Eiji and Sabu are childhood friends in rural Japan of the 17th century. As a young adult, Eiji is sent to an island workcamp for three years as punishment for the theft of a gold cloth. He insists he innocent and becomes quiet and withdrawn in the prison camp, picking up a variety of enemies in the process. Sabu continues to visit him, but Eiji is increasingly unwilling to see him.
Sabu was directed for Japanese TV by Takashi Miike, the man better known for gore-drenched exploitations favourites like Ichi the Killer, Audition and Visitor Q. If nothing else, it proves that Miike is a talented craftsman as well as connoisseur of splatter - this is a slow, sensitive drama with an emphasis on character. It's beautifully shot, filled with gliding camerawork and carefully constructed shots, and some the imagery – the opening shot a of a girl hanging above a river, a near riot on a rain-drenched night-time beach – lingers in the mind after the film has finished.
Unfortunately, it’s also a bit of stodgy watch. Miike REALLY takes his time to tell this story, which isn’t in itself a bad thing; no one could ever have accused, say, Ozu of rushing his observations of Japanese life, and films like Tokyo Story remain utterly fascinating. The problem here is that none of it is very interesting, and there simply isn’t enough plot to fill a two-hour movie. Neither Eiji or Sabu are particularly likeable characters - we presume that Eiji is innocent, but he's so miserable throughout that after while you start thinking that society might be better off without his mopey face. And Sabu himself is even worse – a simpering drip so obsessed with his friend that it borders on stalking.
Tatsuya Fujiwara (best known for his role in the Battle Royale films) and Satoshi Tsumabuki try their best, but there's little they can do with these characters. More intruiging is their relationship with Osue (Kazue Fukiishi), a girl from their childhood who has grown up to be an object of desire for both men, but again, this story ultimately goes nowhere. As an exercise in proving his critics wrong, Sabu works just fine; it's just a bit of a chore for the viewer.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.