Takashi Miike Double Bill
Thursday, May 8, 2008
First of all, let me say that I come to Miike as an Asian Extreme fan rather than as an academic. So that colors my perceptions. Let me start with some comments about the easier of the two films, The Great Yokai War, a fun, relatively kid-friendly fantasy actioner. The story is about a young boy who must save the world from monsters and evil. The yokai (or creatures) are derived from Japanese folklore that inspired a series of comics that were in turn the source for a series of films during the 1960s. The film has a deliberate cheese factor as high-end special effects are mixed with low-end devices. This allows the film to be contemporary while paying homage to the movies made in the 60s. So the cute little critter that follows our young hero around looks like a furry renegade sock puppet from Shari Lewis. Miike also endows the film with a goofball charm as the action sometimes descends to the level of slapstick.
The Great Yokai War (Media Blasters)
The Great Yokai War may surprise people who are only familiar with such extreme Miike films as Audition or the Dead or Alive series. But Miike is nothing if not diverse, and he's a very prolific filmmaker that's worked in just about every conceivable genre. He has made a sentimental drama; a documentary; music videos; gangster tales; a musical; horror films; a western; children's films; multiple TV shows; and has even made cameo appearances in other people's films. The Great Yokai War, like much of Japanese science fiction and fantasy, is colored by the fact that Japan is the only country to have suffered the ravages of two atomic bombs. An explosion at the end of the film recalls the image of an atomic blast and the characters conclude that war must be avoided because it accomplishes nothing and only "makes you hungry." The Great Yokai War is highly entertaining and lets audiences see a different side of Takashi Miike.
You could say The Great Yokai War attempts to win audiences over, but Visitor Q does nothing of the sort. It opens with a man whose career as a TV reporter is on the skids, so he tries to videotape a documentary about Japan's "youth today," starting with one of his own. He visits his runaway daughter who's working as a prostitute and ends up having sex with her while the camera rolls. Then his daughter teases him and charges him extra for his poor performance. Of course he can't afford it so he leaves doubly humiliated. Now if that's not a provocative opening I don't know what is. Although I have to confess it's not his most provocative open, that would probably be Ichi the Killer, which American director Eli Roth describes as: "This guy Ichi is watching a pimp beat a prostitute bloody and unconscious, and then he ejaculates on the plants and the credits come & up out of & the semen. And it says Ichi the Killer." Okay that might be more provocative. When I interviewed Miike, he noted that he places great importance on his films' openings: "it's very important to decide which shot you're going to start the film with. That really kind of decides what kind of color I'm gonna use through the whole story and also how the story goes, the tempo of the story."
So in the case ofVisitor Q (pictured left), Media Blasters, the opening establishes dad as a failure and the daughter as a runaway and prostitute. In a country where family is important, this family scores exceedingly low. Then there is the son who's tormented at school by bullies so he comes hom and beats his mother who in turn uses heroin as an escape and prostitutes herself in order to support her habit. And you thought Little Miss Sunshine had a dysfunctional family. Entering this mess is a mysterious stranger who hits the father on the head with a stone and then follws him home. Through a series of increasingly bizarre events, the stranger slowly and unexpectedly starts to bring the family together.
Visitor Q was shot on digital video for about $70,000, and the home video look lends a sense of "realism" to the exaggerated events of the story. The camera takes a voyeuristic perspective on the family, as if we were constantly "peeping" on their private lives. The film is potentially offensive on many levels (I didn't even mention what happens with a dead body and how murder brings the family together), yet it's also a film that maintains an oddly objective stance as it observes shockingly excessive behavior. Miike also keeps the characters and their motivations credible despite the outrageousness of what's happening. There is, I would argue, a humanity to these characters, even if you don't like them or disapprove of what they do. And in a polite, repressed society where a presentable facade is so important, this film is a distinct challenge to the audience. It also offers -- in an odd way -- one of Miike's happier endings. There's a final sense of nurturing maternal love and a family healed. Miike, like the stranger, has -- in an unexpected and slightly twisted manner -- shown this family some kindness. The film raises all sorts of issues about duty, gender stereoypes, cultural and social expectations, and maybe even "youth today." Miike's style and williness to involve the viewer as a spectator sets these themes in a challenging context. But Miike is not merely being sensational or exploitative. He's a artist who has cleverly created a style that sets off his content in bold relief.
To add a little more context for Miike's films, I'll finish with an interview piece I did back in 2004 when Miike was in Los Angeles to promote teh release of Gozu.
With his blond tipped hair and ultra cool shades, Takashi Miike epitomizes the new generation of film royalty. When I arrive to interview him, he's holding court to an adoring crowd of filmmakers and critics at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
ELI ROTH: "I think that Miike really right now is the director's director."
Eli Roth, director of Cabin Fever, is part of an American new wave of horror filmmaking. Another director paying his respects to Miike in the crowded hotel room is Mexico's Guillermo Del Toro, whose credits include Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Hellboy.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: "When you see someone in full control of the medium but using it for things that are not quote unquote acceptable in mainstream movies, it's very refreshing. It's like comparing a beautiful academic painting of the 19th or century 20th century English school with a Bacon, he is the Bacon, he's painting these screaming things and he is using the medium with an intelligence and control of it that makes him very much a director's director."
But the favorite of filmmakers and critics may disgust many viewers. Miike's films venture into dark territory where the director revels in disturbing imagery and violent excess. The opening of Ichi the Killer shows a pimp beating a prostitute bloody. Miike is one of the few directors who understands when to turn the violence on and when to hold back says Eli Roth.
ELI ROTH: "He understands that the level of violence is dictated by the story he's telling. Whereas a film like Blues Harp there's a really dark violent ending but you love the main character so much that you don't want to see that kind of thing happening to him but in Ichi the Killer it's a full on live action manga comic and you want to see the blood and guts there."
Director Takashi Miike often focuses on outcasts who feel no allegiance to society or its rules, like the title character in Ichi the Killer. In his Dead or Alive Trilogy, Miike pushes gore to an outlandish extreme as Japanese and Chinese cultures clash in an apocalyptic gang war. And in Audition, a quiet, enigmatic woman in a white dress and black leather apron does unspeakable things with piano wire.
ANDY KLEIN: "He is a tough sell for a lot people."
Andy Klein is film critic for L.A. City Beat.
ANDY KLEIN: "I've tried to get my best friends to go see Audition but as soon as I said anything about what goes on in the last third of the film they look at me like why should I suffer through that? Well but that's true with Seven, with Rosemary's Baby, that's true with a lot of films that put you through the grinder but in a cathartic or worthwhile way."
Miike's Gozu, starts in the grinder. But the film turns surreal as the main character is propelled on a bizarre journey of self-discovery. Miike admits that even he has a hard time trying to sum up the plot.
TAKASHI MIIKE: "It is a small road film. Where you can experience almost like the time you take your bike to go to the place you've never been and you feel very strange or mysterious experiences because you've never been there that's how you really feel watching Gozu."
Miike doesn't like to tell people what to think about his film. But in Gozu, he at least provides clues. One character explains that "everything I'm about to tell you is a joke so don't take it seriously."
TAKASHI MIIKE: "You're so right about don't take it too seriously about the film, but he also mention it to the audience that he believes so many people in this world take their lives too seriously and he want to send some kind of message to the audience that it's not just about the film it's also about your life."
A recent rise in youth violence in Japan has prompted some to ask if violent films and video games are to blame. The question of whether films lead to violence or merely reflect and comment on an already violent society is one that dogs filmmakers who choose to depict extreme themes. But provoking an audience is precisely what horror movies should do says director Eli Roth.
ELI ROTH: "The nature of good horror movies, they're provocative, they stir up something in your subconscious that's upsetting and disturbing, and they put it out there on the screen in a creative and fascinating way."
Takashi Miike's creative approach to horror even includes a musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris. As different as that might seem from Gozu or Ichi the Killer, director Guillermo Del Toro says Miike's films do share one thing.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: "His vision is so strong that things that visually or logistically should make no sense, make sense because it's him telling it. I don't think it's about specific moments because one of the things that he said in the interview here is that all his movies are part of a single gigantic, insane fresco that he's painting."
It's a big fresco says L.A. City Beat's Andy Klein.
ANDY KLEIN: "Rather than sitting there agonizing for five years to make sure that each film will be a masterpiece, he's doing what directors did in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, which is you make 3 or 4 films a year, you do them as best you can and put everything you've got into them, and but you've already got another in the can before you find out whether the last one worked, you let history sort out which are classics."
There are some who would hesitate to use the word classic to describe Takashi Miike's horror extravaganzas. But the director hopes that audiences will at least sample his films and draw their own conclusions.
TAKASHI MIIKE: "Some absolutely love it, some have a hard time to understand, but he also believe that it's not a bad idea to experience a movie like this once in awhile in your life, he really wanted to leave it to the audience how you judge the film is up to you."
So I leave it up to you to decide if you're teady to sample a little Miike. But as one of the Teen Critics said, "Remember, you can't unsee something." And kudos to CSUSM and Bailey for putting together a daring film program that will challenge audiences and prompt a discussion of ideas.
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