People don’t just walk out of Miike Takashi’s movies, they also vomit and pass out. Pitted against the brutal intensity of Asian cinema’s big-hitters, ‘Beat’ Takeshi and John Woo, Takashi’s flicks go way beyond the pale. Jaws drop and stomachs churn when confronted with his mind-bending cinema of atrocity.
Imagine, if you will, Kate Moss dressed in a latex butcher’s apron with matching elbow-length gloves, gleefully sawing through David Bowie’s left foot with a piano-wire garrotte. This is the stomach-churning scenario Takashi conjured up for Japanese audiences toward the end of his 1999 film Audition, the first to receive serious attention in the West, which starred rock-star-turned-actor Ryo Ishibashi as Aoyama, a widowed video producer who holds a bogus audition in order to find a new wife, and elfin Japanese supermodel Eihi Shiina as Asami, his deceptively coy bride-to-be.
Audition spends most of its running time tranquilizing the audience with romantic melodrama before administering an unprecedented dose of body horror as Aoyama’s rose-tinted dream fractures into a waking nightmare. Heads roll, feet come off, and eyes are pinned open with acupuncture needles, yet Miike (pronounced mee-kay) insists that his film is not that close to the bone.
“Apart from Aoyama’s wife, no one actually dies in Audition. The only outcome is that one unfortunate man merely loses his left foot above the ankle. I think that’s a relatively peaceful story,” he laughs, “it’s not so extreme at all.”
The same cannot be said of his latest offering, Ichi the Killer, a two-hour, gross-out, gorefest based on a popular Japanese manga that boasts a queasy soundtrack by The Boredoms. Ichi is a crybaby assassin who gets stiff at the sight of violence (leaving sticky gobs of cum at the scene of the crime) and slices and dices his targets with a set of spring-loaded steel blades secreted in his trainers. He meets his match in Kakihara, a sadomasochistic albino Yakuza who takes extreme pleasure in extreme torture; a rival mobster hanging naked from the ceiling by butcher’s hooks is flayed alive with boiling oil.
Like Kakihara, Miike delights in perversity, confronting his audience with ever more outré scenarios to digest. “People enjoy watching other people’s misery and desperation from a distance,” comments the director, a laconic 40-something hipster with a peroxide-kissed crop and drawn face. “In the realm of fiction (rather than documentary) films, people tend to find humor in desperate situations. And I think I was born with a kind of dark humor – it’s an Osaka thing – and that comes out naturally without me being consciously aware of it.”
A one-man league of deviancy, Takashi has made over twenty features in six years as well as numerous straight-to-video movies and TV miniseries. Last year alone he directed seven films. As well as Ichi the Killer and the final installment in his unconventional action trilogy Dead or Alive, there was Visitor Q – a low-key Dogma-style satire on family values featuring a lactating housewife with a debilitating heroin habit and a salaryman husband overwhelmed by deviant sexual desires. Another classic is The Happiness of the Katakuris, a mainstream musical with a cast made up of famous Japanese actors and pop stars that come off like a gene-spliced remix of The Sound Of Music and Dawn of the Dead.
“It’s the story of a perfectly happy family who find themselves burying dead bodies,” Miike explains. “But the cast will mislead people into thinking it’s a family film.”
The speed with which Miike works is largely due to his unorthodox entry into the film business. A former teenage tearaway from Osaka who cut school to cruise the streets on motorbikes, Miike simply saw filmmaking as a way to avoid getting a real job. He spent seven years working full-tilt as a freelance assistant director on TV series and straight-to-video fare before finally being offered his own shot at directing with Toppu Minipato Tai (which translates into the improbable Sudden Gust of Wind: Mini-skirt Patrol). Working on tightly scheduled, low-budget productions in an overcrowded straight-to-video market meant making the most distinctive product possible with limited resources. Miike’s trademark style is characterised by a cavalier attitude to plot logic and scenes that test the bounds of bad taste. In Fudoh: The Next Generation (1996) – an adaptation of a popular manga series about a gang of teenage Yakuza – maidenly high school girls moonlight as strippers with a unique act: shooting darts from blowpipes inserted into their zip-fronted, white-cotton panties.
“I don’t set out to shock people,” Miike maintains. “I just tend to see these things when I’m reading the scripts. Everybody else uses a similar amount of sex and violence, but in a cowardly and manipulating way. These guys are really cold-blooded because they’ll just exploit anything for effect, like the anguish of a small child or a parent’s despair. But I don’t see any point in emotionally blackmailing the audience whilst they are watching a film. For me, the most important thing is whether I enjoy making a film from the beginning to end, because I believe that if you enjoy doing something, it will be reflected in the final result and the audience can appreciate that as well.”
Ichi the Killer official site: www.whoisichi.com
Dead or Alive official site: www.viz.com
Miike Takashi’s movies are available in Europe through Tartan Video.