At the turn-of-the millennium, Takashi Miike became one the most talked about directors on the planet with a series of wild, idiosyncratic and occasionally demented thrillers.
In the grisly feminist revenge horror Audition (1999), a seemingly meek young woman makes violent use of piano wire after she's tricked into a try-out for a phony TV project. The horror-musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) reimagines The Sound of Music with corpse-collecting Von Trapps. Visitor Q (2001) features incest, patricide and more. Gozu (2003) pits a young yakuza against a Chihuahua-killing colleague, crazed suburbanites, and an ox-headed demon.
And then, there's the visuals. To date, Miike's innovative compositions include a murder viewed from the bottom of a lavatory and numerous grisly if innovative shots and set-ups.Yet back in his native Japan, Miike is just as well-known for such fun, popular kids' movies as Zebraman (plus sequels) and The Great Yokai War. That's a mind-bending amount of genre-bending. But Miike is delighted with the variety that characterises his career.
“Diversity truly is the culture of modern people,” says the 57-year-old. “When working at a company, you are an employee. You are a father in front of children. Or a former lover of a spouse. A cheerful drunkard in a pub. I believe that the difference in genre of movies is a small thing.”
Last October, the iconoclastic, versatile, and insanely prolific filmmaker touched down at the London Film Festival for the UK premiere of Blade of the Immortal, his 100th feature. That's quite a numerical feat, especially when one considers that he didn't make his directorial debut until 1991.
“We shouldn’t compete for numbers. So we did not celebrate. It is simply a culmination of all the other films,” says Miike. “However, it was a good opportunity to recognise my age and how far I have come. We are currently editing our 103rd film.”
With a body-count in the thousands, Blade of the Immortal marks Miike's bloody return to chanbara (samurai films). Based on Hiroaki Samura's eponymous series, the film follows Manji (played by local superstar Takuya Kimura), a cursed immortal samurai, who slashes and hacks his way across Edo era Japan in the employ of a vengeful orphan girl (Hana Sugisaki). Ninja stars and severed limbs fly, blades and worthy foes clash, and frenetic fight scenes frequently pitch the hero against hundreds of potential assassins. Hence the nickname: "Hundred Killer".
Despite mobilising thousands of extras, Miike doesn’t believe in rehearsing or elaborate choreography. “I feel that the action scenes and sword battles lose the fresh feel when it is practised too much. For actors too, less practice makes it possible to increase the reality and challenge them and push the boundaries for their performance in the battle scene. The only disadvantage with this approach is when producers start taking advantage of this and trying to shorten the shooting schedule.”
Miike has already wrapped JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable Chapter I, the first live action film adapted from the best-selling manga series in history. Manga, he notes, was a salvation for many Japanese kids.
“Manga for my generation of Japanese, is a treasure of boyhood. It was a magic that gave poor children dreams and excitement when the country was performing a reset upon the defeat after war. It was a peculiar time in which everyone dreamt of becoming a manga artist. In other words, for me, making a manga adaptation is a way to realise a dream that never came true. I respect authors as well as the manga itself. For me, the challenge to make the author think, ‘Oh, I want to make a movie, I want to be a film director too’.”
In 2002, Miike's live action adaptation of another manga, Ichi the Killer, became the most heavily censored UK release in decades. Almost three minutes and 15 seconds were removed by the British Board of Film Classification so that the film might be awarded an 18 certificate. In the US, the same film was cut by 11 minutes. Sick bags were handed out when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to Miike by casting Ichi actor Jun Kunimura in Kill Bill. Miike can't have been too surprised by the controversy. Or can he?
"Huh? Did it cause controversy? I did not know. I'm sorry. But I am honoured. I hope one day, there will be an opportunity to shoot a film like Ichi the Killer again."
Born on August 24th, 1960, in Osaka, Miike's earliest ambitions involved mechanics. In his teens and 20s, he was a successful amateur motorbike racer until a radio ad for the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film caught his attention. While a student at this school, director Miike was given his first film credit, as assistant director on Zegen (1987) for Shohei Imamura, the two-time Palme d'Or winner. He continued to work as an assistant and second unit director until early 1990s when he began picking up directing credits for straight-to-video titles
“The position of an assistant director in Japan is a handyman who does everything if necessary,” he says. “They must overcome the unreasonable demands of hard-hearted and whimsical directors, and staff with different personalities or habits. Therefore one day when I was asked ‘Please direct a film from tomorrow’, I thought, Yeah, that’s not impossible.”
He has seldom stopped working since. Made on 16mm, his debut theatrical release, Shinjuku Triad Society, earned him a best new director nomination from the Director's Guild of Japan and enough box office to warrant two sequels.
“For many years, I was on working on films which were so small of a budget that I could not even build a set. So, when I was finally able to work on set, it was a rewarding moment. I felt the same feeling when the camera changed from 16 mm to 35 mm. I feel that the smallness of the filmmaking environment is somehow connected to the freedom of creating film.”
Between his 103 (and counting) directorial credits, Miike has staged a Kabuki play called Demon Pond, created dozens of music videos and documentaries, and has appeared as an actor in several films, including Eli Roth's Hostel (2006), a film that shares Miike's penchant for gallows humour.
“When time passes, serious events turn into funny stories, or turn into happy memories,” says Miike. “Eventually that serious problem disappears from the world along with the existence of human beings. People eventually disappear and will not return. So dreams, love, jealousy and despair are meaningless in the universe. Even though I think I know such a thing, I still feel pleasure and cannot stop loving human beings.”
Bizarrely, he cites Starship Troopers as his favourite film of all time. "Not only the talent of Mr Paul Verhoeven is stunning, but I would also like to pay some respect for the reckless spirit of the investors for making that film with that amount of money. My heart danced for their spirit. It is a masterpiece. In had a similar experience with the moment when the Marshmallow Man appeared in Ghostbusters. Just imagine responsible adults looking at the design of Marshmallow Man at the meeting and they all agree, saying 'Let's go with this'."
For all his unfettered individualism as a film connoisseur and as a film-maker, Miike is reluctant to describe himself as an auteur. “It would be wrong to become a creator for the purpose of becoming one,” he says.” One creates because one wants to. By calling a person an auteur, it implies they are separate from others. In the first place, human beings are all creators or auteurs of their own lives. Do not trust people who are willing to be called auteurs.”
Takashi Miike: Five to see
Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) – When his father orders a hit on his brother, teenager Fudoh recruits a trigger-happy girl and a hermaphrodite student with a vaginal dart gun.
The Bird People of China (1998) – The ultimate global recession film, in which a Japanese businessman, accompanied by a yakuza gangster, is sent to China to assess a jade mine.
Audition (1999) – A widower and his chum stage a fake audition so that he might meet a new wife. Limb loss ensues in what is arguably Miike's masterpiece.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) – Post-Audition and Ichi, when critics were primed for extreme cinema, Miike turned in a musical family comedy. Albeit a family hiding a mountain of corpses.
13 Assassins (2010) – In Edo-era Japan, a group of 13 assassins plot to kill the tyrannical leader of a rival clan before he is appointed to the Shogunate.
- Blade of the Immortal opens December 8th