at 7:30 pm

While consistently interesting and occasionally remarkable, this is nonetheless clearly an early effort. I say that not just because of the production values and lack of polish relative to the other films in the series, but because of the relationship Non-Stop has with its own narrative elements. As in other Sabu scripts, the plot is structurally intriguing and full of welcome surprises--the story, while straightforward enough, doesn't unfold in a straightforward manner. The simple premise sees an attempted crime turned into an exciting footrace... and then an exhausting footrace, amusing in its own tedium and freighted with existential meaning... and then finally a footrace that transcends whatever reason the three participants had for running in the first place. 

When that moment arrives, the film is close to magical, but what marks Non-Stop as a less accomplished work overall is that its characters are more "types" than individuals. Their backstories--the motivations that get them in motion in the first place--are not fleshed out with the same kind of idiosyncratic and original details that are actually one of Sabu's strengths as a writer. In the narrative construction here, everything seems to stand for something else. In short, it's as if Sabu hadn't quite figured out how to wed the engaging genre elements to the more serious points he's trying to make, so that the seams between the two are far more evident than in his later efforts.  

In terms of Sabu's body of work, Non-Stop introduces us to the idea of the epic chase-and-pursuit, here literalized to the point of giddy absurdity. As this pursuit heads deeper into allegorical territory, evoking the "rat race" and any number of similar conceits, it increasingly becomes a touchstone, a point to which the central story returns when it's not busy delivering flashbacks. When these scenes of mindscreen from the runners veer toward sentimentality or satire, they become a bit hit-or-miss. Still, one can't help but admire the ambition with which Sabu mixes all these disparate ingredients. Indeed, when Non-Stop works best, its crime elements and deadpan humor combine to create a tone that feels like an unholy alliance of two French masters, Melville and Tati.

 

Postman Blues (1997). January 28 at 7:30 pm

Here the Tati vibe is far more pronounced, as Tsutsumi plays a bicycling mail carrier much like the great comedian did in his early films. However, Tati never had to deal with a friendly hitman, an Olympic-cyclist-turned-cop, and a severed finger in his mailbag. It's through his outlandish adventures, however, that the bored protagonist--here the civil servant equivalent of a salaryman, I suppose--comes to learn that his real purpose in life is, and always has been, connecting people. If such a description makes Postman Blues seem like a mushy feel-good movie in the vein of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, think again. Yes, there are some staggeringly sentimental moments, and there's even a romantic getting-to-know-you montage that seems like it belongs in a different film, but these are rarely lingered on and sometimes even undercut. That's the amazing thing about Sabu's films: there's a grudgingly honest humanism about them, as if he's tried cynicism to his full and then, well, become cynical about its ability to offer any real solutions to the problem of life. 

Because of its accessibility and mix of different genres, Postman Blues is probably the film you bring your date to if he/she isn't a big fan of contemporary Japanese cinema. That's because it's got a little something for everyone, including black comedy, action, cuteness, and social commentary. Without a doubt the satire is more on target here than in Non-Stop, as evidenced by a hilarious scene featuring a hitman contest with a Jean Reno lookalike and "Brigitte Lin," complete with a Chungking Express blonde wig (remember, this was the mid-'90s). Amiable and yet quietly challenging, Postman Blues is like one of those mid-level rollercoasters--definitely not for kiddies but not the one you're almost too scared to ride on because it's guaranteed to blow you away...  

...until the ending, that is. As our title character proceeds obliviously with his good deeds and personal growth, forces begin to conspire around him:  he's the "innocent on the run" to the ultimate degree--so innocent that he doesn't even know that he is on the run. It's all marvelously clever, and here the chase motif culminates in a visual quote of the side-by-side runners in Non-Stop as our hero and two buddies cycle toward an ominous roadblock that represents monolithic authority, the unfairness of fate, or just some really stupid cops--take your pick. There are some small holes in the plot, and the nonchalant theology of the closing moments may be hard for some to stomach, but overall this is probably the most crowd-pleasing of Sabu's films.

 

Monday (2000). January 26 at 7:30 pm

Representing yet another leap forward for Sabu as a filmmaker, Monday is no less than astounding on several levels. Wading fully into black comedy waters, the film starts off with a crazed take on the staid Japanese wake that we've seen portrayed soberly or tragically in so many other films. After--literally--exploding cherished notions of physical beauty, dignity in death, and other romantic niceties, the film spirals wildly from there. But is it spiraling upward or downward, or both? Here Tsutsumi plays a genuine salaryman who winds up in one misadventure after another as Monday plays out as a kind of After Hours with a thick coating of menace and dread. Recalling various encounters in hindsight à la The Hangover, our befuddled hero inevitably must come to grips with his own dark side. Well, maybe he doesn't come to grips with it--that's debatable--but at least he acknowledges it, which is an example of how Sabu's films eschew the moral compartmentalization that we're used to at the movies. His goal is not to show how a tortured soul gets tempted to go over to the dark side, but rather how the world is always ready to draw out the dark side that we each already possess.  

As a director, Sabu is so self-assured at this point--and rightfully so--that it's not even funny. Absent are stylistic flourishes, his storytelling very meat-and-potatoes--the camera set-ups so simple and basic that it's like watching storyboards come to life, and Sabu takes pains not to draw attention to himself as director. Which is why it's so great when he does get visually inspired:  there's a shot of a gas-mask-wearing Tsutsumi surrounded by, let's say, "supernatural" figures (I don't want to spoil things), that's one of the most stunning film images I've seen in a long time. This occurs right about the time when this smart, mordant comedy suddenly morphs into a take-no-prisoners actioner, one that goes from cerebral to visceral and back again in the space of a few heartbeats. Yes, some viewers may not like the overt editorializing Sabu engages in at the climax, but even these have got to admire the way he ultimately leaves things in the hands of both his protagonist and, in effect, the audience. The moralistic strain, of course, has really been there throughout the film but, to his credit, Sabu never allows it to weigh down the fast-paced and highly unpredictable plot.  


Drive (2002). February 2 at 7:30 pm.

With Drive we have what is arguably the finest all-out comedy of the group:  the actors' timing and the way that each comic situation is exploited to its max are just impeccable. As a bonus, and seemingly out of nowhere, we're treated to a Rube Goldbergish sequence done in slo-mo in the manner of early-'80s Brian De Palma. It's priceless.

Instead of the triumvirate we saw in Non-Stop and Postman Blues, Drive proposes a quartet as Tsutsumi becomes an unwitting getaway driver who ultimately bonds with those whom chance has thrown in with. More than in other films, Drive illustrates that being a salaryman is really a state of mind--not a profession, not a social construct that traps individuals. In fact, even a bank robber can have a salaryman attitude to life--petty-minded, anxious, seeking control where there is none, and going through the motions of living but only for the promise of a payday. The general arc of the story as it makes these points is more predictable than in Sabu's other films, but the individual scenes and set pieces are often remarkable, including a punk rock concert that has to be one of the impressive scenes I've seen in the past decade. 

Unfortunately, the fantasy elements in Drive don't quite work--although even they have their moments of pure awesome. Also, the resolution feels like it's been tacked on from a full-on romcom that Sabu should simply make at some point. As with The Blessing Bell, however, some may feel that these final minutes are welcome in that they soften and humanize things, but I'd prefer that such a conventionally upbeat wrap-up be hinted at rather than presented so brazenly and unrealistically. Then again, I'm not sure why I suddenly care about realism in films that rarely aspire to it.

 

The Blessing Bell (2002). February 4 at 7:30 pm

In The Blessing Bell the paranormal touches, mild as they are, work much better than in Drive, fitting nicely within the parable-like feel of the entire film. Certainly there have been works in world cinema along these lines before: an episodic, and deceptively aimless, view of modern life and possible responses to it by a wide range of characters. The wanderings of our lead, here a solid Susumu Terajima, recall alternately an Antonioni film and a Chaplin multi-reeler. Like the Little Tramp, jobless factory worker Terajima ambles from one fateful encounter to another, meeting pathos and coincidence along the way. In short, it's more like "Walk, Salaryman, Walk!"--that's how much of stylistic departure The Blessing Bell represents.  

In fact, for some stretches you may even forget you're watching a Sabu film. There's no music in the background, no dialogue from the lead--and a couple of times the soundtrack itself goes silent, erasing all ambient sound. This might sound gimmicky, but I think Sabu means for us to use the silences to invoke reflection on the part of the audience rather than announce the self-importance of his direction. Interestingly, he moves the camera more and has his actors do less than in previous films. Some audiences may be turned off by all the self-consciousness, but others may be delighted with all the formal precision and artistry. It's as if Sabu is newly discovering the power of images alone to convey his story, its vignettes sometimes so simplified visually and narratively that these seem to be adapted from a picture book.  

But again, that's where the silence and the stillness come in. That's where we're invited to look past the surface simplicity as Sabu urges us to focus not on his own profundity, but our own responses to what we witness. The silences allow us to hear our own thoughts and be present to our own emotions. Are we judging the characters? "Good," Sabu seems to be saying, "then just pay attention to that." In the end, the film has the same emphasis on perpetual movement as the director's earlier work--perhaps even more so, the feeling of groundedness is so entirely absent--but, significantly, here Sabu does not equate movement with velocity. He's taken to illustrating the theme of do-you-really-think-you're-in-control-of-your-life? in a far more understated way than, say, the out-of-control car scene in Drive, which comes across as a goofy leftover from an '80s buddy flick in comparison.

The film's last few minutes present a literalization of the concept of "blessing" that appears in the title. I think there's a misstep here, as Sabu comes close to reducing all that has come before to a glorified shaggy dog story, but many will completely disagree with this, perhaps arguing that the warmth of emotion nicely counters the starkness of the rest of the film. 

And that's all right. The great thing about Sabu's films, as evidenced by this retrospective, is that they're open to classic arthouse ambiguity but never feel arty. Instead, they just feel like smart entertainment... which is why I urge you to catch any or all of the Japan Society's offerings if you're at all within striking distance of New York.

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