Set in the Edo period and the time of the Samurai, Eiji and Sabu are close friends, so close that they could almost count themselves as brothers. But when Eiji is accused of stealing a piece of gold brocade, a charge he strongly denies, the rumours that he was fired from his previous work for thieving make the charge harder to disprove. So, dishonoured and severely beaten he is sent to the Ishikawa Island prison camp where he is put to work amongst thieves and murderers. But Eiji is not going to let these men get the better of him and, naturally rather angry at his predicament, he's prepared to fight for some respect.
In the meantime, Sabu is told by his master to forget about Eiji and get on with his work. Sabu is a promising apprentice and career in the paper making business surely beckons, but only if his master approves. But he cannot get his close friend out of his mind and even the offer of his own house cannot change his mind. But Eiji has changed and he no longer trusts people, even his closest friend, and although Sabu constantly visits him on Ishikawa Island, Eiji refuses to see him. But when Sabu's master hears of his disobedience he fires him from his job and leaves Sabu with no other choice. He must discover who is responsible for causing Eiji's incarceration, and why, before his violent prison life consumes him completely.
Although Sabu is a made for television film there's no doubting that the picture quality is more on par with a cinema offering. And when you compare this with the minuscule budgets for Taskashi Miike's other films, such as Full Metal Yakuza, you'll soon realise that his budget for this film was, in comparison, absolutely massive. And he's spent it wisely with some beautiful cinematography worthy of any highly paid Hollywood director, rich colour and flesh tones and a clarity that really highlights the superb attention to detail in the period costumes. And although the film contains an almost continuous stream of rain, the picture manages to remain free from signs of artifacting or outlining with only the occasional problem. Fans on the genre are in for a real treat indeed.
As to be expected with a film of television origins, the sound is nothing special. Nonetheless, it is more than adequate for its needs with some good channel separation and clear dialogue. There is no English dubbed audio, with only the the original Japanese 192 Kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 track, so unless you speak Japanese you'll have to make do with the subtitles. It would have been nice to have a full blown Dolby Digital 5.1 track (especially since there's theatrical trailer and thus the possibility of the theatrical release), but since this is a seemingly made for television production it would have been a little bit too much to ask. Never the less, the overall quality of the audio is good, but Sabu is the sort of film that needs all of your senses to concentrate on the subtitling.
The main menu is a simple but animated and scored affair with additional menus for the scene selection and bonus material, both of which are static and silent. Extras wise, there's no doubting Artsmagic enthusiasm for the title as it's loaded with plenty of information about the cast and crew plus stacks of interviews and promotional material which puts many a big budget Hollywood blockbuster DVD to shame.
The twenty one minute The Making Of Sabu featurette is quite interesting and offers some useful background information on the shooting of the film. Narrated in Japanese with English subtitles, it starts off by showing the initial purification ceremony at the Toei Kyoto studio before following the principle cast members on and around the shoot as they go through a gruelling daily schedule. It's these little snippets of information that help make Making Of documentaries more interesting rather than the usual back slapping interviews with the cast and crew. Mind you, it's easy to see who the main star is when the majority of the featurette concentrates on Tatsuya Fujiwara.
Next up are the fours separate interviews, all in Japanese with English subtitles. Two are with director Takashi Miike whilst the other two contain interviews with male leads Tatsuya Fujiwara and Satoshi Tsumabuki and female leads Tomoko Tabata and Kazue Fukiishi. Three out of the four interviews are rather short and appear to be from a television feature on the film, and there's a similarly designed (and poor quality) television trailer to accompany the interviews, whilst the second of the Takashi Miike interviews runs at just under nine minutes and contains less promotional "froth". This interview is the best of the four and has the director talking about his interest in the project, the popularity of period dramas, as well as mentioning that wasn't going to be easy for him to film without any action or sword fights. A definite change from his usual extreme forms of cinema to say the least.
Also included is an extensive set of biographies and filmographies of the cast and crew. Naturally, the section on Takashi Miike offers the most information (nineteen pages no less) whilst, rather bizarrely, the principle stars only seem to offer three or four pages. Never the less, fans of the actors (most of Japan then) are sure to be interested in the information on offer. Whenever this sort of extra appears on a DVD I'm always suspicious about it being just padding material. However, in this case the information is surprisingly interesting and comprehensive.
Next up is the poster artwork. Unsurprisingly it is all in Japanese, so those nice people at Artsmagic have thoughtfully added a 'translation' facility. All you need to do is select a poster or promotional item and then move the cursor to highlight the text area for translation. It's a very nice touch and the person who thought of it deserves a thoroughly good pat on the back. It's all rounded off with a Theatrical Trailer and some promotional material for other Artsmagic titles.
As fans of director Taskashi Miike will know, most of his films contain gallons of blood and piles of gore. But Sabu breaks this mould by having virtually nothing. Gore fans may be sadly disappointed, but true fans of the Eastern genre should still enjoy the film. The cinematography is simply wonderful and it is just what you would expect from a Japanese period film. It also shows Taskashi Miike in a completely different light and goes on to prove that he is capable of producing films without the gore and shock tactics. And with the film set in the age of the Samurai the urge to turn on the gore must have been hellish for him to resist.
However, much of the Sabu's shine is removed by the pace of the film, and to say that it is pedestrian is being polite. Although I normally detest dubbed films, Sabu is definitely one of those types where an additional dubbed soundtrack would have been of great benefit. I may of had a bit of an off day, but attempting to concentrate on both the subtitles as well as the on screen character interactions proved extremely difficult and on a number of occasions I had to spin the disc back in an attempt to pick things up again. Things weren't helped much by the fact that the majority of the costumes and hair styles were very similar thus making it rather hard to distinguish between characters.
I've found it really hard to come up with a final opinion on Sabu. On one hand I really enjoyed it, especially the cinematography and the lavish costumes and sets, whilst on the other it was rather tiresome and hard going at times. And from that, I just wonder whether the blood thirsty fans of Taskashi will feel the same way too. One thing is for sure - it's certainly a brave release from Artsmagic and I hope they continue to release lesser known titles in the future.
- The Making Of Sabu
- Two Interviews with Director Takashi Miike
- Interview with the Male Leads Tatsuya Fujiwara and Satoshi Tsumabuki
- Interview with the Female Leads Tomoko Tabata and Kazue Fukiishi
- Biographies and Filmographies
- Original Movie Trailer
- Original TV Trailer