ASIA EXTREME: By The Time You Read This, Takashi Miike Will Have Completed Another Film
Though not quite a household name, prolific auteur Takashi Miike has made quite a splash outside of his native Japan, both within the fanboy community as well as the cinephile set. Then again, when you’ve completed nearly eighty films in only eighteen years, you’re bound to get recognized.
Born in a small town outside of Osaka, Miike’s first love wasn’t film, but motorbikes, and for years he dreamed of becoming a professional racer. When that didn’t pan out, he entered film school simply because (as urban legend has it) there was no entrance exam. Far from a model student, he soon began working as a production assistant for a television company, which would eventually lead to his first directing gig. The straight-to-video explosion of the early 90s was Miike’s big break, as newly formed companies were eager to find talent willing to quickly churn out cheap action flicks. Between 1991-97, he directed nearly twenty of these, as well as a few bigger-budget theatrical films, including SHINJUKU TRIAD SOCIETY (1995) and FUDOH: THE NEW GENERATION (1996), the latter of which quickly found a cult following.
1999 was a milestone in Miike’s career. Of the seven (!!) films he directed that year, one of them proved to be his first breakout hit, and it was programmed at no less than twelve major film festivals. The film was AUDITION, based on the novel by cult author Ryu Murakami. A deeply unsettling psychological horror film, it’s a true slow burn – with mounting tension that culminates in a horrific final act that, once seen, is never forgotten.
Miike’s newfound success certainly didn’t slow down his rate of production, and soon his loyal followers worldwide would find themselves eagerly awaiting his next release. Fortunately, they didn’t have to wait too long. There’s hardly a genre he hasn’t tried his hand at, yet most of his films can be better described as transcending genre, for Miike clearly has no interest in adhering to rules or convention. What can be said unequivocally about his entire oeuvre is that the only films he makes are those that he wants to make, a point he’s reiterated many times in interviews.
So where to begin as a member of the uninitiated? How can one possibly choose from so vast a selection? The following list contains five titles (well, technically seven) that serve as a well-rounded primer to the films of one of Japan’s most fruitful directors. Are they his best? Maybe. Maybe not. One could argue that for days. But each reveals a different side of Miike, showing just how dynamic and ever-changing he is as a director. In no particular order:
“Kiri kiri kiri.” You’ll never be able to get those words out of your head after you see this powerfully disturbing psychological horror film, which some have described as a feminist revenge movie. Prompted by his teenage son, widower Shigeharu decides it’s time to find a new wife. To increase his chances (and choices), he holds an audition for a non-existent film, a particularly sleazy act. Smitten by the mysterious and beautiful Asami, he aggressively pursues her, only to learn that she’s harboring a dark and disturbing secret. Based on Ryu Murakami’s novel, the conventionality of the film’s first half gives no indication of the horrors that follow. If you see only one Miike film, make it this one.
The DEAD OR ALIVE Trilogy (1999, 2000, 2002)
A trilogy in name only, these three films are Miike at his most manic – extreme sex, violence, and carnage all put together with rapid-fire editing that is practically seizure-inducing. The opening eight minutes of DEAD OR ALIVE is a brilliant piece of montage that would make Eisenstein proud. The final sequence, with its self-reflexive announcement “This is the final scene”, is perhaps even more insane. All three films feature actors Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa, but they play different characters in each. In DEAD OR ALIVE they are gangster and cop, in DEAD OR ALIVE 2: BIRDS they are rival hitmen, and in DEAD OR ALIVE: FINAL they are, yes, androids on opposite side of the law. If there’s a metaphor to be found in the trilogy, it’s best exemplified in the final film when the two characters fuse together into a robot with a penis shaped head. You figure it out.
THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA (1998)
One of Miike’s most quiet and restrained films, its dreamlike tone and hints of magical realism are about as far from the hyperkinetics of the DEAD OR ALIVE trilogy as possible. A Japanese salaryman is sent to a village in China to evaluate a jade mine, without realizing that a yakuza with questionable intentions is on his tail. Once there, they discover that the villagers may or may not have a secret skill (the film’s title holds a clue). Remarkably warmhearted, it’s proof that Miike doesn’t need guns and gore to make a great film.
THE GREAT YOKAI WAR (2005)
Given his penchant for twisted sex, violence, and otherwise disturbing imagery, it’s almost hard to believe that Miike could turn out a family-friendly film, but that’s just what he did with this quasi-remake/homage to the Yokai monster movies of the 1960s. Taken from Japanese folklore, the Yokai are bizarre but not terribly frightening monsters and supernatural beings that are known for playing tricks on humans. Though the plot is bog-standard fantasy — young boy is chosen to retrieve a magical sword guarded by the Great Goblin on the mountaintop – Miike injects enough tongue-in-cheek humor to keep it just as interesting for the parents as well as the kiddies. Plus, how can you not love an umbrella monster? Easily one of his funniest films to date.
Miike at his most surreal. A self-described ‘yakuza horror comedy’ this genuine oddity is situated somewhere between David Lynch and Samuel Beckett, with David Cronenberg rooting from the sidelines. When a yakuza member accidentally kills his slightly-insane partner, he finds himself trapped in a bizarre small town inhabited by an assortment of very strange people. A subversive road movie that features some of Miike’s most deviant sexual moments, it’s at once twisted, funny, and intellectually intriguing. Appealing more to the arthouse crowd, it’s one of his more challenging works, but well worth the effort.