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Rants and Raves: Takashi Miike

An Appreciation of an Extreme Japanese Director

Above: Some of the "13 Assassins."

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.

Takashi Miike interviewed by Beth Accomando in 2004.

Beth Accomando

Above: Takashi Miike interviewed by Beth Accomando in 2004.

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.

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Trailer: 'Ichi the Killer'

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's "Ichi the Killer"

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:

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Trailer: 'Audition'

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's "Audition"

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):

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Trailer: 'The Happiness of the Katakuris'

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's "The Happiness of the Katakuris"

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.

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Trailer: 'Visitor Q'

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's "Visitor Q"

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.

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Trailer: 'Imprint'

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's installment of The Masters of Horror, "Imprint"

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.

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Trailer: '13 Assassins'

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's '13 Assassins"

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.

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Trailer: Ninja Kids

Above: Trailer for Takashi Miike's "Ninja Kids"

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.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | May 31, 2011 at 10:18 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

I saw a couple of his films at the Ken a number of years ago. I don't recall their titles although I do have them written down. But they didn't seem particularly violent. Nothing even beyond a PG-13.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | May 31, 2011 at 10:34 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Well you didn't see Dead or Alive, Gozu, Visitor Q, Imprint, or Ichi then. As I said, though, he has made some children's films and the drama The Bird People in China. My guess is you saw Sukiyaki Western Django or Audition or possibly Three Extremes. Or maybe you have him confused with someone else because it's hard to forget seeing one of his films. But the majority of his films are definitely R. And he has made 95 films and to see even a small percentage you would have really had to seek them since very few of his films get a US release of any kind.

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Avatar for user 'astrofan'

astrofan | June 1, 2011 at 8:59 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

I wandered by accident--through the Master of Horror series--to the films of Miike. Besides that one I've watched Ichi, Ambition and perhaps bits of some others. I do not consider these horror movies, but simply overly-ambitious gross out films. I think the admiration by the slimy Hostel filmmaker say a lot about Miike. Yes, you can pound needles underneath someone's fingernails and get a reaction from the audience. It may come with pretensions of artiness, but it's the cracking nail sound and the woman's screams that get to us.

This is garbage filmmaking. It sullies the history of film and reduces the viewer to simple twisting-in-your-seat reactors. I cannot understand how, or why, you champion these types of films.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | June 1, 2011 at 9:51 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

The films were definatley by Miike. Although you are correct in the violence of his other films. I did not realize that it was he who directed ICHI THE KILLER is consired a quite violent over-the-top film--kind of what Sonny Chiba's THE STREETFIGHTER was back in its day--the first feature to garner an "X" rating for violence in the United States. (yes, I know Chiba was the actor, not the director.) Today, it is all but forgotten and NEVER mentioned when people bring up films like SOLDIER BLUE, THE DEVILS, STRAW DOGS, THE MARK OF THE DEVIL, SALO, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978), or CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

As for ICHI, do we group it together with more recent films like IN A GLASS CASE and IRREVERSIBLE? Does THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST come close? And what is the title of that controversial Japanese films about a massacre at a school?

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | June 1, 2011 at 10:47 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Missionaccomplished- Battle Royale is the Japanese film about the school. Chiba may be forgotten by mainstream but not by fans of Asian cinema. He was great. I place ICHI in Asian Extreme, which I see as separate from films like In a Glass Cage and Irreversible and Passion of the Christ. There is a different tone to the violence and in some instances the violence is the subject of the films.

astrofan- Miike is not merely about grossing out his audience. there is thought and style behind his work. Audition is a slow burn with a violent payoff but what's disturbing is not the violence but the actions of others that lead that woman to violence. And the fact the film says a lot about gender stereotypes set out by Japanese society. As for Imprint, yes it's not just the violence that's disturbing, it's the total impact of sound and image and story. And Ichi is very different from Audition which is very different from 13 Assassins which is very different from The Bird People of China. Miike is a talented and prolific filmmaker who is concerned with more than just gross out excess.

Thanks to everyone for the comments!

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Avatar for user 'pllorenzo'

pllorenzo | June 2, 2011 at 10:12 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

astrofan - Let's get something clear, film is not merely an escapist form of entertainment that's meant to lighten the burdensome load that is our troubled existence on the world. It is meant as a looking glass into our existence for better or worse. It is also at it's best when it explores the human condition at it's most human and inhumane.

If you believe that the prepubescent horror that comprises the glut of what horror films are in the United States are not garbage film-making, while the original vision of someone who refuses to follow convention while telling innovative stories and giving us the opportunity to see great Asian actors in a horror setting that in this country is reserved for CW flunkies who perform in tired formulas that the studios feed us as if we are infants, is garbage film-making then obviously you are exactly what the studio system (indies included) wants.

Miike is great because he pushes the envelope; if filmmakers like him are not there to see how far they can travel into the human psyche, then we will never get film to be an art form, it will simply be product that E! television promotes commercially while we suck on their formula. Without Miike, Malick, Wong Kar Wai, Kurosawa, Polanski, Visconti, Rossellini, Godard, and countless other filmmakers who dare to force us into uncomfortable places then we would even have the great cinema that can counter drivel like 80% of the films that will come out this summer.

Yes, there is a place for consumable product that promotes other products under the guise of "palatable" and "safe" entertainment that DO sully the history of film. So for those who want to escape and merely enjoy film instead of use it as a vehicle for social introspection and discovery, there it is. For me, my friends and for Cinema Junkies, we like our films to provoke us and inspire us to see what is possible for cinema, even at its most uncomfortable.

Now, astrofan, I do not want to call you out and assume you are one of the masses, but please formulate a better argument when you throw a filmmaker who has proven so many times to truly take cinema to places it has never been (and NOT just horror) and at least has the courage to be prolific and adventurous in his art under the bus, then I have no other option but to defend cinema.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | June 3, 2011 at 9:50 a.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

plorenzo- thanks for sharing a differing opinion about Miike. I agree that Miike is great in part because he pushes the envelope and takes us some place dark.

Thanks for the comments.

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Avatar for user 'natejohn'

natejohn | June 8, 2011 at 12:44 p.m. ― 3 years, 1 month ago

Thanks for the crash course in Miike's films, Beth! I really enjoyed the article and look forward to "13 Assassins."

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