Dir: Takashi Miike. 2004.Jap. 128mins.

The bad boy of Japanesefilm, with a growing international following, Takashi Miike likes violence wellenough, injecting everything from slow torture to mass slaughter into his50-plus films. But until his latest, Izo,he had never done samurai swordfighting. The traditionalist genre, until younger film-makerscame along like Nakano (Samurai Fiction), Kitano (Zatoichi)and Kitamura (Azumi), was dominated by the older generation and wentagainst his image.

Miike, however, likestrashing critical preconceptions as much as he enjoys messing with prop blood.Thus his interest in Izo, a genre-bending film whose hero ends upbattling not only his own demons, but the forces that rule the universe.

More than his first samuraiswashbuckler, though, Izo is Miike's first serious effort to transcendgenre conventions and make an auteurist statement about big questions. His truerole model is Akira Kurosawa. His overseas fan base will enjoy the abundantultra-violence, but those expecting two hours of trash entertainment will leavedisappointed - or scratching their heads over the film's leaps through time,space and logic.

There are playful moments,but the old prankishness - the sense that Miike is having a good laugh at theexpense of the squares is mostly gone, replaced by an intensity that battersthe audience into dazed submission. One doesn't watch this movie so much asbecome embedded in it.

InJapan, where the film is scheduled for a mid-August release, Miike has becomemore of a name, although his two recent mainstream films - One MissedCall and Zebraman - were sold more on their subject matter and starsthan their director. His lower budgeted projects, like Izo, are stillconsidered cult.

It begins in 1865, when theShogunate is on its last legs, but still capable of punishing its enemies. Oneis Izo (Kazuya Nakayama), an assassin in the service of Lord Hanpeida (RyosukeMiki), a supporter of the anti-Shogun forces. After killing dozens of theShogun's men, Izo is captured and crucified.

His rage against his captorspropels him through the space-time continuum to present-day Tokyo. There hetransforms into a new, improved killing machine, out for revenge for histreatment in his past life. His targets - the authority figures who are theShogun's spiritual heirs.

He attracts the attention ofthe lords of the universe, who are like a pre-war House of Peers, in office foreternity. Though hardly a threat to their power, his trans-temporal killingspree is annoying, like static in the music of the spheres.

Izo, however, is not aboutto bow to anyone, even the gods. He invades a temple sacred to the Peers andslaughters its monks and head priest (Hiroyuki Nagato). Finally he rapes MotherEarth herself (Haruna Takase) and unleashes chaos on the world. The Peers, ledby the Prime Minister (Beat Takeshi), decide to act, calling on allies from alleras, from samurai swordsmen to the yakuza.

From here on the slaughterbecomes non-stop. Playing the title character, Kazuya Nakayama tirelesslycharges and slashes through scene after scene, as though he trained for thepart like an Olympic athlete.

BeatTakeshi - known in his directorial incarnation, including films like Zatoichi, as Takeshi Kitano- getsrelatively little screen time, but he makes his presence felt. One would hateto incur the wrath of his "tight-lipped, hollow-eyed immortal", who "forgot themeaning of mercy eons ago" - and hasn't missed it.

There is a method in Miike'smadness - or at least a point. He and scriptwriter Shigenori Takechi, afrequent Miike collaborator, are making a larger statement about the insanityand futility of violence, murder, war.

One obvious contemporaryparallel is Iraq, with Izo as the ultimate insurgent. In 'staying thecourse' the Peers only fan his flames of rage. His lover from a previouslife, Saya (Momoi Kaori), proposes another way - sexual healing. Also, theyouthful, androgynous Emperor (Ryuhei Matsuda) wields the sort of power GeorgeBush could only wish for.

The pounding that Miikedelivers, like a two-hour mortar attack from the same position, becomeswearing, however. Izo is admirablefor its ambition and sheer chutzpah - but by the end all but Miike loyalistswill be glad to get out of Baghdad.

Prod cos: KSS, Office Hatano, Excellent Film
Int'l sales:
Omuro (81) 3 52066371
Japan dist:
Team Okuyama
Shigenori Takechi
Yasuhiro Hatano, HideoTakano, Hideohiro Ito
Nobuyuki Fukazawa
Yasushi Shimamura
Koji Endo
Main cast:
Kazuya Nakayama,Ryosuke Miki, Ken'ichi Endo, Susumu Terajima, Hiroyuki Nagato, Haruna Takase,Beat Takeshi, Momoi Kaori, Ryuhei Matsuda