Fifteen years ago, Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike took a certain segment of the film world by storm with a string of shocking and/or irreverent films (Audition, Gozu, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q), which instantly established him as one of the world's leading cult auteurs. From 1999 to 2003, he directed anywhere from five to eight films per year, making him a constant presence on the festival circuit. Toward the end of this run, Japanese cinema found a more prominent place in the mainstream, thanks to Ring/The Ring, Ju-on/The Grudge, and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films. But for some, Miike remained the most vibrant and unpredictable voice in modern Japanese cinema.
Watch Takashi Miike on the October 14 episode of Daily VICE
Now 55, the director's productivity has been diminished somewhat by his own success—as he explains below, bigger budgets are more time-consuming—but the eccentric impulses that built his reputation are alive and well. For evidence of this, look no further than Yakuza Apocalypse, the sprawling new yakuza vampire epic that screened at last month's Toronto International Film Festival and hit North American theaters and VOD last week. During TIFF, we sat down with the enigmatic director to discuss his unprecedented productivity, the challenges of going Hollywood, and his mother's unlikely experience with Ichi the Killer.
Interview with Takashi Miike courtesy Daily VICE
VICE: What's the process for making a film like Yakuza Apocalypse? How does the ball get rolling and how long does it take?
Takashi Miike: Among all the movies I've made, this is a very exceptional case. I was slated to make a movie in Hollywood, and it got canceled at the last minute, so all of a sudden we found ourselves with a gap in our schedule. We got to drinking—the producers and me and my staff—and we talked about various things. "OK, what can we do? What kind of movie would we like to make?" I thought it was just chatter over drinks, but then I noticed that the producer's eyes were very serious. I saw a little glimmer in his eye, and the next day we got the green light. The script still had to be written, but one month later, we were starting to shoot. You could almost say it was a movie made out of Hollywood because of how it came about.
What was the Hollywood film you were making?
That movie was The Outsider. It was supposed to star Tom Hardy, who had just finished shooting Mad Max. Production on that film was over, so we were expecting him to arrive. We still don't know the real reason he pulled out. We got one phone call from the lawyer. We were in Korea preparing to shoot and he told us, "Well, it's cancelled. You guys can go back to Japan." After that, it was all between the lawyers.
You've made many yakuza films. Is there a reason you keep returning to this subject?
Now that you mention it, it's true, I have made a lot of movies where there's a character who turns out to be a yakuza. It's not always that I intend to make a yakuza movie. It just turns out that the people out there—the sponsors, the producers, the audience—are looking for movies with yakuza in them. Personally, I like to make these movies because everything about them is about speed. The tempo of their lifestyle is about speed. They live by their instincts. They are allowed to be in fights. If you are making movies about politicians, it would take them five to ten years to get to that, but yakuza do it in one night. They're also regular people at their core.
The genres you work in—horror, action, science fiction, fantasy—are often thought of as escapist or insubstantial. Is it important to you that you find ways to elevate these genres in some way?
I'm not really out there to convey a message or make a commentary on the state of society. I'm just trying to make movies simply about life. Naturally, when I'm doing that, horror, violence, and all those kinds of things get mixed in. All those things happen in reality.
What about the more surreal flourishes in your films? In Yakuza Apocalypse, there's a telekinetic martial arts expert in a frog-suit. What's the thinking behind that?
When I was a child, I would see this guy around me who was very popular with the girls, somebody who had trained in martial arts. Once he had to fight, and he was really strong. There are all kinds of things like that, things I wish I had. I was always full of complexes. Perhaps those kinds of characters in my movies are a product of my daydreaming and wishful thinking. That's how they are born. Once those characters appear in my movies, people who have the same complexes as me say, "Yeah, that's exactly what I would like to be." Some people who are already strong will say it's just a comedy, but it really all depends on who is watching the film. They have different sorts of meaning and resonance for different sorts of people.
Some of your most celebrated films are known for their more shocking moments. Do you get any resistance or backlash from friends and family about those films?
I have three kids. Now they're all grown up, but when they were little, every time I would start a new project, they would say, "So dad, are you making a movie we can watch or one we cannot watch?" That's the kind of stuff they would ask. People around me—family and friends—usually know when to watch and when not to watch. My mom once brought a group of 30 of her friends to see one of my movies, saying, "This is a great movie. My son made it."
She had seen the one before, which was sort of a human drama with a moralistic quality, but the movie they saw was Ichi the Killer. Her friends were in an uproar and they said, "Why did you bring us to this movie? This is crazy. What is your son thinking?" Then I got a call from my mom, saying, "What are you thinking? What have you done?" It's my opinion that the audience has a choice to watch or not to watch. It's not really on me, but nowadays people around me can tell just by looking at my eyes.
Most cinephiles would agree that you're one of the world's most prolific filmmakers. For a while there, you were making six, seven, even eight films a year. Now you're down to about two. How do you account for that change?
During the years that I made a lot of movies, I had to work with very low budgets. We had two weeks to shoot the movie. Including the edit and everything, they would take around two months to make. That's all the time I could afford to spend on those movies. Nowadays, it takes me about two months to shoot a movie. With the CG technology and all that, it really takes much longer. That limits me to two movies per year, even if I use my time really efficiently. To be honest, I've never really thought about maintaining a certain pace or increasing my pace. I don't necessarily think it's good to make lots of movies. It's a very natural process that I ended up making only two films a year.
Do you feel equally connected to all these films or do some stay with you more than others?
It's equal. The title might be different, the characters might be different, the theme might be different, but it feels like I'm making one long movie continuously. Obviously it depends on how I am physically, my physical condition—sometimes I don't feel that great when I'm making a movie—but in terms of the attachment that I feel, it's always pretty much the same.
How do you fit into today's Japanese film industry? Are you widely celebrated or do you have more of a cult fanbase?
In the modern Japanese film industry, films that I would call soft entertainment are the norm. We tend to make films that everyone appreciates, everybody likes, everybody is comfortable watching. Once you're in the theater, nothing really unexpected happens. You can go there with peace of mind that you'll enjoy the experience. I make those films too, but once in a while, I make some really weird stuff like Yakuza Apocalypse. In general, I'm probably seen as an unusual director. There are some fans in Japan who enjoy my films as a cult following, but their level of cult-ness—if you can call it that—is very diluted compared to what it is in North America.
Your Masters of Horror episode, "Imprint," didn't get played on television in the United States because Showtime thought it was too extreme for American viewers, and you recently had this problem with the Tom Hardy movie. What do you think it is that's stopping you from fully crossing over into the American industry?
I've had a few offers to make films in the US, but it's a really difficult thing for me as a human being. I'm not talking necessarily about the creative process, I'm talking about being a director in the US. It takes so much more energy. In terms of energy spent, making one movie in Hollywood is the equivalent of ten or 20 movies in Japan. If I have to expend that much energy being a director in Hollywood, I'd rather stay in Japan. If I had been given the offer in my 20s or 30s, it might have been a different story.
How did it feel to see One Missed Call get remade by Hollywood?
When one of my movies gets remade in Hollywood, I think of it as being on a continuum with the audience's response. It was well received, so it gets remade. It's a great pleasure for me. It's an honor. It's flattering. But I haven't seen the remake of One Missed Call.
Now that you've made almost 100 films, is there anything you're still hungry to direct? Do you have an elusive dream project that you've been waiting years to get off the ground?
It's a very difficult question. To be totally honest, I don't think I do. For me, no matter what movie I make, no matter what the genre or the budget, they all have the same theme at their core: fear of death and happiness about living. So to answer your question: no, I don't really have a dream project.
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