Kaiju Shakedown: Takashi Miike
Every director has a few embarrassments chained up in the attic of his or her filmography, but not Takashi Miike. “I never made a movie I didn’t want to make,” he said in an interview back in 2001, but that’s a bold claim when you’ve got close to 100 films under your belt; 96 to be exact, according to Tom Mes, author of Agitator and Re-Agitator, the definitive English-language books on Miike. Tom made some time to talk with Kaiju Shakedown via email. Because when you’re talking about Miike, you need to talk to Tom.
“Miike's criteria for selecting projects is often based on the people he gets to work with,” Mes says. “And there have been a number of producers that he's enjoyed working with so much that he's continued to accept even off-the-wall or really low-budget projects.” Miike is the man who can’t say no, and that’s led him to some pretty weird places. Like Yasukuni, the shrine for Japan’s war dead.
Built in Tokyo in 1869, Yasukuni originally honored those who died in service to the Empire, although now it honors all of Japan’s war dead, including 1,068 soldiers convicted of war crimes (14 of them Class A war criminals). Over the years it’s become a flashpoint for controversy and a beloved symbol of Japan’s conservative right-wing movement. On its grounds is the Yushukan, a museum commemorating these soldiers, which has been criticized for its revisionist take on World War II, including portraying the Japanese army as “saving” the city of Nanking, rather than pillaging it and killing many of its inhabitants. The Yushukan’s other claim to fame is that its gift shop is the only place where one can purchase A Vow for Peace, an animated film directed by Miike. Running slightly under an hour, it has two parts: one about the Yamaga Lantern Festival, and then Keiu Matsuo and his Mother, a 44-minute movie about a young man who participated in the Japanese Navy's midget submarine attacks on Sydney Harbor in 1942. In a bonus bit of strange bedfellowship, Takashi Yamazaki, the director behind the Always movies and the massive, controversial hit Eternal Zero, worked on the CGI in the film. Mes also points out that the movie’s Japanese title is Heiwa e no ukei, but that “ukei” can mean “vow” or “right-wing” depending on how it’s written, so an alternate reading of the title would be Right-Wingers for Peace.
The man who got Miike involved with this project is Kaoru Hanaki, whose production company Bull-X mostly makes commercials. A longtime buddy of Miike’s all the way back to his Full Metal Yakuza (97) days, in which he played the yakuza eyeball-licker, Hanaki is also responsible for Miike’s oddball Kumamoto Monogatari trilogy (01). Miike talks about these movies in a 2001 interview in Patrick Macias’s invaluable book, Tokyoscope:
“Once a year for the last three years I've made films for the Kumamoto Department of Education. Because they are so far out in the suburbs, they haven't seen too many of my films . . . These films are made to help support the neighborhood through rough economic times. The stories are based on historical subjects and mythological characters native to the area. The next one will be about the collapse of the Yamato Kingdom, only with an extremely cheap budget. We'll make a spectacle with dry ice and fire. We don't use village actors, we hire professionals like Renji Ishibashi and Ren Osugi. They'll be wearing animal costumes and masks.”
Designed to be screened at a local history museum in the Kumamoto Prefecture, these three short films (altogether they run just about two hours) are like something from a parallel universe where Miike is the head of the A/V club at an elementary school for strange students. As Mes explains, “Each of the three films deals with a different era in the history and mythology of Kumamoto prefecture, and yes, they were shot on really tiny budgets. The special effects are very rudimentary, of the kind you see in educational films screened in regional and local museums in Japan, where they will show those CGI reconstructions of long-gone castles.” Making things even more surreal is the fact that these movies star professional actors like Kazuki Kitamura (The Raid 2: Berandal), Yoshio Harada (Alleycat Rock: Crazy Riders '71), and Mikijiro Hira (13 Assassins).
Despite the involvement of Hanaki, they’re decidedly not right-wing. One of them, Defender’s Song, is notable not only for its 3-D segments in which digital arrows creep across the screen like crippled buffalo, but also for making the case that Korea had many positive influences on the development of Japanese culture. Woman in the Revolt of the Clans, probably the most lavish of the three, is about the role of female warriors in a local civil war.
Less wholesome, and only slightly more accomplished, are the fruits of Miike’s collaborations with Hisao Maki, a black belt in karate and creator of the manga WARU and Futari no Joe, a spin-off from the legendary boxing manga Ashita no Joe, created by his older brother, Ikki Kajiwara. First teaming up with Miike on 1992’s A Human Murder Weapon, which Mes describes as “dire,” Maki was a larger-than-life macho man who wildly overestimated his own talents, but one can imagine he was a hoot to hang out with. For Miike, he wrote a series of films about underground karate-spy-wrestling rings that often involved sexual humiliation, lady wrestlers, and strap-on dildos. There’s the Bodyguard Kiba trilogy and, most watchable of them all, Silver (99), on which Maki is credited as producer, writer, action director, and actor (he plays a karate teacher). Strangely enough, Maki would also write the novel that became the basis for one of Miike’s most poignant movies, Big Bang Love Juvenile A (06), a Jean Genet–esque love story between two boys locked up in prison which also involves rocket ships and Mayan temples. (WARU was later adapted into a 2005 movie by Miike and became the basis for an actual Japanese fighting league, presumably without the strap-ons.)
N-Girls vs. Vampire
Miike’s back catalogue is full of these low-budget oddities, like N-Girls vs. Vampire (99) (aka Man, Next Natural Girl: 100 Nights in Yokohama) a semi-sequel to Man, A Natural Girl (98) about a street-tough schoolgirl battling a modeling agency run by vampires. Shot on Betacam instead of digital video, its cinematographer is Hideo Yamamoto (Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, One Missed Call, The Great Yokai War, and many more for Miike), and the movie plays like an apocalyptically neon-lit forerunner to Twilight, full of dodgy CGI effects and featuring a totally evil vampire boy who falls for our two-fisted schoolgirl, Man. “Yuuya’s hated women ever since his mother abandoned him when he was little,” a young boy explains to Man. “But then he met you. He never met anyone as gentle as you are.” In the next scene, someone barfs up a bucket of blood.
In recent years, things have changed. Maki has passed away, and there are fewer and fewer weird projects out there as the Japanese film industry battens down the hatches. Miike, too, has slowed down, sometimes only turning out two movies a year as he’s had more box-office success. As Mes puts it: “For the small-time producer of such a project to ask a favor of one of the most prolific, successful, and high-profile filmmakers in Japan requires either a lot of guts or an existing connection.” There’s also another producer in Miike’s life, Misako Saka. Also Miike's life partner, Saka established herself as his manager around the time of One Missed Call (03). “Over the past 10 years, she has quite shrewdly shepherded him from the turning point that was Gozu’s selection for the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes to a mainstream career in the domestic film industry, as well as his status as a favorite of the highest film-festival echelon,” Mes says. One also gets the impression that she doesn’t mind saying no to a lot of Miike’s old buddies.
Fortunately, Miike still directs the occasional offbeat, low-budget project, and the results can sometimes be stunning. In 2006, he turned out Sun Scarred for Cinema Paradise, a production company that came out of the wave of V-cinema bottom-feeders that appeared almost overnight in the Nineties. Beautifully gritty, and with an offhanded naturalism that keeps bleeding over into experimentalism (entire dialogue scenes are shot without sound), it’s a Death Wish–style story in which Show Aikawa gives one of the best performances of his career as an architect (just like Charles Bronson in Death Wish) taking on a band of sadistic middle-school kids who target him after he stops their beating of a homeless man. It’s an off-kilter minor masterpiece from Miike that belongs at the very least in his top 20, and the kind of small gem he doesn’t make much anymore. I’d say that was too bad, but with 96 movies in his back catalogue, there’s still a lot of digging for all of us to do.
A huge thank you to programmer Marc Walkow for digging deep into his collection for obscure Miike-abilia.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
…The Koreans are crowing that Roaring Currents has now earned $2.49 million in North American theaters, beating out the record previously held by Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (03) to become supposedly the highest-grossing Korean movie ever released in the U.S., which is neat since it’s currently the highest-grossing movie of all time back home. Sorry, guys, but no matter how hard you try, no one can wish away D-War (07), which is still the actual highest-grossing Korean movie of all time in North America with $10.97 million to its name. Come on. Be proud of your terrible movies, Korea!
…This is how rumors happen. Fan sites are hyperventilating that Sammo Hung is directing Jackie Chan for the first time since 1997’s Mr. Nice Guy in a movie called Old Soldier! OMG—that is amazing! Or, rather, it would be if it was true. In reality, the part was a cameo in Sammo’s new movie and Jackie didn’t have time to do it anyway. But they did get the title right.
…Think America is puritanical? There’s a public outcry in Korea for two actors to be suspended from all commercial advertising even though neither of them has actually done anything wrong. Lee Byung-hun (GI Joe: Rise of Cobra, I Saw the Devil) was blackmailed by at least one other celebrity (Dahee, singer for the K-Pop band GLAM, and a woman identified as actress and model Lee Ji-Yeon, although her management says that this is a case of mistaken identity) for $5 million, with the threat that a cell-phone recording of him having “inappropriate” conversation about his sexual preferences would be released. Lee immediately reported it to the police, and arrests were made. But a petition calling for him to be dropped from all advertising still gained 4,000 signatures, making the claim that while viewers could choose not to watch his movies, they were forced to see his ads. Equally stupid was another clause in the same petition, calling for a commercial boycott of actress Han Hyo-joo (Cold Eyes) because her brother bullied someone during his military service last year and she should be responsible for his behavior.
…Remember Anthony Wong, scrappy Hong Kong actor with way too much talent and fearlessness about the kind of roles he picked? Now he’s a very rich Anthony Wong who has decided that he deserves more creature comforts, and it’s hard to argue. After all, the man has paid his dues. But these days, Anthony is accompanied by an entourage of assistants, and he’s getting in fights with television producers over the quality of the hotel rooms they pick out for him. Oh, Anthony, we thought you were the man of iron.
…Remember the blockbuster Japanese film Shall We Dance? (96). Since then, its director, Masayuki Suo, has been going serious with films like the crime drama I Just Didn’t Do It (06). But now he’s back on point with a full-blown musical featuring big production numbers: Maiko wa Lady, a Japanese version of My Fair Lady that's about a country girl trying to become a geisha. The trailer doesn’t show enough to make a judgment call, but people seem to think it’s pretty charming.