Rants and Raves: Takashi Miike
An Appreciation of an Extreme Japanese Director
Originally published May 31, 2011 at noon, updated May 31, 2011 at 9:53 p.m.
In anticipation of Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins" (opening June 10 at Landmark) I wanted to take a look at the diverse and prolific career of the Japanese filmmaker. WARNING: Miike is not for the squeamish or easily offended, and his trailers contain graphic and violent material. You have been warned.
Forget "X-Men: First Class" and "Harry Potter 7.2." The film I have been looking forward to this summer is Takashi Miike's "13 Assassins." That and Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" are the films that really excite my interest. In the hopes of generating some excitement for Miike's film I thought I'd show some highlights of his work.
Japan's Takashi Miike is still not a household name in the U.S. Nor was he when I interviewed him back in 2004 for NPR. But he remains one of Japan's most prolific and provocative filmmakers. And one of the most unpredictable. In more than two decades of filmmaking he's made nearly a hundred films as well as TV shows, commercials, and music videos. He's shocked audiences with extreme violence, moved them with quiet drama, turned a horror tale into a musical, made kiddie films, done cameos for American directors, and even did a TV episode for Masters of Horror that got banned. He also works quickly and without pretense. He's like one of those old school directors who worked for the studios and just kept cranking films out and never taking a whole lot of time to look back on what he's done.
When I interviewed him in 2004 during the press tour for "Gozu," he arrived at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills like a rock star. He had blond tipped hair and ultra cool shades, and people like Guillermo Del Toro and Eli Roth were waiting to heap their adoration on him. They were like groupies.
Del Toro (director of "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy") lauded him with praise: "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 [Francis] 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."
Roth (director of "Cabin Fever" and "Hostel") cast Miike in a cameo role in "Hostel" and praised Miike's ability to provoke an audience and sometimes send them running for the exits: " 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."
But the darling of filmmakers and many critics may disgust some viewers. Miike’s films venture into dark territory where the director revels in disturbing imagery and violent excess. Take the opening of Ichi the Killer (2001): a man, masturbating outside a window, watches as a pimp beats a prostitute bloody. Then he ejaculates into the bushes and his semen spells out the title of the film. And that's just the beginning. The trailer gives you a sense of what the film is like.
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 (2000), a quiet, enigmatic woman in a white dress and thick black apron does unspeakable things with piano wire. Here's the trailer:
Miike doesn’t like to tell people what to think about his films. In Gozu, one character explains that “everything I’m about to tell you is a joke so don’t take it seriously.” When I asked Miike about that he said, "You’re so right about don’t take it too seriously, but I also mention it to the audience because so many people in this world take their lives too seriously and I want to send some kind of message to the audience that it’s not just about the film it’s also about your life."
Miike’s not too serious and highly creative approach includes turning a horror film into a musical in The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001):
As different as that might seem from his other films, Del Toro says Miike’s films do share one thing, "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."
Some of the more insane scenes from that fresco can be found in "Visitor Q" (2001), a perverse tale of a dysfunctional family whose lives are oddly redirected by a mysterious stranger. The film opens with a father trying to have sex with his prostitute daughter and being verbally abused by her. Then as part of his documentary on youth violence he films his son being abused by classmates. Neither my description nor the trailer begin to convey the bizarre nature and perverse appeal of the film.
Miike tried his hand at American television with an episode for "Masters of Horror." His tale involving torture and abortion was set to air on Showtime in January 2006, but the network banned it. It ended up on DVD later that year. Here's a look at some of what might have concerned the cable network.
Now Miike is releasing his latest film, "13 Assassins." In some respects it is a classic samurai tale harkening back to Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." But Miike can't resist pushing the envelope and making it a samurai tale to end all samurai tales. The action is extreme and excessive. It's also breathtakingly.
Miike knows that his work pushes boundaries. His films are like stones thrown out into the calm waters of mainstream filmmaking. The excesses and violence in his movies ripple through Japan's image as an exceedingly polite and respectful nation. When Miike lobs one of his films out into an audience it is as much an act of rebellion and challenge to the status quo as when Lenny Bruce lobbed f-bombs out into his audience. And Miike knows that not everyone will embrace his work.
"Some absolutely love it," he told me in 2004, "some have a hard time understanding it, but I believe that it’s not a bad idea to experience a movie like mine once in awhile in your life. I really wanted to leave it to the audience. How you judge the film is up to you."
But his films are invigorating and sometimes even intoxicating in their willingness to break taboos and accepted boundaries. And sometimes the boundaries he breaks can surprise his most devoted fans. Take his next film, "Ninja Kids." He's done kids films before, like "The Great Yokai War," but the silliness apparent in this film is amazing and it's hard to believe that he's the same filmmaker who delivered "Ichi the Killer." Take a look.
That trailer made my jaw drop and made me wonder if Miike's ability to surprise me will ever stop. Sometimes the surprises are good, sometimes bad, but Miike is never dull, and his skill never ceases to amaze. He's one filmmaker that I will always seek out his new work. So whether you are a long time fan or coming to his work new, I hope you will be checking out his new film "13 Assassins." My review will be up on Friday, but you probably already have an idea what I think.
NOTE: Just found out that Miike's "Ninja Kids" will be the centerpiece presentation at the New York Asian Film Festival, which kicks off on June 25.