With today’s confirmation of the release of Takashi Miike’s Crows Zero on 9 April, seems a good time to take a look at the chap. This is a piece that didn’t make it into Exquisite Terror…
There is a moment in Audition (1999), a visual and audible clue that exemplifies the work of its director, Takashi Miike. A young girl, long, black hair hanging across her face, kneels upright in a foetal position on the floor of her apartment. In the background of the shot, slightly blurred, is a sack. Somewhere in the apartment a telephone starts to ring, its bell loud on the soundtrack. The girl doesn’t stir, nor acknowledges the phone, as it continues to ring, becoming annoying, confusing, even uncomfortable. Nothing happens for around thirty seconds, and then, just as we’re sure the shot will change, an explosion of energy and a scream of pain from something, or someone, trapped inside the sack. The frenzy of movement lasts for a second. Then, Miike cuts the scene, pulling the cinematic rug from beneath our feet. You’re not sure exactly what you’ve just seen, but damn if it didn’t disturb and thrill you in equal measure. An apt description for all of Miike’s work.
For many, Audition was their first exposure to the cinema of Takashi Miike. Dark and complex, it was initially marketed to the Western art-house set, seen as the Japanese counterpart to work by the likes of Michael Haneke and Gasper Noé. The film may have stayed relatively hidden had it not come in on the revelatory new wave of Japanese horror that spread worldwide towards the end of the nineties, but beyond the snuff-video terror of Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998) and the corridor-roaming ghosts of Dark Water (Nakata, 2002), it is Miike’s astonishing film that remains fresh, over a decade later.
Initially, Audition is not really a horror film. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a middle-aged film producer, is encouraged to look for love again after the death of his wife some years earlier. Having lost his confidence, he stages an audition under the guise of a non-existent production, to find a girl. He becomes smitten with Asami (Eihi Shiina), half his age at twenty-four, who is beautiful, petite and reserved. She tells him she was training to be a dancer but was thwarted due to injury. Aoyama is immediately attracted to the pain and emotional depth that Asami shows, he himself still grieving for his wife. They begin to date and during a meeting at a seaside hotel, she reveals the abuse she suffered as a child, showing Aoyama burn scars on her legs. She tells him that she craves the exclusive emotions of one man. He reveals his feelings for her, and they make love. The next morning, after a fevered dream, Aoyama awakes to find her gone, and he becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about her.
This disturbing truth starts uncovering with the telephone scene described above, and is a precursor to Aoyama falling into Asami’s twisted world and the understanding that, for her, love conquers all else. To reveal events in the second half of the film would be a mistake — if you haven’t seen Audition, go in as blind as you can — but what begins as a quirky love story rapidly turns into one of the more shocking horror films of modern times. During early screenings at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000, many of the audience walked out. Jasper Sharp, a noted commentator on Japanese cinema, recalls, “I went into it without knowing a thing about the content. I was living in Amsterdam at the time, and I thought it was a romance or some sort of melodrama, because I couldn’t read the reviews in the Dutch newspapers. The beginning of the film gave me no reason to change my mind. And then of course you get to the notorious ending, and people were literally stampeding from the cinema, and I was totally unprepared for this. I thought it was hysterical, and in fact ended up going back to see it again a couple of times and dragging people with me without telling them anything about the film, just to watch their reaction.”
Takashi Miike is a one-man army, possibly one of the most prolific directors on the planet. He has occasionally been called the Asian Quentin Tarantino, and the comparisons are worthy; both men deal in the extreme, and both released their debut pictures in 1991. But whereas Tarantino has directed seven features since Reservoir Dogs, Miike has made near eighty. There is no story that doesn’t interest him: thriller, horror, comedy, musical, family, he’s dipped into the waters of them all — occasionally all within the same film. Much of his earlier titles were based around the Yakuza and Triads, and his Black Triad Trilogy is a good place to start for those wanting to explore Miike crime thrillers further. Three films, Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999), roughly weave through the same locations and feature the same actors, although the stories are unconnected. They’re nasty, dirty examinations of the underbelly of society, affording Miike the chance to deal in his recurring themes of loyalty, family and honour, and detail the use of extreme violence he has become notorious for.
For many mainstream critics, this violence is difficult to get over, occasionally overshadowing the quality of his filmmaking. However supporters would state that the extremes he takes his violence to move it away from the over-the-top, towards offensive, humour. For the finale of Dead or Alive (1999) — a film that has already featured a gangster getting his throat slashed whilst performing sodomy, and a woman drowned in a pool of her own faeces — Miike abandons all forms of logic, his two warring crime bosses attacking each other with a rocket launcher, before one pulls out his heart and throws it as a grenade, which explodes in a nuclear blast and wipes out Japan, possibly Earth. Miike makes the decision to push the boundaries as far as possible; if he’s going to tell it, he’s going to really tell it. The violence is an intrinsic element within. It may alienate some, but for those who accept his vision, it’s as exciting as modern cinema can be.
That vision came to a head in 2001 with the release of Ichi the Killer. Hideo Yamamoto’s Koroshiya Ichi, the popular manga series the film is based on, was written to be as graphic as possible. Translating the story was a natural move for Miike, and what Ichi the Killer really becomes is a series of outrageous set pieces that showcase amazing effects and twisted imagination. “Certainly in the case of Ichi the Killer, violence is the main subject of the film,” says Tom Mes, author of Agitator (FAB Press, 2006), the definitive literary guide to Miike. “One moment the violence is funny, the next it’s disgusting, then it makes you really uneasy, and in the following scene it’s really exciting, and so on and back again. You couldn’t make Ichi the Killer with less violence any more than you can make The Godfather with fewer gangsters.”
But if violence is all that you see in Miike, you’re missing a hugely talented filmmaker. Ichi the Killer is a relentless barrage of imagery, scenes drenched in lurid blue and red light that recall the look of Dario Argento, with action to rival the finest moments of John Woo. Miike puts pictures in your mind that are not easily forgotten: Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) inhaling his cigarette and the smoke blowing out from slits in his cheeks that are held together with silver rings; a fall from a rooftop that spins like an LSD nightmare; the title of the film emerging from semen that has dripped to the floor.
While Ichi was causing controversy and gaining rave reviews from the underground, Miike continued with his constant output, producing some of the finest — and strangest — films of his career. The low-budget Visitor Q (2001) examines the bizarre workings of a twisted family who test each other in various ways, and find redemption through doing so at the bequest of the strange visitor of the title. Featuring necrophilia, drug use and incest, it’s shot in an off-the-cuff, documentary style and is (incredibly, given the subject matters) often very funny. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) features another family, this time across four generations, who buy a guesthouse near Mount Fuji on an abandoned road they believe will soon be open. It isn’t, and as a consequence the house is a failure. Finally, guests arrive, but they all die by either suicide or accident, and trouble escalates when the bodies start coming back to life. Part farce, part musical, part horror, the film features stop-motion animation sequences, an on-screen karaoke sing-a-long, dance choreography, and is one of the strangest, most entertaining films you will ever see. And with Gozu (2003), Miike blended his beloved Yakuza thriller with horror, combining surreal moments with a hero obsessed with his sexuality and a (literal) return to his mother’s breast, a trip into Hell with a spirit guide, transvestites, dark terror mixed with comedy and… Well, in truth Gozu is a film that almost defies description. A nightmare on celluloid, the nearest comparisons would be with the style of David Lynch. For beginners to the world of Miike it may be too much, but if you’ve embraced his style, it’s a trip to be taken more than once before you truly appreciate what’s happening. Some so-called cult films are better in their description than in actual viewing, but with Gozu — in fact with just about all of Miike’s work — the watching always exceeds the expectation.
Miike doesn’t always hit the target. The slow drama Sabu (2002), the by-the-numbers formula of One Missed Call (2003) and the superhero pastiche Zebraman (2004) are dull, lifeless films, shorn of the energy and inventiveness of his best work. With the sheer numbers of pictures he makes — he once joked he always had one film in production, one in the theatres and one being released to home video — it’s hardly surprising. Says Sharp: “I think he is far more versatile than he is given credit for, and his films contain moments of technical brilliance, but I think if you are turning out four or five films a year, you’re never going to deliver a truly satisfactory work. This strength is his weakness; his amazing productivity does mean his films have a lot of energy to them, but for me it never truly manages to sustain itself fully.” Mes, on the other hand, has a different take on his output. “There is no way to separate Miike’s work from his energy and his pace. But the idea that he doesn’t carefully pick and choose his projects is a misunderstanding. For proof, you merely need to look at the films he turned down, like the sequel to One Missed Call. Miike just picks and chooses at a different rhythm and on the basis of different criteria from other filmmakers.” Both arguments are valid, although this writer’s opinion is firmly with that of Mes. Miike knows exactly what he’s doing and the cinema he wishes to produce. Never predictable, he makes what he wants, how he wants, and only very occasionally does it not work.
Regardless of his following among the cult and underground, with 13 Assassins (2010), Miike has made his most accessible work yet, certainly a film which thrilled rather than repulsed audiences who saw its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It may even be the best thing he has ever produced. Taking traditionalist elements of classic Samurai cinema, blended with the gore-soaked manga of Lone Wolf and Cub (1970), he creates a true classic for the 21st century, with the simple tale of a band of assassins sent to kill a rogue Shogun who wants to take his country back into anarchy. The first half of the film deals with the recruitment of the men by Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho), an ageing Samurai formerly employed by the Shogun. The assassins are a rough bunch from different areas of society, all with their own tales to tell, and they bond together while waiting in a small town for the Shogun and his army to pass through. When they do eventually meet, the drama of the first act kicks into high gear with a long, sustained battle that tests the honour and hearts of the assassins as they lay their lives on the line for each other and their country.
You’d expect guts and carnage in the battle. It’s true to say that there is beheading and disembowelling, as hundreds of men are laid to waste. But this is so much more than a typical Miike film given a historical makeover, and those expecting splatter without substance will be disappointed. Miike has been incredibly respectful of the genre, recreating the period feel with painstaking detail. His direction is that of someone working at the top of the game, his camera eavesdropping on the conversations of the ronin during the quieter moments, and heading right with them into the fighting, dirt and sweat splattering the lens as the swords and clubs fly. One of the most powerful moments finds the camera at ninety degrees, looking through the eyes of a dying man as he watches his master fight off waves of attackers, before succumbing to the inevitable. It’s a breathtaking moment in a film filled with them. And, the set pieces will have your mouth hanging open, regardless of how familiar you are with this genre. It’s testament to Miike that he’s able to breathe new life into a routine story that has been seen many times.
13 Assassins will inevitably draw comparisons to The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), the greatest of all bushido films. Certainly it deserves that accolade, as few directors would be able to pull off a forty-five-minute battle scene with all the cast principals and literally hundreds of extras. It’s a film filled with gorgeous photography, technical wizardry, attention to historical accuracy and wonderful, restrained performances — everything that will delight the art-house set who ran for the doors during the Grand Guignol excesses of Audition. But above all, it remains a thrilling, exhilarating action film; a pure piece of brilliant cinema. On that basis the last word must go to the great man himself. “For me films are about enjoyment. When you think of yourself as an artist, films become a pain. I don’t like to suffer — I’d rather be free, so I make films as entertainment. And that’s how I can make so many of them…”