A filmography for Sabu is at the tail of this article.
As soon as Kitano-generation filmmaker Sabu arrived at the Chicago International Film Festival for a retrospective of his films, he was already spreading the rumor that he began his career directing because he wasn’t getting good roles as an actor. While this rings all too conveniently, it’s apparently worked for this young expert of oddly austere goofball comedy. In the shameless self-promotion that is customary after his festival screenings, Sabu has said, “These ideas for my films just pop up in my brain all the time.” And after a favorable notice from Variety earlier this year, they’ve garnered some attention from North Americans, notably Non-Stop (1996), which is being released by Shooting Gallery.
Cursed with the generic birth name of Hiroyuki Tanaka, this crazy auteur would eventually disassociate himself from the long-line of similarly crazy screen Tanakas (you will remember Lt. Tanaka from Magnum P.I.) by complimenting his end freeze-frame with the simple words “directed by Sabu”. Four years and several festivals later, in the back corner of a Chicago hotel dining room, a Japanese translator insists on calling him Mr. Sabu while I patiently try to extort the most from his eloquent responses.
“I am a director that needs to excite myself.” says Sabu. His first outing, originally titled DANGAN Runner but changed to Non-Stop, was already an exalting action flight à la Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998). His next film, Postman Blues, lived up to its title in its depiction of a disillusioned mailman who gets wrapped up in one of the most flat-out fun Wrong Man scenarios in Japanese film. It also confirmed his style of deconstructing the Yakuza. In his films, these famous Poison Fist gangsters are usually tired fuck-ups who can’t keep a straight scowl.
Postman Blues contains explicit references to classics like Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi,1964), Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki, 1967), and even Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994). It’s not his best film, but it’s his widest, thematically. Either way, to assert which Sabu film is the best at this point is about as futile as guessing how tall an infant will grow. However, his fourth and latest, Monday, is the most refined stylistically. He has paired up with a new cinematographer that seems to think on equal creative plains. When I asked him about this change he said, “Our last guy was becoming a little arrogant. It’s also good to rotate to keep things exciting.”
Please don’t get Mr. Sabu wrong – he’s a very loyal director in most other cases. His collaboration with actor Shinichi Tsutsumi has extended to all four films. When I asked him to describe Tsutsumi in one word, he responded, “Genius!” The interpreter burst into laughter before she could give me this translation, though through Sabu’s facial expressions I could have guessed as much.
He has also worked repeatedly with Takeshi Kitano regulars Susumu Terajima and Ren Osugi, who always play delicious character roles. Sabu, with a calm stare, added, “It’s rare to find older guys like them with some style.” How about a Sabu/Kitano collaboration, I asked jokingly. “No way!” he said firmly, “We don’t need two directors to make one film.”
Mr. Sabu says festival audiences are the best. Curious, I asked if Westerners laughed at different moments in his films than Japanese audiences. Without as much as a blink, he responded, “No. They all laugh at the same moments.” Surely Mr. Sabu maintains the same unique public persona in Japan as in the U.S., “No. In Japan I don’t come out as strong. Here I have to use funny gestures and things to put the audience at ease because my English is terrible. There I can use other skills.” He said he doesn’t have to use any “shameless self-promotion.”
As I concluded our talk, he wouldn’t let me leave without telling me about his new film. I would have preferred a bit of mystery but I know now that it’s a samurai film with some kind of modern twist. Should I have even asked if it stars the genius Shinichi Tsutsumi?
Then, he turned the tables by asking me (and every other reporter that morning) which of his films was my favorite. Sabu is the kind of director who is alive for his fans. I answered Monday, because it has got the sort of pace that’ll flip-flop into the future of Asian cinema with a strange elegance. But I’ll raise a glass in hope Sabu never makes a serious film.
1996: Non-Stop aka: DANGAN Runner
1997: Postman Blues
1998: Unlucky Monkey