Sabu’s “Troubleman” (トラブルマン) to make its international premiere at Japan Society

What is the best way to describe a Sabu movie?  Seemingly normal folks with a couple of eccentricities tossed in for good measure?  Check.  Scowling yakuza who aren’t always the brightest bulbs in the block?  Check.  A non-linear storytelling approach that uses flashbacks to reveal surprises?  Check.  A pound of black comedy with a handful of gunfights sprinkled on top?  Check.

And yet, this crazed cornucopia of a filmmaking formula doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Sabu’s repertoire: 11 features as a writer and director, of which six comprise a deserved retrospective at the Japan Society in New York City until Feb. 5.  Sabu’s latest, “Troubleman,” makes its international premiere that day.  It’s actually a 12-episode j-drama that aired on Japanese TV last year in half-hour installments – a first for Sabu, nee Hiroyuki Tanaka, whose previous works were all for the big screen.

“Troubleman” contains all the previously mentioned elements characteristic of Sabu’s work.  The plot focuses on six main characters: an insurance salesman, a husband/father, an elderly landlady, a hypnotherapist, a man with supernatural powers and a member of the yakuza.  Through a random bumbling sequence of events, they end up in the same apartment and, one by one, reveal their troubling pasts, only to realize that their coming together in the same room may not be so random after all.

While Sabu’s signature style is evident throughout “Troubleman,” the story seems to be weighed down by the j-drama format.  This may not necessarily be the case in a continuous screening without interruptions, but having the storyline chopped up into 12 episodes – as I viewed this work – with no major dramatic hooks between them makes it difficult to recall what happened previously.  (Indeed, due to the heavy use of flashbacks that Sabu loves to use to great effect, the sequence of highlights that preceded each episode became longer and longer in an attempt to capture everything that had occurred.)

Of course, being a j-drama, there are additional elements that wouldn’t necessarily figure into Sabu’s usual work, such as a cheerful but out-of-place J-pop theme song by The News (one of its members, Shigeaki Kato, plays the insurance salesman) or overly melodramatic character development to seemingly fill time.  Still, pacing and editing issues aside, there are many humorous moments in Sabu’s j-drama debut.  As the introductory credits remind the viewer, this very much is “A Sabu Film” through and through, particularly when the plot begins to pick up from its languid narrative roughly around the seventh episode.  Some of these moments include an elderly couple’s transition into becoming successful robbers; a gang of yakuza finding its victims through election campaign-style phone banking; and an unassuming man learning how to fire a gun while attempting – and failing – to look the part (in that last sequence, Sabu even takes the opportunity to poke fun at himself and his penchant for constantly including yakuza in his films).

If you’re new to Sabu, you’re better off starting with his masterpiece “Monday” (a lesson in what not to do if you’re a salaryman with too much alcohol in your system) or the rollicking “Hard Luck Hero” (the members of J-pop boy band V6 in a wild goose chase).  But if you’re a Sabu veteran, “Troubleman” provides an entertaining, if drawn-out, diversion.

Episodes 7-12 of “Troubleman” screen at the Japan Society in New York City on Sat., Feb. 5, at 5 p.m. as part of “Run, Salaryman, Run!:  A Retrospective of Sabu’s Works.”   Other films in the retrospective include the brilliant “Drive” (Feb. 2) and “The Blessing Bell” (Feb. 4).  Tickets are available at

Video: Sabu appears at the opening film of his Japan Society retrospective, “Monday”