Takashi Miike: The Mad Dog of Japanese Cinema – By Josh Samford

In the year 1960, two very important events took place. First was the birth of my mother, who is infinitely more important if for no other reason than the fact that she gave birth to me. The second, and almost equally as monumental of an occurrence, also happened to be a birth.

Takashi Miike was born in a small town called Yao somewhere in the deep dark heart of Japan. You may wonder why this man so important and what makes him so special. If you’ve been keeping up with the cinematic world in any way shape or form over the past five years then most likely by now have heard of the one director who has the innate power to either send shivers up and down your spine, or make you longingly grow passionate about cinema as art. Takashi Miike may not be considered the greatest filmmaker to ever emerge from the land of the rising sun, but no doubt about it, when it comes to cult auteurs he’s a force to be reckoned with, not only because he has been known to make nine films per year, but more for the fact that out of all those films there tends to be a unique and flowing consistency, whether the films match up to his previous work or not. Many of his films screened at international festivals tend to have the cinematic elitists waffling in their seats before marching out of the theater in disgust, mainly because his films press the buttons of those who normally would pretend nothing shocks them. His films are typically violent, but there’s a twisted sense of humor behind the subject matter that evokes laughter, albeit sometimes an uneasy laughter, from those who view his work. Miike is a director that not everyone is going to agree upon, but true art can never be safe nor docile, as I’m sure most would agree.

Miike from the start may not have appeared to be destined to become the cinematic guru that he is, but his odd sensibilities no doubt lead him on his path to greatness. Growing up in Osaka, Miike, unlike what you might imagine from your average director, had ambitions to become a motorbike racer. To this day it still appears to be an interest for the man, but being that his talents on the bike were less than exceptional, he entered the Yokohama Academy of Visual Arts for the simple reason that there were no tests to take for him to fail upon entering. As a student, Miike didn’t exactly strive to be exemplary. Showing up for class late, if at all, he let his rebel roots shine through even then. Miike was either by luck, or by fate then given a production assistant job at a local television company. He spent nearly ten years working in TV, with as many odd jobs as one can possibly have on a set, until at last V-Cinema hit Japan. Much like the American straight-to-video market, V-Cinema films tend to be shot on shoe-string budgets with pulp stylings meant to attract audiences. The Japanese V-Cinema however, tends to contain much more lurid content than its American counterpart. Miike from then on became his own director, working at a pace that makes Robert Rodriguez look like an eternal chump. Supposedly his first theatrically released film was Shinjuku Triad Society (Aka: China Mafia War) in 1995, which proves to be as seedy and gritty as Miike can possibly get. An essentially simple tale of cops and robbers at the outset, the brutality, the violence, and the utter depravity of the characters easily prepares an audience for what Miike would later be acclaimed and reviled for. This intense foray into the life of a dirty cop trying to save his brother from going in the same direction he did, also tackled one of Miike’s most dominate themes which is that of the treatment of foreigners living inside Japan; namely the Chinese. The story slightly delves into this subject, but Miike would later tackle it head on in much of his future work.

His first true success was probably Fudoh: The New Generation, which followed a year later. A whimsical tale of a teenager bent on killing his father and the yakuza syndicate he led while bolstering a group of killers not yet even out of high school. The film was destined to provoke a reaction. Using cartoonish violence to accentuate the bloody tale, Miike delivered a truly fun film for those with a somewhat warped state of mind, featuring far too many perverse moments than I could even begin to get away with mentioning here. The film made it on the festival circuit and eventually was named one of Time Magazine’s top 10 films in 1997. The film has since garnered a cult audience, not quite as strong as many of Miike’s films but anyone who has delved into his filmography for more than a year tends to have seen it. In 1999 Miike directed what has become one of his most puzzling and earnestly loved films, Dead or Alive. The beginning of a three part trilogy that continues with Dead or Alive: Birds and ends with Dead or Alive: Final, the films have no other consistency with one another other than the leading actors and a few veiled references to the other entries of the series. Dead or Alive turned heads everywhere it was shown. It’s a Takeshi Kitano-esque crime drama that opens with one of the most frantic and kinetic music video-style credit sequences ever shown on film, but then slows to a pace that could only be described as equal to that of a snail. The film was seemingly became an immediate cult success. Audiences walked away shocked by the explicit violence and sexual content and were completely baffled by the nearly nonsensical climax to the film, but for those who understood, even in the most infantile terms, what the film was aiming for, there was no doubt a new talent had burst through the doors. Like an axe through your living room, Miike was breaking down barriers.

During the next year, Miike made the film that got him more notice than any of his other films up to this point had. That film was Audition. An atmospheric horror film that plays like a romantic comedy for two thirds of its running time, the film tends to be an emotional rollercoaster for all who see it because of the exhausting final ten minutes. Pushing some to nearly faint from the sheer power of the film, but imposing itself on all who watch it, it was a relentless and surreal mind warp, and was instantly greeted by many in nearly every community with open arms, particularly the horror film buffs as the Japanese “scene” began to truly find its footing. Though not destined to ultimately be accepted by all who view it, even those who despised the film afterward were forever changed by it. Miike in the same year also directed his surrealist sequel Dead or Alive: Birds, the action packed (although bloodless for the most part) City of Lost Souls, and a light hearted comedy about a Japanese business man locked away in a Philippine prison called The Guys From Paradise. Miike had at this point proven his talent as a filmmaker with or without violence with films such as Blues Harp and the magnificent Bird People in China, but during the same year that a much larger audience began to take notice, and it was also in this year that he crafted some of his least typical films. Finally in 2000, the big one came. A film so large that not only did the horror community take notice, but even chess teams in Illinois began to rise to attention. The film was Ichi the Killer. Although even now the film is still picking up steam as a cult phenomena, it was talked about well before it was even released on bootleg DVD’s. A cartoonish look at the underworld where control and domination are everything, Ichi was a sadistic kick in the teeth to every man, woman and child who had up until that point not heard the name Takashi Miike. A film unnecessarily ridiculed for its level of violent mayhem, and under-appreciated for its amazing yet subtle depth within every frame of celluloid, it was Miike’s masterpiece. Whether or not you agreed that it was his best film, there’s no denying that Ichi the Killer was what the rest of the world was waiting so patiently for. A combination of so much the director had been developing over the years, it had the emotional drama of his smaller films like Bird People, but also the madcap energy and absurd levels of gory violence such as in Fudoh and Full Metal Yakuza. He had struck a nerve, and to this day it’s the film that continues to draw new fans to his work.

Although we’re still waiting patiently on this side of the globe for the vast majority of his films to be released on DVD, copies still manage to float around and his films haven’t gone unnoticed. Miike continues to hack away at the cinematic art form in Japan, crafting the amazing epic gangster film Graveyard of Honor in 2002 and his hilarious surrealist-comedy Gozu in 2003. Miike’s base is growing every day which tends to make some of the older fans get a wee bit jealous, but when it comes to art it’s either share or be doomed. Miike may or may not become a household name some day, but for anyone looking for a raw, gutsy and completely disturbing look at modern Japanese filmmaking, look no further than the thin man who’s seemingly always wearing his sunglasses.