“Run, Salaryman, Run!”: A Sabu Retrospective at Japan Society

The director, writer and actor Hiroyuki Tanaka, under his nom de cinema Sabu, has created a unique cinematic universe consisting of such types as salarymen, yakuza, punk rockers, samurai ghosts, and other assorted characters who collide in incredibly kinetic and fatalistic plotlines and situations.  Sabu makes great use of these familiar types, often turning them on their heads (his yakuza are often bumbling and inept fools), injecting some freshness in these often stale archetypes.  While not without their flaws, especially in the latter acts where he can’t quite sustain the pace and invention of their earlier sections, Sabu’s films are stylistically riveting, with plenty of inspired and hilarious passages, and they’d never be mistaken for anyone else’s.  Five of Sabu’s ten features will be screened at a retrospective entitled “Run, Salaryman, Run!” screening at Japan Society from January 26 through February 5.  Sabu will appear in person for three of the screenings (Non-Stop, Postman Blues, and Monday), and this series is an ideal introduction to a filmmaker whose work is very rarely screened in the US.
Sabu’s 1996 debut feature Non-Stop aka Dangan Runner (January 29, 7:30pm, Sabu intro/Q&A), as the title of Japan Society’s retrospective indicates, anticipated Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, which appeared two years later.  Its looping narrative structure, a Chinese box of nested flashbacks and fantasy sequences, also drew many comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s films.  Perhaps this is the reason that Non-Stop, to the best of my knowledge, is the only one of Sabu’s features to be theatrically distributed in the US.  Non-Stop is essentially a feature-length chase scene, consisting of three runners pursuing one another, all losers in their own way.  Yasuda, a recently fired restaurant worker (Tomorowo Taguchi, best known for the Tetsuo films), attempts to follow through on his ex-girlfriend’s dismissive edict to “be a man” by robbing a bank, but is foiled by his failure to bring a mask to conceal his identity.  He is caught trying to shoplift a gauze mask at a minimart by Aizawa, a junkie wannabe rock star (Diamond Yukai) working there as a clerk, who chases Yasuda out of the store after taking away his gun.  Aizawa is chased in turn by Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is owed money by Aizawa for the drugs he bought from him.  As they run, the frequent flashbacks detail their connections to one another, and their respective failures in life that has led to this absurd, nearly endless chase.  One of the most inspired passages consists of a sex fantasy among all three of them inspired by an attractive woman they pass by as they are running, which ends with a yakuza boss puffing on a cigar.  Sabu’s stylistics are already fully in place, his scenario challenging itself to top what comes before in outrageousness and audacity, and while it doesn’t always succeed in doing so, the breezy pace makes it always fun to watch.  The Tarantino comparison is also pertinent in the casualness with which it treats events which in other contexts would be tragic, for example a woman’s accidental shooting death during the chase.
Sabu’s next feature Postman Blues (1997) (January 28, 7:30pm, Sabu intro/Q&A) centers on Sawaki (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a postal carrier regarded by most as a faceless vessel for people’s mail, whose simple act of visiting his old school buddy Noguchi (Keisuke Horibe), now a yakuza drug runner, gets him unknowingly embroiled (in now established fatalistic Sabu fashion) in a pursuit by the police.  A comic riff on a Hitchcockian Wrong Man scenario, the police wildly misread what they see during their surveillance, and such clues as the drug package Noguchi smuggles in Sawaki’s mail bag and his severed pinky that mistakenly falls inside, to buildup this worker drone into a fearsome criminal.  Sawaki does indeed transgress the rules, though not in the violent ways the police imagine.  He steals money from one of the envelopes to buy beer, and opens and reads people’s mail.  This leads him to two fateful encounters: with Sayoko (Keiko Toyama), a beautiful and terminally ill woman, and another terminal patient, Hitman Joe (Ren Osugi).  Postman Blues is less breezy and spare than its predecessor, and he slows down the action somewhat to allow Sawaki and Sayoko’s romance to blossom, and to allow for such episodes as the hitman audition sequence.  Postman Blues is full of film references, ranging from a photographic nod to Japanese yakuza-film icon Ken Takakura to a woman who models herself on Brigitte Lin’s trench coat-clad blonde in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express.  While Sabu does flesh out the characters much more than in his debut film, this does result in a somewhat overlong film and a less sound narrative structure.  Still, Postman Blues does show a remarkable progression in just two features.
Sabu’s fourth feature Monday (January 26, 7:30pm, Sabu intro/Q&A) is the Sabu style refined to near-perfection, detailing the outrageous and outlandish lost weekend of salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who wakes up in a hotel room and struggles to piece together how he ended up there.  As he finds such clues as funeral purification salt and a hostess club matchbox, he begins to recall a hilariously convoluted series of events that begins with an exploding body at a funeral, and includes a dead yakuza boss and more dead bodies.  Monday is Sabu’s most fully sustained work that increases in audacity and hilarity without sacrificing its sense of internal logic, and contains perhaps the best sequence of Sabu’s oeuvre, Takagi’s impromptu dance scene in a club with a yakuza’s girlfriend.  Sabu’s most frequent star, Shinichi Tsutsumi, turns in one of his best performances here, brilliantly conveying his confusion and gradual enlightenment in the increasingly perilous predicament he has gotten himself into.
Drive (2002) (February 2, 7:30pm) finds Sabu taking a step back artistically, reverting to his earlier chase antics, with the requisite bank robbers and other colorful characters.  Shinichi Tsutsumi, one again, plays a salaryman, this time named Asakura, who suffers from painful stress-induced migraines.  He is performing his normal afternoon ritual of watching a woman he admires (Kou Shibasaki), a bank teller who goes out for lunch each day at 1pm precisely.  As Asakura watches from the curb, three bank robbers leaving the bank commandeer his car in pursuit of a fourth who double-crossed them and took off with their hard-stolen cash.  Asakura foils their pursuit by stubbornly following all the traffic rules, driving them (literally) to distraction.  Meanwhile, the fourth bank robber unluckily gets stranded by getting his arm stuck in a hole going after his car keys.  Sabu, as usual, increases the outrageousness of the journey, including a punk-rock band, samurai ghosts and soldier ghosts.  The bank robbers are also given unusual character touches; one of them turns out to be a Buddhist philosopher and proselytizer.  There is much kinetic movement but not much resonance in Drive, resulting in a film which evaporates almost as soon as it is over.  There is a bit of strain and exhaustion evident, with its “Can I top this” scenario stretched nearly to breaking.
My personal favorite of Sabu’s films, The Blessing Bell (2002) (February 4, 7:30pm) is, on its surface, the most atypical: the pace is slowed way, way down, and the film follows the journey of Igarashi (Susumu Terajima), a factory worker who comes to work one day to find that his plant has been shut down.  In the single day of the film’s time frame, Igarashi wanders without speaking to anyone, and encounters a number of characters: a dying yakuza, a jailed murderer, a single mother, a suicidal salaryman, an elderly man (director Seijun Suzuki), who turns out to be a ghost.  There is as much humor and strange incident as in any of Sabu’s other films, but he eliminates the chases and outsized antics of the previous features.  What remains is mesmerizing, compelling, and rather beautiful.  Susumu Terajima, a frequent Sabu actor, who usually plays memorable supporting roles, emerges as a contemplative and riveting lead character, his wordless performance contributing to a newfound lyricism that was submerged in Sabu’s other features but comes fully to the fore here.
Along with these five features, Japan Society’s Sabu retrospective will conclude with the international premiere of his latest work, the made-for-TV Troubleman, screening on February 5 at 5pm.