Outside(r) favourites: twenty great films by Takashi Miike

Outside(r) favourites: twenty great films by Takashi Miike first published, in a shorter version (15 films, I think), by Little White Lies upon the release of the director’s 100th feature, Blade of the Immortal (2017), at the London Film Festival (and subsequently in UK cinemas in December 2017)

Outsider. Maverick. Outlaw. Punk. These terms are regularly applied not only to Japanese director Takashi Miike – who has helmed more than 100 features and TV series since he debuted in 1991 with Toppuu! Minipato tai – Aikyacchi Jankushon (according to IMDb, “A comedy about a daring policewoman in leotards, who defeats criminals using gymnastics”) – but also to many of his films’ misfit characters. Born in Osaka to Korean parents, he often makes rootlessness or uprootedness central to his works. Mentored by the great Shohei Imamura, Miike is at home with the codified criminal demimonde of the yakuza, but frequently mixes and matches genres to delirious effect. His films are notorious for their jaw-dropping ‘Miike moments’, yet he easily passes from the grindhouse to the arthouse, and is as deft with subtle ambiguity as with bombastic excess.

20. Fudoh: The New Generation (1996)

After seeing his own brother murdered by their yakuza father, teen Riki Fudoh (Shosuke Tanihara) forms his own hit squad of murderous high schoolers, with a vengeful takeover on his mind. One of Miike’s first films to screen at international festivals, this takes Oedipal conflict for a stylishly outrageous spin.

19. MPD Psycho (2000)

A psychological profiler (Naoki Hosaka) with both a peculiar personal history and a severe case of Dissociative Identity Disorder pursues an elusive, disembodied figure with the power to leap from one host to another. This six-part, manga-adapted TV miniseries follows the Twin Peaks template of forgoing regular police procedural while privileging the sinister and the surreal.

18. Imprint (2006)

As an American (Billy Drago) searches for the Japanese prostitute whom he once abandoned, a deformed whore’s contradictory stories catch him in his own infernal guilt. The only contribution to Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror series to be shelved for its graphic content, in fact this plays like a classic kaidan, its different tales of abortion, sisters and physical torment requiring irrational synthesis to reveal their haunting truth.

17. Yakuza Apocalypse (2015)

“Stay foolish!”, Kagayama (Hayato Ichihara) is advised before taking over the local gang. That advice is fulfilled by a film which boasts vampire gangsters, gunslinger priests, a foul-smelling kappa imp, and a man dressed as a frog said to be “the modern monster, the world’s greatest terrorist”. The ensuing showdowns defy generic categorisation, as motifs from yakuza films, horror, the western and tokusatsu all collide in madcap hybridisations.

16. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

Kim Jee-woon’s debut The Quiet Family (1998) was a darkly farcical satire of South Korea’s bunker-mentality reticence, and featured neither a delirious circle-of-life claymation prologue, nor cheesy song-and-dance numbers – which is to say that Miike’s remake, while repetitive and not always coherent, is exemplary in its off-piste inventiveness.

15. Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

Miike’s wildly postmodern riff on Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western Django (1966) traces the internecine conflicts of the oater all the way back to the clash of ancient clans recorded in classic Japanese epic Tale of the Heike and Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Here, as East meets West and sword meets gun, there is also a didgeridoo dance sequence, and a cameo from Quentin Tarantino, whose genre-leaping influence is felt throughout.

14. Rainy Dog (1997)

Second part of the Black Society Trilogy, this Taipei-set noir sees exiled yakuza Yuuji (Sho Aikawa) on the run from both a local Triad and a rival Japanese hitman. With the mute young son he never knew he had and a local prostitute, Yuuji discovers something resembling family life – but then his past catches up with all of them.

13. Blues Harp (1998)

Kenji (Seiichi Tanabe) has an ambitious plot to displace his yakuza boss, but his wandering eye for local mixed-race lad Chuji (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) will prove his tragic undoing. Meanwhile, orphan Chuji himself rises to success with his harmonica skills, forming a family with his pregnant girlfriend Tokiko (Saori Sekino). It is an outsiders’ tale of confused identity and rock-n-roll.

12. Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006)

One young offender (Ryuhei Matsuda) is found astride the corpse of a fellow inmate (Masanobu Ando). As detectives investigate the history of these murder convicts, Miike plays out the gay yearnings of Jean Genet’s A Song of Love on stylised Brechtian sets (which, for all their bare bones, include a rocket launch pad and ancient pyramid on the roof). It is a complicated, at times cosmic probe into the prison house of adolescent masculinity.

11. Graveyard of Honour (2002)

Barman Ishimatsu (Goro Kishitani) saves the life of a gangland boss, and works his way up in the organisation, with his mercurial temper and violent impulses proving both his best assets and his ultimate unravelling. Miike remakes Kinji Fukasaku’s 1975 film, while ingeniously remapping Ishimatsu’s rise and fall onto the landscape of Japan’s economic bubble in the early 1990s.

10. Agitator (2000)

Written by Graveyard of Honour‘s Shigenori Takechi, this kaleidoscopic, convoluted crime epic explores the power vacuum left by the murder of a yakuza boss. Keeping most of its violence offscreen (unlike the similarly premised Ichi the Killer),  this is a densely layered, multi-faceted portrait of honour, even love, amongst thieves, showing Miike at his most mature and complex.

9. Over Your Dead Body (2014)

While starring as the wronged wife in a modern theatrical production of Tsuruya Nanboku’s 1825 kabuki play Yostuya Kaidan, Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) finds the play’s events restaging themselves in her elegant, minimalist apartment. Accordingly Miike’s mannered horror sees classical themes of conjugal betrayal and ghostly revenge echoing across time and through the fourth wall, and birthing new, monstrous forms.

8. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

Miike is not normally known for subtlety, and yet this remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 classic Harakiri preserves the original’s stately staging and pacing, as well as its focus on the clash of words over that of swords, while adding 3D not for comin’-at-ya gore but to make the interior spaces of the Ii clan house reecho with the emptiness of honour’s trappings.

7. 13 Assassins (2010)

As much a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) as a remake of Eichi Kudo’s Jusan-nin no shikaku (1963), and bloodier and more raucous than either, Miike’s Meiji-era ‘total massacre’ is also a revisionist western, pitting a wild bunch of samurai against a psychopathic Lord of the dying Shogunate. It marks not just the end of an epoch, but the boundary of a genre.

6. Visitor Q (2001)

As in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), a stranger visits a dysfunctional family and shakes it up. What comes out is incest, prostitution, drug-taking, murder, necrophilia and extreme lactation. Shot low-budget as part of CineRockets’ series ‘Love Cinema’, Miike’s satire converts the inadequacy, alienation and repressed sexuality felt in many Japanese families into breath-taking, bourgeois-baiting hilarity.

5. Gozu (2004)

When yakuza Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) loses his mind, underling Minami (Hideki Sone) is ordered to kill him, but loses the body in Nagoya. So begins a surreal quest in a place where criminal and infernal underworlds fuse, where hybrid monsters and genres emerge, and where boundaries blur between sanity and madness, male and female, life and death. The gob-smacking results are, as Ozaki says, “all a joke, so please don’t take it seriously.”

4. Ichi the Killer (2001)

This colourfully complicated tale of a vengeful mesmerist (the director Shinya Tsukamoto) manipulating a crybaby voyeur (Nao Omori) into confronting a yakuza gang’s sadomasochistic deputy (Tadanobu Asano) kinetically translates all the energy, anarchy and illogic of Hideo Yamamoto’s manga with hyperviolent, psychosexual glee. It also dramatises how easily violent acts are learned, imitated, and misdirected, engendering endless cycles of revenge where real satisfaction is impossible and disappointment inevitable.

3. The Bird People In China (1998)

Two outsiders – a Japanese mineralogist (Masahiro Motoko) and a yakuza (Renji Ishibashi) – struggle to work out their place in a remote Chinese village, even as its supposedly ancient local mystic traditions turn out to be rooted in more modern, foreign influence. In this locus of extreme marginalisation, Miike lets his lost characters take miraculous wing over issues of globalisation and ecology.

2. Dead or Alive 2: Birds (2000)

There’s more wing-taking in this, the middle film of Miike’s loose Dead Or Alive trilogy, as two urban contract killers (Sho Aikawa, Riki Takeuchi) meet by chance back on the island where they had spent their childhood at an orphanage, and, upon rediscovering lost innocence, decide to convert their lives of sin to angelic good. “Where are you?”, on-screen text repeatedly asks – and as nostalgia, magic and ultraviolence weirdly converge, viewers may struggle to answer.

1. Audition (1999)

“I feel like a criminal.” Having tricked young, sensitive Asami (Shiina Eihi) into a fake audition that he is using, in the most underhanded way, to screen potential dates, the otherwise sincere middle-aged widower Shigeharu (Ishibashi Ryo) is haunted by his sense of loss, guilt, betrayal and gynophobia. He gets the girl, but also succumbs to crippling (self-)torments – yielding the most viscerally tortu(r)ous nightmare of cinema’s last two decades.

© Anton Bitel