Takashi Miike on making films at the margins

“I’ve always been an outsider”: Takashi Miike on making films at the margins. First published by SciFiNow.

Prolific barely begins to describe Takashi Miike, the bad boy of Japanese indie cinema. Few directors manage to amass over 100 films to their name, even fewer do so in just over a quarter of a century, and fewer still do so with the élan, unpredictability and sheer outrageousness of Miike. Working in all manner of genres, from yakuza films to musicals, from sci fi to ‘arthouse’, from horror to jidaigeki (samurai films), and sometimes mixing them together and testing their limits, Miike is often associated with extremes of violence and perversion. Himself an outsider born in a working class area of Osaka to Korean parents, the director likes to lionise characters who live on the margins. His latest, the manga adaptation Blade of the Immortal, is an epic period fantasy about a skilled swordsman kept from dying by parasitic worms. I interviewed him as he presented the film at the London Film Festival.

Blade of the Immortal is being marketed as your 100th feature. Did you consciously want to celebrate this career landmark with something monumental? Or was this just another film for you?

Takashi Miike: When I was making it I had no idea that that was the case. I wasn’t aware of it at all. But it was only when somebody from one of the film festivals started counting and then told me, when I was nearly finished making the film, “Maybe this is your 100th,” that I became aware of it. So I really didn’t care at all.

You were mentored early in your career by Shohei Imamura [The Profound Desire of the Gods, Vengeance is Mine]. What lessons did you learn from him that still apply to your work today? 

Takashi Miike: Yes, I admire him greatly. I did my work with him as his assistant. What I learnt from him is that the way you make your film is very reflective of your life. Your character and your experience actually make your film. The way that Imamura made his films was that he had his own production company, he raised his own money to make the films that he wanted to make. That was his passion – and that was a reflection of what he was like. What I learned from him is that you can only make a film based on who you are – and he is so different from me, and I learnt that I could never make films like him. That would just be copying – I could never do that. I could only make films based on me.

What makes a film a ‘Miike film’?

Takashi Miike: I don’t think there is any particular visual characteristic to my films. I don’t think about it at all. I feel that I shouldn’t put any intentional aspiration that I might have into any of my films because that’s something that I desire, not necessarily what I have. I don’t intend to show off how I want to be seen. I have no desire to project that kind of image of myself. I think I just really enjoy making films – because I lose myself. I so enjoy the process that I’m not thinking about anything but just completely immersing myself in the filmmaking. I think that’s with every film. And when you truly lose yourself, maybe something of your true nature does come out and get reflected, so maybe that is what you can see in all my films. But it’s not conscious.    

Anotsu (Soto Fukushi), the antagonist in Blade of the Immortal, is an outsider figure typical of your works, like those socially or ethnically marginalised characters in Black Triad Trilogy, The Bird People In China, the first Dead Or Alive film, The City of Lost Souls, The Guys From Paradise, Imprint and Lesson of the Evil. Where does this fascination with the experience of rootless characters come from? And is it all connected to the fact that you yourself were born in Osaka to Korean parents? 

Takashi Miike: Yes, I’ve always been an outsider, I’ve never been the leader. Even when I was at school, I was always the one in the corner rather than the leader of the class. I started off with low-budget film, and then I was doing J-video (straight-to-video) films, and I was regarded as a sort-of video film director. There’s a big Japanese filmmakers’ association which I’ve never been part of. Now, they probably think it’s too late even to ask me. So yes, I’ve always been away from the mainstream – but that gives me in a way a freedom to do what I like. There is no pressure, or expectations that I have to fulfil, no obligation – so there’s more freedom in what I can do. 

In the early Noughties, you became the poster boy for Tartan’s ‘Asia Extreme’ label, which is certainly how a lot of people in Britain came to know your work.  Did this seem a natural fit for you? Did you find it constraining?

Takashi Miike: I really don’t mind, I’m just pleased that people find my work. I think whatever they categorise me or label me, ultimately it’s up to whoever views my work to decide what it is. So I don’t really mind, I’m just grateful for having been given the opportunity to show it. For me making Blade of the Immortal, Jeremy Thomas is a producer, so there was some kind of thought that maybe we’d be showing it in Cannes, but you don’t know. There’s nothing I can do to make sure that that happens, and luckily it did happen, and of course it came to London, and it showed last night [at the London Film Festival]. The very fact that people look at my work is great, and looking back, you know, 20 years on, I’d like a new generation to discover my work, and they can decide for themselves. I really don’t mind if they label me. It’s nice to be recognised, whatever that label is.  

Speaking of categorising, I’ve been invited to Cannes – it’s not that I submit it, I get chosen, my work gets chosen to be shown there. Many people said, ‘That’s so un-Cannes” – you know, it’s a film so unlike Cannes. But that’s up to the viewers to decide. I really don’t mind what they say. My films have been at Cannes six times, twice, I think, in competition, and every time I come, people do say, ‘This it so unlike Cannes.’ I think it gets possibly further and further away from what is regarded as Cannes. But I think I’ll still get chosen to be shown there. It’s a strange feeling.

I reckon ‘being unlike Cannes’ is no bad thing. What first drew you to Blade of the Immortal? Were you a fan of Hiroaki Samura’s long-running manga?

Takashi Miike: Fan? Probably not an original fan, because it’s been a long series. I think I got to know it first because of the actors that I was working with, you know, actors in their thirties. Lots of them used to read that, and they are big fans. I haven’t always read it, right from the beginning to the end of the series, but I have seen bits and pieces from my actors, and looking at how popular it was among those men made me see that maybe it is possible to make a period piece film, maybe there’s an audience for that. I think that’s how I came across it. 

The screenplay adaptation for Blade of the Immortal was written by Testsuya Oishi – and indeed you have only four screenwriting credits to your own name across your entire oeuvre [writer of Lesson of the Evil; co-writer of Zato Ichi: Stage Play, Sukiyaki Western Django, The Great Yokai War]. How much influence do you have over the scripts for your films? Do you receive the script and leave it as is, or do you change the script and make it your own in production?

Takashi Miike: So there are two different ways. First is, a scriptwriter obviously reads the original and adapts it – and, when I read it, if I can feel that the adaptor has shown the original respect and love – even if the way that the adaptor feels about the original is different from the way that I feel about it – if I can feel that the adaptor has respected the original, then I can tell the adaptor: ‘Ignore whatever the producer said, just go ahead  and write the way you feel is loyal to the original source material.’

The second type is, when I read the script, and I don’t feel the respect or the love. In that case, I take over, I write, I put what I think is necessary, but he still gets the credit, the other person. I don’t necessarily get the credit.

In Blade of the Immortal, there’s a talkative minor opponent called Taito Magatsu (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) who tells a long story about his past, and the main character Manji (Takuya Kimura) actually has to interrupt him. In fact every character in your film has their own backstory of which they are the hero – even the character Anotsu (Soto Fukushi), who should be the villain, is really a hero, but a hero in a different story that happens not to have Manji at its centre. How important was it for the dynamics of your revenge narrative to make everybody a hero? 

Takashi Miike: When I read a script, I think I personally find the peripheral characters more interesting than the leading rôles. Whenever I discover that villains who are just tools to make the leading character look good, I think I feel very sympathetic and I feel a real sort of empathy with whichever actors are playing that – it’s maybe somebody who’s been an actor for a long time and always plays a minor rôle, but been there for a long, long time doing this sort of work. When I’m filming, I feel I really want to show my empathy and my love for that character and that minor actor who’s playing that character maybe just for one day worth of the filming. It makes me want to have fun. In a way, yes, he gets beaten by the main character, but he gets up again, and in the end he has to get completely smashed by a big rock or something. As a result, he does end up being violently beaten, but I think all this violence is born out of my empathy and my love for that minor character, and that’s how it ends up as a result. 

*  *  *

Five essential Miike films: 

Influencing the next decade’s torture porn, and making a generation squirm to the words ‘kiri kiri kiri’, Audition (1999) offers a portrait of a middle-aged widower’s guilt and gynophobia. It is a J-horror like no other, turning one man’s self-torment into a nightmare as much psychological as visceral.

The first of a loose trilogy of films linked by having Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa in the lead rôles (playing different characters in each film, who always die), Dead Or Alive (1999) sees a Triad boss and a police detective circling each other, but is best remembered for its rapidly cut-up, multi-narrative opening, and for a climax that ramps up to an irrationally apocalyptic showdown.

Censor-baiting manga adaptation Ichi the Killer (2001) pits the sadomasochistic lieutenant/lover (Tadanobu Asano) of a missing yakuza boss against a murderous crybaby (Nao Omori) who is being manipulated by a vengeful mesmerist (Shinya Tsukamoto). It’s a riotously shocking exploration of the reversibility of hierarchies and the perversity of power.

In the low-budget, straight-to-video Visitor Q (2001), a stranger knocks some sense into a deeply dysfunctional family (with a rock). Reconciling them with a blend of prostitution, incest, drug-taking, extreme lactation, necrophilia and murder, he also helps them videotape their experiences. The results are hilariously transgressive.

Remaking Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name, but also evoking Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), 13 Assassins (2010) is a late Edo period chanbara in which a small group of nobles conspires to ambush and kill a psychotic Lord (and his 200 followers) before he can ascend to greater power. What follows is a prolonged, phenomenal battle sequence that, as well as being a ‘total massacre’, also showcases many different faces of heroism and antiheroism.

© Anton Bitel