Takashi Miike at Fantasia 2016

by Donato Totaro, Randolph Jordan, Peter Rist Volume 21, Issue 3 / March 2017 12 minutes (2859 words)

Photo by Robert del Tredici

No filmmaker could have been more anticipated for an appearance at Fantasia than Takashi Miike, whose films have screened here in more numbers than any other filmmaker in the festival’s history but who had yet to pay us a personal visit. Fantasia’s organizers finally solved that problem by selecting Miike as the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award in conjunction with the festival’s 20th anniversary. Miike spent three days at the festival, conducting interviews with the press on Friday and attending screenings of two of his new features Terraformars and As the Gods Will over the weekend. He was generous in spirit, holding lengthy Q+A sessions after both films followed by a photo-op on Saturday and a signing session on Sunday. Offscreen has been committed to significant coverage of Miike’s films at Fantasia over the years, a sampling of which we have provided elsewhere in this issue. So of course we were ecstatic at the possibility of interviewing Miike in person and checking out his latest wares. Offscreen editor-in-chief Donato Totaro joined regular contributors Randolph Jordan and Peter Rist to sit down with Miike around noon on Friday before the director’s two weekend screenings. The time allotted for press meetings was very short: 20 minutes, which dwindled down to 5 minutes worth of usable material after allowing for the cumbersome process of translation. But in the Q+A sessions after his films Miike followed up on some of areas we touched upon during our interview. What follows is a compilation of material from all three of these sessions as a document of Miike’s presence at Fantasia 2016. – Editors (Donato Totaro, Randolph Jordan, and Peter Rist)

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Photo by Randolph Jordan

Editors: Miike’s first appearance to the public was to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award in front of a sold-out house on the first Saturday night of the festival. He hoisted the glorious Cheval Noir statuette high, and his opening words demonstrated his marked appreciation of the honour:

Takashi Miike Finally, I am here together with you at Fantasia. I have always wanted to come, but have been so busy I could never make it. I’ve been a director for 25 years and I can’t even count how many films I’ve shot. But it must be around 100, and one third of these have been presented here at Fantasia. So from the bottom of my heart, I am truly grateful to the festival, and to all of you, the audience. Usually when people are given a lifetime achievement award it comes at the end of their careers. But I am determined to work hard for another 20 years and stay in shape so that I can join you all here again in the future.

Photos by Randolph Jordan

Editors: During our private interview the day before, Randolph Jordan kicked off the questions by touching on the changing nature of Miike’s practice over the years and the problem of meeting audience expectations, even at a festival as adoring of his work as Fantasia.

Takashi Miike: Of course people liked it when I was making films like Ichi the Killer and such in my earlier days. But I don’t really like to do what people expect, so I’m always trying to do new things, and make what I like. And I find that people now are enjoying my oeuvre as a whole.

Photo by Keelia Hunter

Editors: The question of expectation is connected to genre, an issue that came up more than once during the Q+A sessions. By now Miike has engaged with a wide variety of genres, and is perhaps best known for how he blends them together against type, sometimes to the delight of audiences, other times to their frustration. When asked about his approach to genre, he had this to say:

Takashi Miike: For me, there is no such thing as genre. Even today I don’t feel like I have really grasped the meaning of genre. Comedies often have a sad side, family films sometimes have violence, etc. But when people ask me what a film is about, this is often when the idea of genre becomes useful. I can say, oh, this a Yakuza film, or a horror film. So when faced with such questions, I think about genre. However, in my mind, genres are not separated. They are all interconnected, seamless. So, for example, Terraformars is not “science fiction.” My main inspiration for this film, what I wanted to do most, was to send a Japanese Yakuza to Mars so that he could smoke there. I thought that would be really fantastic. [Much cheering all around.]

Editors: And of course questions of genre are tied to influence, and no Q+A is complete without some interrogation about filmmakers that have inspired the director of the day. Some are reticent to discuss influences for fear of appearing derivative. Miike was not one of these, and openly agreed with audience members who saw traces of Ridley Scott in Terraformars and Kinji Fukasaku in As the Gods Will.

Takashi Miike: I have great respect for Ridley Scott and I admire him very much. When I saw Blade Runner I was so moved, so touched, that I have been influenced by it since then. And of course I have certainly been influenced by grand master Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, and I did not try to outdo him here. I am living in a generation that follows great filmmakers like these, and what is important is not to try to surpass them, but to live in the currents of history that they set in motion. That is what I am trying to do here. Of course sometimes there are missteps, and often my homages turn into parodies. But I am always trying to be respectful of the filmmakers that have inspired me.

Editors: And then there is the question of Miike’s unusually prolific output, prompting one audience member to ask where he finds the energy.

Takashi Miike For me, I work at a normal speed for my environment and personality. What might be different between me and other directors who work more slowly is that I am not particularly fussy about things like casting or budget that can often slow things down. And I remain open to all opportunities as they present themselves. As long as my heart remains open, work comes to me. Since I don’t have preconceptions about what kind of film I’d like to make next, I’m open to making the next film, whatever it is. I don’t think about whether or not it will be profitable. Oh, and I have three kids and I have to pay their tuition fees, and one of them just asked me for a motor bike. It’s a good father who works hard!

Editors: Across such a varied and prolific output, it has become something of an industry to try and recognize Miike as an auteur who, despite genre disparities and open influence by his predecessors, stamps his films with an unmistakable signature. And so questions invariably arise about his level of intervention into his source materials, particularly when drawing on popular mangas, as was the case for both films presented this year.

Takashi Miike and the humanoid cockroaches from the Terraformars manga.

Takashi Miike: Terraformars was based on the original manga, and I was in love with this work so I wanted to respect it as much as possible while also making it my own. In this case the original work had a sensibility very close to my own. For practical reasons I wanted to condense the storyline into a single film, and so I chose excerpts from the original that best suited my style and pieced those together to make my film. For As the Gods Will, I stuck to the original manga through most of the games up to the daruma dolls. After that my own ideas took over, with assistance from my screenwriter and producers. For example, the bear and the matryoshka dolls were the result of discussions with my team on how to flesh out the manga and make it more interesting.

Editors: During our interview, Donato Totaro asked about the source of these deadly games in As the Gods Will.

Donato Totaro: It occurred to me after watching As the Gods Will that all the vicious killing objects, the daruma dolls, matryoshka dolls, the huge cat doll, and the wooden polar bear were traditional toys hundreds of years old, killing these young kids reared on modern tech toys. Which I think is a clever way to invoke the age-old theme of tradition versus modernity. Can you talk about that unique treatment of an old theme?

Takashi Miike: All those game scenes are based on children’s games, but games we played when I was a kid, not games that kids play now. Kids have a lot of beauty and innocence, but there is also a part that is quite scary. They can be quite nice, but they can also be very cruel. We learn about these differences by playing when we are kids, and there are always winners and losers, those who live and those who die. And so we come to understand these things through play. Today it’s all through video games, but at that time we were learning via our bodies through these more physical games. It was very cruel. But a lot of things are like that in Japan. If you listen to old Japanese music for children there are always parts that are very dark and scary. It’s always like that. This is where that aspect of the film comes from.

Daruma dolls in As the Gods Will

Editors: Miike elaborated on the development of the game sequences, the distinctive personalities of the toys, and their origin in the world of kids play during the Q+A following the film:

Takashi Miike In fact, I had it in mind that I would like this film to appeal to children, which guided my approach to the characterizations of the toys. We had a variety of different people working on the 3D computer animation used throughout the film and we tried to let each team put their own strengths into each of the games. As for the voices, we had many great actors well established in the Japanese film industry, some veterans of Akira Kurosawa included, so that helped a lot in giving these toys their personalities. Sadly, Japan is a highly regulated society and children were not legally allowed to attend screenings of this film. I was a bit disappointed about that, but hopefully today’s children will grow up and seek the film out on video when they are adults.

Editors: This talk of children led one audience member to ask what Miike’s own children think of his films.

Takashi Miike Well, my children are all adults now so they have come to understand just what it is that I do. The real problem, however, is my mother, now in her 80s. She’s in good health, and she likes to go to my films with groups of her lady friends. Sometimes I make good dramas that they can go and watch just fine. But one time she took her friends to see one of my films called Ichi the Killer. She called me right after asking, “What have you done?” I was severely reprimanded. [Hearty laughter all around.]

But, in fact, the project that I’m finishing up now, in production over the past three years, is a television drama where the heroes and idols are women who work in television, aimed at girls in Japan aged 3 to 8. Sadly, because it’s a kid’s film made for television, it likely will not be presented at Fantasia.

Fantasia Moderator: We’ll see what we can do.

Editors: The suitability of Miike’s films for kids (or parents) of course hangs largely on representations of violence and sexuality, which Donato Totaro addressed in our interview:

Opening carnage in As the Gods Will

Donato Totaro: I am interested in representations of violence and specifically gender. In your films it is mainly the men who inflict the violence, but you’ve had some intensely violent women too, like in Audition, Imprint (from Masters of Horror), and Sukiyaki Western Django. Does gender ever come into play in terms of how you represent the violence in your films?

Takashi Miike: When I plan a violent film, the style of violence depends a lot on my choice of actors. Some actors have a violent streak, others do not. Sometimes I ask an actor to play a violent scene, and if I give them a lot of liberty they will bring their own style of violence to the scene. Especially with women, they are working in a world dominated my men so they are always working under the stress of portraying women the way that men want to see. But if we give them some liberty to express themselves, they will deliver a different kind of performance.

Randolph Jordan: To follow up on this question of violence, the very first thing we see in As the Gods Will are feathers floating down from the sky around the main character before he tells us that he wishes he could escape his boring life. Bird imagery is often connected to violence in your work, from very explicit examples like Bird People in China, Dead or Alive 2: The Birds, and Lesson of the Evil, to brief suggestions like the raven in Ichi the Killer or in the opening sequence to Happiness of the Katakuris. Can you tell us a bit about why you continually include such bird imagery and themes across a wide variety of your films, regardless of style, production context or storyline?

Takashi Miike: My grandfather was a hunter and he used to hunt birds a lot. When I was a kid I used to pick up the birds that he shot and carry them in my back pocket. I could feel the bodies in close contact with my own. And it was easier to take the feathers off when they were still warm, and this always tasted better than when you buy the meat from the market. But there is also the cruelty of the deaths here, and so for me birds have become the symbol of hunting. So when you see bird imagery in my films, there will be a connection to this theme of hunting, and the cruelty of death.

Photo by Keelia Hunter

Editors: Finally, Peter Rist rounded out our interview with a couple of questions relating to industry.

Peter Rist: You have worked a lot in 35mm, as recently as 2003, often with Yamamoto Hideo as cinematographer (about 20 films), and more recently with Kita Nobuyasu (over five 35mm films). I had assumed that you preferred digital. But is it a question of preferring to shoot on film only if the budget is there?

Takashi Miike: There are fewer and fewer labs to handle film, and the cost keeps going up. But with digital it’s increasingly possible to achieve a quality like film. And all the cameramen feel that way too. So for me, shooting on film is really something that has been tied to this particular moment in history, not so much because I like it better than digital. In 10 years time shooting on 35mm will really be something rare indeed for that point in history.

Peter Rist: I know you’ve turned down offers from Hollywood in the past. What is it that has prevented you from working there?

Takashi Miike: Well, in fact I do have some projects originating from Hollywood in various stages of production now. But my position is that, instead of requiring me to go to Hollywood to work, I would like Hollywood, or the European film industry, to come to Japan and bring their actors and actresses to work with me here. And I would like to retain rights of distribution. In that sense the barriers for me working with Hollywood are quite high. But I am ready to collaborate with Hollywood or other industries at the moment when they would allow me to work with the considerable forces that I have accumulated in Japan and to make these forces work for their projects.

Editors: Miike began his introduction to Saturday night’s screening by expressing how moved he was to be here at Fantasia, a festival with a reputation for enthusiastic audiences that he had heard about from other directors in Japan. And he ended his final Q+A on Sunday night by confirming the truth of what he had heard.

Takashi Miike: As the Gods Will has already been presented at many festivals in a variety of different countries, but you are the first audience to participate by clapping to the song that the daruma dolls sing as part of their deadly game. That was great! Even if my films are not well understood by my family, or even in Japan by local audiences, all I have to do is tell them how well my films are appreciated here at Fantasia, and that is sufficient to me.

Photo by Randolph Jordan

Takashi Miike at Fantasia 2016

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Takashi Miike at Fantasia 2016

Randolph Jordan is a Montreal-based film scholar, educator, and multimedia practitioner. He earned his first and second cycle degrees in philosophy and film studies respectively before completing his Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary Humanities program at Concordia University. His ongoing research examines the intersection between acoustic ecology and film sound theory/practice, and he has recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University where he was investigating geographical specificity in Vancouver-based film and media by way of sound studies and critical geography. His research has been published widely and his photographs, films and sound works have been exhibited internationally. He is now writing a book for Oxford University Press provisionally titled, Reflective Audioviewing: An Acoustic Ecology of the Cinema (expected 2016). He has been covering Montreal film, music and new media festivals for Offscreen since 2001.

Takashi Miike at Fantasia 2016

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 Festival Reports, Interviews fantasiajapanese filmtakashi miike