On Pins and Needles
Interview with Takashi Miike
interview by KJ Doughton, 21 June 2002

28th Seattle International Film Festival

Although Takashi Miike doesnít speak a word of English, he effortlessly commands the focus of a conference room in Seattleís hip "W" Hotel. The Japanese director of Audition and Agitator is weathering a series of interviews, with an interpreter standing by to decipher questions. Outside, the chameleonic  Puget Sound skies are morphing from cloudy gray to clear blue, in much the same way that Miikeís unpredictable films twist from one extreme to another.

Take Dead or Alive, where a distraught policeman mourns the wrongful deaths of his wife and child late into the still, somber night, moments before facing off in a comic bazooka battle that literally blows up the world.  Even more dramatic is Auditionís cruel, sneaky transition from light, domestic romance into the most horrifying onscreen torture sequence of all time.  By refusing to follow conventional expectations, Miike blindsides us with grotesque shocks that come straight out of left field and resonate like nightmares.

In person, Miike radiates playful, irreverent charisma, his mouth stretching into a mischievous grin from time to time. The directorís locks have been cut short and dyed orange.  The blue-tinted shades that hide his eyes convey a futuristic, Terminator-style sensibility and give the filmmaker a menacing, bug-like appearance.  Meanwhile, a black leather bikerís jacket enshrouds Miikeís compact frame. He looks like a rabble- rousing rock star, fresh off some Tokyo stage.

Miikeís appearance on the Starbucks-saturated streets of Seattle comes courtesy the 28th Annual Seattle International Film Festival, where two of his most recent efforts, Happiness of the Katakuris and Agitator, are making their U.S. onscreen debuts.  In addition to providing northwest cinemaniacs with a chance to sample the cult favoriteís latest off-kilter projects, the festival has selected Miike for Emerging Master status.  The honor acknowledges new voices in cinema that are poised for mainstream, high-visibility success.

As flattered as the prolific auteur is with such recognition, Miike makes it clear that if the mainstream is truly interested, it will have to knock on his door.  Heíd prefer to succeed on his own terms. "Iíve got a certain audience that likes to see my movies," he proclaims, "but such films are not for everybody."

The black jacket that gives Miike the appearance of a rabid motorcycle enthusiast is a clue to his past.  Before eking out a reputation in Japanese film with a cluster of T.V. and direct-to-video releases that started with 1991ís Lady Hunter, Miike attempted to make ends meet as a motorbike racer. "I was in the top three bike racers in my area," he explains, "but then I tried to get a professional license. I found out that there was a lot of competition, and lost interest." 

Meanwhile, Miikeís stabs at continued education were sabotaged by a short attention span. "A lot of times, I didnít study too much," he confesses of a forgettable school history. "I went to the movies, instead. Movies ultimately helped me in two ways. They gave me escapism and enjoyment, and later on, they also gave me a livelihood."

In 1995, Shinjuku Triad Society emerged as Miikeís first theatrical feature and was the initial installment of a gangster trilogy that also includes Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999). Miikeís fearless penchant for strong violence and lurid sexuality was enforced by the yakuza revenge actioner Fudoh: The New Generations (1996).

By 1999, Miikeís unusual films had begun making waves at festivals across the world. His warped aesthetic was compared to that of David Cronenberg or David Lynch, with dreamlike imagery and graphic shocks colliding in such twisted masterpieces as 1999ís Audition and Dead or Alive. Arguably his piece de resistance, Audition traces the sad plight of Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a successful businessman and dedicated father still smarting from the death of his wife seven years ago.  With his adolescent boy observing, "Dad, you look old," and a secretary announcing her engagement, Aoyama attempts to diffuse his aching pangs of loneliness by finding a new wife.

At the suggestion of a film industry friend, Aoyama stages a phony audition, where aspiring young actresses are summoned to apply for the bogus projectís lead role. However, the ulterior motive behind this scheme is to allow Aoyama his pick of the bunch, for wining, dining, and romance. Itís an underhanded plot, and the shy widower soon pays penance for such deception. He falls hard for Asami (Eihi Shiina), an ethereal waif whose fragile appearance masks a fierce psychopathology borne of past betrayals. 

Audition takes its own sweet, leisurely time to lure us towards its camouflaged venus flytrap.  Initially, weíre lulled into passivity by the filmís breezy blend of romantic comedy, like stuffed diners relaxing in the afterglow of fine wine and full bellies.  Suddenly, Miike reveals the black widowís web that weíve been trapped in, by unveiling a prolonged, agonizing torture scene involving needles. Lots of needles.  Weíre lurched out of the safe confines of what has come before, and the disorientation is only matched by the graphic horror that lingers on the screen.  Audition emerges as the most harrowing, unforgiving jolt of shock cinema since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

After being told that audiences left in droves when Auditionís difficult-to-stomach third act premiered at SIFF two years ago, Miike isnít surprised. "Thatís a very natural reaction," he confesses. "There are some audiences that donít want to see that kind of thing. However, there are also people who stayed there. They made some connection.  Thatís important to me."

When asked which country hosts his most loyal following, Miike states that he doesnít perceive his audience in terms of geography. "For me, itís not about country, but about people," he explains. "There are special people in every country that identify with my movies." 

Other Miike films twist tired formulas around in similarly unexpected ways.  Itís doubtful that another director has ever framed a scene from the bottom of a toilet bowl, as Miike did in 2000ís City of Lost Souls. If someone else can lay claim to such an unusual feat, itís doubly doubtful that theyíve done it in a used commode, complete with two chunks of fecal matter floating aimlessly in the foreground.

Itís also a safe bet that no film lunges out of the starting gates with an opening sequence as excessive as that of Dead or Alive, which somehow stuffs a gay bathroom murder, gleeful, Scarface-style cocaine-snorting, a restaurant shootout, and gyrating go-go dancers within its first frenzied ten minutes. "My inspiration for scenes always comes from music," Miike explains of Dead or Aliveís kinetic beginning. "I listened to the soundtrack of the film Spawn, which inspired the fast pacing. It gave something to me, an aggressive attitude. My musical preferences are very different day by day."

Music certainly sets the helter-skelter tone in Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) another molotov cocktail of a movie that combines the upbeat spirit and family values of The Sound of Music with the mysteriously growing body count of Motel Hell.  At one point, the deceased actually spring back to life and plunge into a lively musical number.

Another recent Miike movie is Agitator (2001), a work that revisits the filmmakerís early roots with more Godfather-style gangster action.  This time, Miike appears both behind and in front of the camera. Playing a hotheaded yakuza punk whose short-fused temper sets a string of messy mob wars into motion, he can be seen instigating a perverted karaoke party and devising creative uses for a microphone.

There is much debating over the almost unbelievably prolific number of films Miike has churned out in slightly over a decade.  One Japanese filmography featured on a fan web site credits the workaholic with forty-five entries. Another lists forty-eight..  However, Miike sets the record straight, stating, "A British writer recently told me that I had made fifty-two movies.  I was surprised. I donít start out thinking, letís make a lot of movies.  The numbers donít mean much to me."

Currently, the fast-working talent is piecing together another guns Ďn gangsters actioner.  However, heís quick to point out a fear of repetition.  "Some times, I make love and romance," Miike explains. "Other times, I want to do action movies.  Then I feel kind of guilty. Too much action.  Then I think, maybe I should put action and romance together."

Until this next attempt to graft a fresh face onto a familiar genre, Miikeís fans can stock up their collections with two recently released DVDís.  American Cinemathequeís digital transfer of Audition features top-notch packaging, an interview with Miike, directorís commentary, photo galleries, and detailed liner notes.  Nearly as impressive is Media Blasters release of Fudoh: The New Generations.  Other Miike titles are not as readily accessible, found only through persistent haunting of the film festival circuit.

When asked which of his early works would be recommended for the uninitiated, Miike is characteristically humble.  "Previous movies are very good for me," he stresses, "and they give me good memories.  But what I want American audiences to see are my next movies."

From a filmmaker who has played maniacal matchmaker to a would-be ballerina and a reluctant human pincushion, while stockpiling crumbling cinematic corpses into a cozy, countryside lodge, the sky is the limit.

Special thanks to Shinjiro Nishimura for his skills as an interpreter during this interview

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