Takashi Miike

Takashi Miike’s Audition, which stars
Shiina Eihi, is well-known for its “stick-a-needle-in-the-eye” torture
sequence.

If it is indeed true that a moviemaker’s imagery
offers a peek into his or her psyche, then the prospect of meeting
current enfant
terrible
of exploitation cinema Takashi Miike should make one
run screaming. The controversial auteur has made a name for himself
in recent years by scarring screens with set pieces that often
go beyond the boundaries of good taste. What does a journalist
ask the man who’s responsible for the “stick-a-needle-in-the-eye” torture
sequence in the breakthrough film Audition, the not-for-the-squeamish
adaptation of the ultra-violent comic, Ichi the
Killer
, or the breakneck orgy of mayhem, filth and sex that
is the crime epic Dead or Alive? How does one ensure that
he or she will leave Miike’s presence intact, at least mentally?

What is perhaps just as shocking as anything
in these jaw-dropping, taboo-bursting films is that Miike is
not a deranged lunatic, but
rather a shy, unassuming artist who reflects a Godardian sense
of unflappable cool. Only once during our initial meeting did the
stone-faced moviemaker come close any type of emotional outburst. “Oh,
yeah, the ‘shit pool’ scene!” he chuckled when reminded of the
infamous fecal moment in the first of the DOA franchise. “That sure
was a fun day on the set!”

Like most things involving the rising son of
Japan’s current New
Wave, you never quite know what to expect with Miike. Looking over
his rapidly growing filmography (some sources list Miike as the
director of close to 40 features and TV shows… in six years!),
it’s plain to see that concepts such as genres, labels or boundaries
don’t mean much to him. He’s one of the few directors who can lay
claim to both a sweet children’s film (The Bird People of China)
and a sickeningly violent nightmare of sadistic hitmen and social
psychoses (Ichi). Miike sat down with MM while visiting
the Pacific Northwest to premiere Agitator, his latest tale
of warring yakuzas, and one of 18 projects the prolific
director has completed in just the last three years.

“It’s true, I’m not big on rules or being predictable, really,” Miike
sheepishly admits when asked about his all-over-the-map aesthetic
approach. “I don’t like being told I can’t do something, or that
something isn’t right for a picture.” Indeed, his entry into the
world of film was mostly accidental, based simply on the fact that
he didn’t want a regular job.

“I was always trying to escape from the real world… I didn’t want
to work as a businessman or any of that. Then I heard about the
Yokohama Institute’s film school, which didn’t have any entrance
exams, so I thought ‘Great!’ While I was there, I started working
as an assistant to [TV director] Yukio Noda, then later for Shohei
Imamura. Eventually, I was promoted to an actual director. It just
sort of happened,” he muses, shrugging.

Takashi Miike’s start in TV and video taught him to
make films quickly—and frequently. Sources list him as
the director of 40 projects in six years.

Though he had apprenticed with one of the nation’s most iconoclastic
and esteemed moviemakers, Miike’s real baptism by fire was earned
by slogging through TV series and for-hire assignments in Japan’s
shoot ‘em-and-ship ‘em “V-cinema” industry. Churning out low-budget
yakuza epics and “pink” sexploitation quickies by the dozen, Miike
slowly honed his craft working below the mainstream radar. “It
taught me to work quick, because there was no money, no anything… There
wasn’t a lot of time for thinking ‘Well, maybe we could do this…’ No.
It was shoot! Now! Go! And that was a great way to learn the basics
of making pictures because—this sounds like a cliché—you’re learning
as you go along. It’s much easier to make up the rules as you go
along that way.”

Just when he seemed destined for obscurity, one assignment that
was slated to be a straight-to-video grinder called Shinjuku
Kuroshaki (Shinjuku Triad Society)
impressed the production
company enough that it was granted a theatrical release. It proved
to be Miike’s first success, and even got him a nomination for
that year’s Best Director Award from Japan’s Motion Pictures Producer’s
Association. “There are very strict regulations on what should
go on TV, what should just go to V-cinema and what is good enough
to be considered an actual film. So, when the film was released
in the theaters, I felt very gratified. Then, when it was successful,
I was happy.” Miike pauses, a barely perceptible smile breaking
his usual stoic stare. “Very, very happy.”

Dead or Alive
has its own logic.
It’s also a great example
of Miike’s golden rule:
There are no rules.

Miike continued to churn out low-budget pictures that were rife
with violence and outrageousness, but elements of black comedy,
surrealism and even the odd moment of lyricism kept peeking through
the breakneck pacing and outlandish imagery.

“I didn’t want to just be ‘that crazy guy’”, he says. “When
I made Gokudo Kuroshakai (Rainy Dog), people
were surprised it was so slow and pensive in comparison to my other
stuff. Painters get to use all kinds of colors. Why not filmmakers,
too? Why can’t I shoot on blown-up 35mm, then switch to a Sony
VX digital camera on the next? I want to work with different kinds
of stories, different kinds of people, different formats. I want
to experiment with all of it.” Not content to be pigeonholed, Miike
began to pepper his sound and fury with art cinema trappings from
traditional and avant-garde Japanese film history. It seemed inevitable
that he’d eventually mix the subtle and the psychopathic into one
cohesive whole.

Enter Audition and Dead or Alive,
two of his movies from 1999 that delivered on the promise of
Miike’s raw, earlier
works and introduced him to a wider western audience for the first
time. The films couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone, but as representations
of the director’s yin-yang approach to his material, one couldn’t
ask for a better sampler platter.

Audition tells the story of a lonely,
middle-aged widower who decides to screen potential mates through
a TV show “audition.” One
shy, demure young woman catches the producer’s eye, and he sets
about courting her in as sweet a way as one could imagine. Then,
as the gentleman’s conscience begins to nag at him, viewers suddenly
realize that this doe-eyed gamine might not be quite that innocent.
When a laundry bag in the middle of her apartment suddenly starts
twitching at the film’s halfway mark, what started out as a blithe
take on modern day romance mutates into a twisted psychological
thriller.

Interestingly, despite much of the press praising Audition’s
Hitchcockian methods of inducing suspense and a gruesomely explicit
finale, Miike himself doesn’t consider the work a horror
movie.

“The idea was to lull the audience
into thinking they were safe,” says Miike of Audition’s
deceptively calm first half."

“There are no ghosts or monsters, nothing supernatural in it,
so I’m not sure why critics have labeled it as ‘horror.’ There’s
nothing that couldn’t have happened in real life. I consider it
a love story—it’s about two people trying to connect.” But how
many love stories cause half the audience to head for the aisles
before the end?

“Yes, but for the first 50 minutes, nothing happens. I did that
on purpose. The idea was to lull the audience into thinking they
were safe, then to just shake them. It’s an old storytelling trick.
I wanted to just keep building the suspense, but you can only do
that for so long.” Again, the faintest trace of a grin. “I mean,
you have to give them… something.”

No one could accuse Dead or Alive, however,
of not giving the moviemaker’s fans “something” from the get-go. Handed a ho-hum
script based loosely on Michael Mann’s Heat, Miike turned
a stock cops and robbers potboiler into a litmus test of how much
a moviegoer can take. Throwing out several pages of exposition
that he felt were “basically unnecessary,” the director decided
to just cut directly to the chase(s): a gangster snorts a pound
of cocaine, two male lovers are assassinated in a men’s restroom,
a prostitute is thrown out a window, the remnants of a crimelord’s
dinner are shotgun-blasted onto the screen and a clown entertains
club patrons with a knife-throwing act. Welcome to DOA’s
first five minutes.

After its slam-bang opening, the story settles into a typical
story of a power-hungry mobster (Riki Takeuchi) and the policeman
(Rainy Dog’s Sho Aikawa) who vows to take him down. Surreal
moments start popping up here and there (a hit during a yakuza
dinner prominently involves a man dressed in a bird suit). Then
Miike drops the final bomb on audiences, in the form of a climax
that takes the entire action genre to its inevitable vanishing
point.

It seems there is nothing Takashi Miike can’t do. Except,
perhaps, gain a foothold in Hollywood…

Much has been made of Dead or Alive’s fantastic,
apocalyptic ending, an idea that came to Miike on set the same
day he shot
it, because “the original ending seemed so boring. Again, I knew
it needed something different. Both Sho and Riki liked the idea,
and I had some friends who could do CGI effects cheap, so we did
it that way instead.” So many previous interviewers still apparentlys
don’t get the joke that he’s vowed never to “explain” it again. “It
is the end,” is the only thing he can say on the subject. “It
has its own logic.”

It’s also a great example of Miike’s golden
moviemaking rule: There are no rules.

Almost every movie he’s made since Dead or Alive has
followed the pattern of a complete 180 degree turn—the multicultural
stew of sordid romance that is The City of Lost Souls (2000);
his masterpiece of family dysfunction Visitor Q (2001);
the Godfather-style gangster epic Agitator (2001);
a black comedy featuring animated musical numbers entitled The
Happiness of the Katukuris
(2001); and a remake of the late
Kinji Fukasaku’s classic Graveyard of Honor.

It seems as if there is nothing Takashi Miike
can’t do. Except,
perhaps, gain a foothold in Hollywood.

An offer to direct the first movie for Francis
Ford Coppola and Wayne Wang’s Chrome Dragon production company fell through, and
his dream project of redoing the legendary blind swordsman Zatoichi
tales that was to be co-funded with American money also fell victim
to schedule conflicts. (Japanese jack-of-all-trades Takeshi “Beat” Kitano
is currently filming the remake). Still, Miike is content to churn
out six or seven pictures a year in Japan. (When asked by a festival
patron how he manages to be so prolific, he merely deadpans “Well,
if I don’t work, they don’t pay me.”) He’s managed to thrive creatively
in what’s traditionally been a conservative film industry.

“I have had a few run-ins with the censors,
especially with some of Ichi’s more, ah, extreme scenes. Mostly though, I don’t
worry about censorship. I mean, the films have an ‘adult’ rating.
Kids shouldn’t be going to them, anyway! I never let that affect
how I make my movies.”

Miike does seem to be on the brink of becoming better known outside
his native country. Much of his prodigious back catalog is finally
getting a proper DVD release in America and Europe and the first
full-length study of his work, Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi
Miike
by Tom Mes, was just released by Britain’s FAB Press
(www.fabpress.com).

Speaking with him over the phone on the eve of premiering his
latest fantasy-horror hybrid, Gozu, a favorite at this year’s
Cannes Film Festival, Takashi Miike seemed happy enough that he
still gets to make movies.

“I make these movies for Japanese audiences, so when anybody outside
of Japan sees them at festivals and likes them, I’m extremely gratified.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve pushed the limits on things, but people
still come to see them. The moviegoers even let me fail once in
a while. But I like failure. It’s necessary for change.” MM

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