Hiroyuki Tanaka (better known as Sabu) must be the single-most undervalued Japanese director out there. I know of no director who has made so many great films which subsequently failed to land international (read English-friendly) releases. Postman Blues [Posutoman Burusu] is one of Sabu's better (and older) outings, yet it remains an unknown gem to most. While it is almost impossible to catch nowadays, those who have the chance to watch it should do so without hesitation.
Even though Sabu's more recent output (Kanikosen, Usagi Drop, Miss Zombie) sees the director diversifying a little, his earlier work was all pretty identical. Not so much the stories, the characters or the events, but the setup and build-up of Sabu's first few films (Kofuku no Kane,Monday) all follow a pretty rigid pattern. While it makes his films sound derivative, the fact that Sabu kept perfecting his own style resulted in quite the opposite effect.
To be honest, I'm usually not a big fan of escalation-like coincidence/misunderstanding-based comedies. They tend to be too loud and attention whoring (safe a few that go completely over the top), but Sabu's films are actually quite the opposite. There's a downplayed, subdued and calm atmosphere that eases characters from one situation into another and actually lends a certain wit to the whole escalation process. Postman Blues almost feels like watching a master class on how to do these types of films properly.
Sawaki is a bored mail man, disappointed with his job (and life in general). Until one day he delivers a letter to an old school pal who ended up working for the Yakuza. While this meeting sets off a number of events that introduces Sawaki to a colorful crowd of people, little does he know the police is shadowing him after this fateful visit to his old friend. And with every new person Sawaki meets, suspicions about his criminal behavior grow bigger.
Sabu's visual style isn't an exact copy of Takeshi Kitano's, but it sure borrows some of his most typical elements. Static shots with characters walking in from the sides are used to great effect, razor sharp editing complements the deal. While the film looks a little grim and colorless, the solid camera work and Sabu's great sense of timing make up for that. It isn't Sabu's most beautiful film and he was clearly still developing his style, but the potential is definitely there.
Even though Sabu showcased his excellent talent for incorporating soundtracks more than once (Monday, Miss Zombie), Postman Blues is a surprisingly quiet film, relying mostly on ambient sounds. There is some music left and right, but mostly tracks that feel like a quick shortcut to evoke a certain mood. The soundtrack is pretty meagre and while the music itself doesn't irritate, it's hard to pass the fact that Sabu can do much better.
One thing Sabu never lacked was actor support and Postman Blues features just about every Japanese actor that mattered back then. Shinichi Tsutsumi is of course taking up the lead (a true Sabu regular), but with actors like Ren Osugi, Tomorowo Taguchi, Yoji Tanaka and Susumu Terajima filling in secondary roles you know you're well equipped to deal with a comedy like this. A sublime cast all-round and those in the know can even spot Tanaka himself in a small cameo.
Postman Blues is one of those films that keeps getting better as Sawaki continues his way forward, landing himself into more and more trouble with each move he makes. The difference here is that Sawaki is never actively aware of his ordeal, simply adding more smiles as times passes by. The only catch is that you have to be able to enjoy the occasional story branch. Sabu is known to wander off when he feels like it and this film has several such occasions. For me these scenes only make the film better, but not everyone will appreciate this seemingly pointless interludes.
It was more than 10 years since I first watched this film and so I wasn't quite sure if it would still hold up after all this time. But reacquainting myself with Postman Blues ended up being an immensely joyful experience. The film remains witty, smart and contains just the right amount of drama and depth besides the obvious comedy. Sabu is a master film maker and deserves more international exposure, starting with English-friendly DVDs. Sadly this appears to be a far off dream, so in the meantime I'll grab any chance to praise his work and hope for the best.