Takashi Miike takes New Yorkby David Wilentz
Director Takashi Miike is hyperbole personified. The perversion and ultraviolence in his films is as extreme as Miike is prolific—over seventy movies and television shows since he graduated from assistant to director in 1991. Miike’s career shows surprising versatility. Miike is responsible for the gore-soaked Ichi the Killer, renowned for its dismemberment, rampant murder, and a sado-masochistic yakuza who slices off his own tongue. There’s also his infamous Audition, adapted from a book by Ryu Murakami (a novelist and filmmaker known for his shocking sexual themes). What starts off as an unassuming tale of a lonely director using fake screen-tests to court a lovely young woman turns the tables in its final act, a tour-de-force of nail-bitingly excruciating images. Standing in contrast is the relatively blood-free Sabu, a period drama based on a classic Japanese novel. Or another adaptation, The Bird People in China, an atmospheric travelogue. Bird People eschews the over-the-top violence that’s derigueur for Miike, presenting instead visual metaphors that elicit a refreshing quietude.
Nevertheless, the litany of transgressions often present is disturbing and provocative. Fudoh: The Next Generation is a gangster yarn featuring many predictable exploitation tropes. Yet it also showcases a sexy hermaphrodite who shoots a dartgun with her vagina.
Miike got his start in “original video,” or “v-cinema,” the brand name of Toei Studio’s direct-to-video line of B-genre pictures. Miike quickly realized the creative freedom low-budget films offered. As Miike hit his stride, he proved he could transcend genre constraints and bend them as he pleased. The Happiness of the Katakuris, a remake of the Korean black comedy The Quiet Family, focuses on a family that accidentally becomes serial murderers at their quaint countryside inn. Miike injects garish musical numbers into a strikingly cheerful Technicolor palette. This mélange of style illuminates Miike’s forte: spectacles that happily embody our subconscious fears and desires, while turning story expectations on their heads.
February brought Takashi Miike week to New York. Subway Cinema, Comic-con and Nikkatsu studios flew Mr. Miike over for appearances at Comic-con, and a special afternoon Q & A session at the Japan Society to honor the premiere of his latest work, Yatterman. Yatterman, ostensibly a children’s film (and not his first, either) boasts Miike’s biggest budget yet. A live-action adaptation of a 1970s cartoon about a lovable couple who use cutesy robots to fight a sexy villainess and her thugs becomes, in Miike’s hands, a hyper-fueled stream of consciousness, ripe with high-pitched pop-art designs and sexual innuendo. The new Yatterman logo, the letter Y on a superman type shield, looks a lot like a pair of underwear. Could this be intentional?
The Q&A at the Japan Society, moderated by Subway Cinema’s Marc Walkow, saw Miike in his trademark sunglasses, leather jacket and boots. Despite the costume of a former delinquent, Mr. Miike exuded a refined sense of calm and wit.
Miike got his start studying at the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film, run by renowned filmmaker Shohei Imamura. Considering Imamura’s fascination with “the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure,” there exists a logical cinematic kinship between the directors. When asked about the school, Miike flippantly remarked: “Technically I did graduate, but I think the term film school might be a little misleading. It wasn’t accredited. Mr. Imamura started the school to figure out a way to raise enough money to dig up the treasure of the old Japanese imperial army that lay buried in the Philippines and he figured the best way was to start a film school and find drop-outs—people who gave up on life and didn’t want to grow up.” Miike found his way into the school because he “wanted to postpone adult responsibility.” Ironically, the students who worked hard would ask slackers like Miike to crew on their films. This led to Miike working full time on professional productions until eventually someone said, “Why don’t you direct this one?” Miike concluded by saying, “I’ve been running ever since, trying to avoid becoming what we call a grown-up in Japan, which means being affiliated with an organization, participating in the rigid national hierarchy, and I just kept running and wound up here in New York.” This humble remark suggests why Miike has been able to make so many films: he struck gold when he cultivated his earnestly subversive voice. Because he breaks taboos with such abandon, and every weirdness is presented as a matter of fact, Miike can freely comment on a vulnerable society. The result is often an intriguing combination of low-brow aesthetics and Buñuelian irreverence.
A fascinating motif found across Miike’s oeuvre, relevant in his theatrical debut Shinjuku Triad Society, is his interest in marginalized characters: foreigners living in Japan, various exiles, pariahs, and people low on the totem pole but striving to define themselves. Miike described going to school with Japanese of Korean ancestry as well as members of Japan’s outcast caste, and the various conflicts that arose from different backgrounds. He revealed that his own father was born and raised in Japan-occupied Korea. He told of being in a small town, searching for the home where his parents had registered as residents. He found himself in the mountains at a place where the locals said that no one had ever lived. Concluding that his family registered there only to maintain their Japanese status, Miike realized that he comes from nowhere.
Talking about the extreme nature of his films, Miike offered a curious insight: “Everyday that we live as humans is violent, and given that we all have blood flowing through our veins all you need is a little knife scratch and I could turn it into a horror set. I can’t erase that kind of underlying violence from my vision of the world, and frankly to me, the most violent films are those Hollywood movies that kill off all these characters simply to make the hero look stronger, without ever acknowledging that any of those minor characters actually have dreams of their own. To me those films are far more brutal and violent than any of the movies I make.”
No matter how large-scaled Miike’s films are, they always tend to be intense multi-character studies, often with surprising metaphysical properties. Ichi the Killer, for all its bloodshed and rampage, seemed to be an externalization of the character’s longing for an unrequited love or an unquenchable obsession. Even Yatterman hinted at depths lurking beneath its cast of idols and sugar coated kid-friendly visuals. Certainly his spaghetti-western send-up, Sukiyaki Western Django, achieves social-political relevance amidst all the samurai swords, six-guns and horses. By having the Japanese cast speak in English, Miike transcends form as well as borders, creating a truly new (and odd) space across cultures.
When asked what he’d be doing if he hadn’t become a filmmaker, Miike described himself as a seller of yakitori (chicken on a skewer). Then he continued: “Because I won’t be able to make films forever (since eventually they’ll get boring), I have an image of a snowy port with me behind the counter of a yakitori shop. Some students come in and start talking about a totally ridiculous director from the past named Miike. They ask me if I’ve ever heard of him. I say no. The snow falls, I turn over the yakitori sticks. It turns out the students are Miike fans so I break out the best sake and everyone is happy. This becomes my crowning moment as a filmmaker.”
David Wilentz dreams in color.