Miike Across Fantasia

Five Miike Moments

by Peter Rist Volume 21, Issue 3 / March 2017 11 minutes (2505 words)

It is really fitting that FanTasia has given a Lifetime Achievement Award to Takashi Miike, because the festival has shown more films directed by him —29 features, two TV series episodes, a jointly directed 3-part feature, and now a short kids film— than anyone else, by far. 1 It is also an especially appropriate form of recognition since it was here in Montreal, on July 18, 1997, in the Cinéma Imperial that the screening of Fudoh: The Next Generation (1996) was the first North American screening of any of Miike’s films. Indeed, for the presentation of the award hosted by the charming head of FanTasia’s Asian programming, Nicolas Archambault, the person responsible for premiering Miike’s work in North America, Julien Fonfrede was on hand to say a few words alongside his fellow programmers from that era, Karim Hussain and Mitch Davis (the festival’s current Director General) as well as another longtime Miike programmer, Tony Timpone the editor of Fangoria. It was a terrific event.

I have seen almost all of Miike’s film and video works that have shown at FanTasia, most of them at the festival, so I thought it would be interesting to pick five of them (not necessarily the “best’) to discuss here as my personal tribute:

Fudoh: The Next Generation

Seeing Miike’s 3rd work of “cinema” at the second edition of FanTasia in 1997, Fudoh: The Next Generation (Gokudô Sengokushi: Fudô, 1996) was truly revelatory. 2 The introduction to the Yakuza family Fudô at the beginning of the film, in flashback, is absolutely shocking, where the father kills his eldest son, witnessed by his youngest son, Riki. We had become familiar in Japanese yakuza (gangster) films with the ritual of clan members cutting off a finger as retribution, but this act of filicide goes way beyond what we expect, especially since the act is witnessed by a young boy. The film jumps ahead 10 years and Riki (now played by Shôsuke Tanihara) is a high school student who gathers fellow students (especially teenage girls) and other young boys into his gang. The second shock the film delivers is to show children committing acts of murder, as well as Riki, who is invariably dressed in school uniform, and his two female attendants, Toko (Tamaki Kanmochi) and Mika (Miho Nomoto). When Mika shoots a killer dart, presumably from her vagina, and when later, while wearing school uniform, she is shown from behind urinating like a man, we realize we are in a surreal world. We are told that Mika is a hermaphrodite, but her powers are clearly “supernatural.” So, Fudoh introduced us to the work of a highly original filmmaker; one who appeals to youthful audiences in particular, and who dwells in excess, especially with depictions of violence, but who entertains because he encourages us to acknowledge that we are not watching “reality,” but just a “movie.”

Dead or Alive 2: The Birds

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (Tōbôsha, 2000) was shown on July 25, 2001 in the Cinéma Imperial during the 6th edition of FanTasia. It is, for me, the definitive Miike film, combining elements of complete fantasythe two young (anti)heroes spout wings and escape effectively as “birds“with astute left-political actionssending vaccine to save children in Africaand with disturbingly real violent crime wars. I will focus here on the brilliant editing of a sequence that contrasts a school play being put on for children with a bloody, gangster gun battle between a Chinese triad and Japanese yakuza. When the actors get stuck in a road accident, Mizuki (Shô Aikawa) and Shu (Riki Takeuchi) outrageously dressed as a kappa and a lion, respectively, improvise their performances to emphasize bodily functions. The two gangsters were long-lost friends and are back on their (imaginary) island, in their old nursery school where they reclaim their childhood innocence. I like to think that children were actually witnessing this “play” while Miike “documents” it, and loving it, because its scatological displaye.g., with a large torch doubling as a peniswould never be shown in a Hollywood film, in fear of offending the audience (both young and old). Much more shocking was Miike’s choice to cross-cut the bawdy children’s play with a brutal gun war between Chinese and Japanese gangsters, taking place far away in Tokyo. For negative critics of Miike’s work, such an apparently immoral (or, at least amoral) decision would presumably be the ultimate turn-off, but for me the result represents a new montage peak, harking back to the Soviet experiments of the 1920s, especially those of Sergei Eisenstein, where we find both the clash and visceral nature of rude comical gestures with ultra violence —a montage of “attractions” and “conflicts”— And a dialectical, associational montage component where the spectator is encouraged to think through the different elements as well as feel them. 3 One obvious connection is with the denouement of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), where the christening of a baby in a Catholic church is intercut with gangland assassinations. The shocking nature of the association between devout religion and brutal criminality through the Mafia in The Godfather is, arguably topped by Miike in Dead or Alive II, in highlighting and questioning the relationship between innocent childhood and violent adulthood. Throughout the film, Miike cuts between Mizuki and Shu’s past and present, what they would like to regain and what they have become, and in Tom Mes’ comprehensive analysis of the film he notes that the question “Where Are You?” reappears at intervals in title cards and that the “central theme” of the film is “the men who commit these acts were once children.” 4

Gozu

Gozu (Gokudô Kyôfu Daigekijô: Gozu, 2003) was the very first of Miike’s films to be shown in the Cannes International Film Festival, being selected for the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors Fortnight). 5 Atypical of the director in that there is very little “action,” much more comedy than usual, and a unique strain of “fantasy” in Gozu, the film is however, typical for Miike in its “strangeness.” Never targeted for theatrical release in Japan because the director thought it was too “strange” even for his work, it was released in some territories in 35mm, showed at FantAsia in the summer of 2004 and was released on DVD in North America in November. The original title of the film translates into “Yakuza Horror Theatre: Cow’s Head,” and is thus suggestive of the mixing of genres, with “Gozu” being a “cow-headed demon” in Buddhist mythology. 6 Two scenes in particular are memorable. Right at the beginning, Ozaki, a yakuza (Shô Aikawa) repeatedly smashes a cute little chihuahua against a window, as a challenge to the pet’s yakuza owner. This outrageous affront to dog-lovers everywhere was performed in the film for comedy, where every experienced filmgoer would recognize that the scene could never be “real,” reminding us of the popular end-title card: “no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” Not much later, Ozaki is killed, but he re-incarnates as a beautiful young woman (Kimika Yoshino) and in one of Miike’s most memorable scenes of the “fantastic,” she gives birth to a slime covered Aikawa! Throughout Gozu, Ozaki’s buddy, Minami (Hideki Sone) struggles with his latent homosexuality, and, indeed the film presents Miike’s funniest, perhaps most advanced and least offensive treatise on gender and sexuality, because of it never slipping from fantasy into realism. I personally have problems with violent scenes of rape in some of Miike’s films, because of them being rendered in the realist mode, and graphically, too.

Big Bang Love: Juvenile A

Miike’s most obvious candidate for “art film,” and arguably his most narratively experimental and complex, Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (46-Oku Nen no Koi, 2006) is also his most homoerotic work. The script was written by Masa Nakamura (who also wrote Dead or Alive 2), the title of which strictly translates as “4.6 Billion Year Love,” that, as the DVD notes explain, is the approximate date in history when the Earth was supposedly formed by the “big bang.” 7 Nakamura is known for his omniscient narratives, and Big Bang Love has many narrators to the extent that the opening scene consists of Ken’ichi Endô as a detective, presumably reading part of the script, a monologue on thousands of years of history. This is followed by a scene of an old master discussing the initiation into manhood to a boy, against a red background, and then we see a well-built, tatooed young man dancing against a plain white background. Such an approach is Brechtian in its distanciation and the theatrical sets of the film’s prison centerpiece are minimal and extremely stylized, but remarkably, one can still be drawn in to relate emotionally to the two beautiful, principal characters of the film, Jun Ariyoshi (Ryûhei Matsuda) and Shiro Kazuki (Masanobu Andô). Both are “Juvenile A” murderers, a term that is also explained in the DVD notes as referring to the anonymity granted, even to seriously criminal juvenile offenders in Japan. Near the beginning of the plot, but the end of the story, Ariyoshi confesses to having strangled his best friend and protector, Kazuki, although we gradually learn through the film’s “murder mystery” trajectory that, effectively Kazuki strangles himself, albeit aided by one of many fellow prisoners who wish him dead. The reflexive nature of the narrative is continued through the onscreen appearance of text: statements and questions by the investigators and the prison warden (who is himself a suspect). In flashback glimpses of their childhood, we learn that Jun and Shiro have both been severely abused, in part explaining their descent into crime and that both have reacted violently to homosexual advances. The depiction of homophobia interestingly segues into scenes of gay tenderness, and other narrative and stylistic examples of segmentation and repetition match this structure. All of the flashbacks are rendered realistically, and the film concludes on a documentary shot outside a subway entrance, and elsewhere there are television images. By contrast, the monochromatic (brown/yellow) interiors and the CG background exteriors (dominated by Mayan pyramids and a space exploratory rocket station), of the juvenile prison are positively surreal. The film that Tony Rayns called “no doubt commercially suicidal” and a “cross between a philosophical enquiry and a sleazy psychodrama,” Big Bang Love is a surprising and brilliantly avant-garde work.9 8

13 Assassins

Increasingly, Miike is able to work on personal projects like Big Bang Love by making more obviously commercial films such as The Great Yokai War (Yôkai Daisensô, 2005), which although aimed at a children’s audience, cleverly combines elements to please his adult fans. And, beginning with 2002’s Graveyard of Honour (Shin Jingi no Hakaba), where he brought a 1975 Kinji Fukusaku masterpiece of the same name into the 20th century, Miike has directed a number of interesting remakes, including Ichimel (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, 2011) a 3-D, virtually action-less update of Masaki Kobayashi’s Seppuku (Harakiri, 1962) and Kuime (Over Your Dead Body, 2014), the latest and a reflexive translation of Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya) of which there have been more than 30 Japanese film versions. Arguably the most successful (and most expensive) of Miike’s film remakes is 13 Assassins (Jûsannin no Shikaku, 2010). Based on the same real life story as Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins traces a samurai, Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) on his journey with 11 other samurai (or ronin) and a rebellious hunter to intercept and kill his brutally corrupt lord, Matsudaira Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) who rapes, tortures and murders his own servants. Allegedly this sequence of events in the 1840s led to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. (Naritsugu was the Shogun’s half-brother, and had thus been able to maintain his reign amidst the chaos he was causing.) Whereas Kudo’s film had been accused of being a pale imitation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954)10, 9 one can also see traces of this film in Miike’s with the down and dirty appearance of the protagonists, especially Kiga Koyata, the hunter (Yûsuke Iseya) whose main weapon is a stone in a sling, and the extended 45-minute final battle to the death in a village that had been booby-trapped (off screen) to counter Naritsugu’s 200-strong army. If anything, the climactic battle harks back to much earlier Japanese jidai geki (historical) films of the chambara (swordplay) genre, where ronin are often vastly outnumbered in battle, surrounded by antagonists, and although Miike follows the silent-era use of the tracking camera, fast editing and high angle shots that show the impossible odds, invariably his camera is close-up and engaged in the action.11 10 This is reminiscent of silent films directed by Daisuke Itô, where he would often have his camera operator, Hiroaki Karasawa strap the camera to his body and have him run into the action.12 11 One could divide the film into three parts, the first of which shows the horrors committed by Naritsugu, especially against women and children (in 40 minutes) and the second of which, in a similar length shows the formation and travels of the group, including scenes of training and early one sided sword fight. Whereas Naritsugu’s victims are portrayed in an “extreme” fashion as befits Miike’s work as a whole, we find in these episodes a restraint, perhaps even a “classicism” that also graces the look of Ichimel. Miike continues to surprise us, and, for me, his greatest strength as a film artist is that he continues to find new and original ideas and ways to express them while maintaining a consistent feeling for the oppressed and young people of our world and the ability to expose these oppressions, and to shock us.

Notes

  1. Initially, Johnnie To had 14 feature films that he had produced or directed shown during the first four editions of the FanTasia festival (1996-1999), but since that time fewer than 10 of his films have shown (according to my records).
  2. I am using the term “cinema” here in the way Tom Mes used it in his indispensible guide, Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (Godalming, UK: FAB Press, 2003) to works that were shot on film, for theatrical exhibition, not shot on video to go straight to video for rental, purchase or showing on TV.
  3. The best example of a film that combines montages of conflict with “intellectual” montages is Eisenstein’s Oktyabr (October, 1928).
  4. Tom Mes, Agitator, pp. 200-205.
  5. See “The Gozu Chronicles: Takashi Miike Hits Cannes,” in Re-Agitator, pp. 44-47.
  6. See “Gozu: Lost in Flagellation,” for more on the mythological connections, in Re-Agitator, pp.48-50.
  7. Tony Rayns translated the title as “Love across 460 million years,” in “Home Truths,” reviews of the Berlin International Film Festival, Sight and Sound, Vol. 16, no. 4 (2006):26. AnimEigo/Shochiku, 2 disc set, AV207-009, ANM-DV-1189 (2007).
  8. Rayns, op. cit., p. 26.
  9. See Robin Gatto, “Eiichi Kudo’s Guerrilla Filmmaking,” Midnight Eye (14 May 2007), http://www.midnighteye.com/features/eiichi-kudos-guerrilla-filmmaking
  10. See Orochi (Serpent, aka Outlaw, 1925), directed by Buntarô Futagara, and starring Tsumasaborô Bando as Heisaburo, a ronin.
  11. See, tadao sato, Le cinéma japonais, tome 1 (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1997), p. 132.

Miike Across Fantasia

Peter Rist, Ph.D has been teaching film history and aesthetics at Concordia University, Montreal, since 1989. He was principal writer for, and edited, Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada (2001) and (co-edited with Timothy Barnard) South American Cinema: A Critical Filmography, 1915-1994 (1998). His more recent publications (from 2014) include Historical Dictionary of South American Film and a chapter of Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema, “Hong Kong: From the Silents to the Second Wave.” He has written extensively on Chinese and Korean cinemas and is a frequent contributor to Offscreen.

Volume 21, Issue 3 / March 2017 Film Reviews