In the late 1990’s, fans of World cinema began to smell something on the wind emanating from Japan. The Japanese film industry was already known for eccentricity, especially the myriad takes on the Yakuza gangster film and the endless invention of anime, but the films that found their way into the sweaty palms of Nipponophile movie goers were something new and exciting; works characterised by an uncompromising extremity and intensity.
Filmmakers like Hideo Nakata (Ring), Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus) and Sion Sono (Suicide Club), along with previously underground favourites like Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) gained instant notoriety. They were quickly joined by the best of Korean, Thai and a new wave of Hong Kong bruisers. One name however became synonymous with this new Asian extreme, not only for the extent to which he was willing to go to shock and surprise, but for sheer energy and output. Since 1991 Takashi Miike has directed an astonishing 100 movies. Of course, with an output that prolific there are wild variances in style and quality, so we looked at five films that stand out from his crowded CV.
The film that propelled Miike to global attention seems something of an anomaly given his reputation for unbridled mayhem and gleeful cartoonish abandon. In fact, Audition begins as a slightly uncomfortable relationship drama, as widower Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) holds a series of phony auditions with aim of finding a new wife. He becomes entranced by the porcelain beauty of Asami (Eihi Shiina), and begins a relationship with her, only for her dark past to become gradually revealed.
Audition is a perfect example of slow-burn horror. Miike demonstrates exquisite control of the material, ratcheting the unease until finally unleashing the chaos in a tidal surge. The final thirty minutes has become part of the horror canon (possibly consigning the vengefully iconic Shiina to eternal spinsterhood in the process), but it’s the simple scene of a ringing phone and a twitching hessian sack that still sends a shiver down the spine. A defining achievement of J-Horror. It’s extremely likely Miike may never entirely top it.
Ichi the Killer (2001)
2001 was a staggeringly productive year for Miike, in which he released eight films. That two of them are among his finest work is incredible. His Yakuza films up to this point had been stylish and violent affairs, but fell somewhere between the philosophical, character-driven stories of Beat Takeshi (Hanna-Bi) and the urgent, gritty efficiency of Kinji Fukasaku (Graveyard of Honor). Ichi the Killer saw Miike finally put his own vicious kerb-stamp on the genre.
Any restraint is instantly defenestrated as the film’s title rises from a pool of cooling semen, and we’re launched into two hours of delirious S&M-tinted ultraviolence as Tadanobu Asano’s scarred, deranged gangster Kakihara clashes with Nao Amori’s bullied, psychologically-damaged assassin Ichi. The plot may not make a lick of sense (although it’s relatively logical compared with some other films on this list), as motivations remain cloudy and nuance is buried under great gouts of charmingly iffy CGI viscera, but this is a stylish thriller of crushing extremity with a star-making turn from Thor’s Asano.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Also released in 2001 was this tsunami of inspired lunacy. Infinitely more good-natured than a lot of Miike’s most celebrated work, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a musical comedy horror film and is as demented as that sounds. The story sees four generations of one family open a B&B, only to have every guest die in unfortunate circumstances. Desperate to conceal these deaths lest their reputation suffer, they decide to bury the corpses. Into this outlandish story Miike hurls Claymation sequences, song and dance numbers, dream sequences and a cheesy karaoke singalong.
Even by Miike’s standards it’s a wilfully strange film; stuffed to the gills with ill-fitting elements that occasionally grate against each other in tectonic fashion. What it does have is endless charm and a curiously rousing finale that will leave you smiling. Not a common occurrence at the end of a Miike film.
Perhaps the outright weirdest film on the list, this trippy, oneiric gangster film is a nightmarish trawl through the dark underbelly of Japan, not all of which belongs in this world. Hideki Sone is a young yakuza tasked with bumping off an elder gangster, Sho Aikawa. When the body disappears, he begins a quest to locate it. Gozu is more a series of bizarre vignettes than one coherent narrative, taking in lactating landladies, cow-headed demons, men with pigmentation disorders, perverted bosses with penchants for soup ladles, and the most disturbing, jaw-dropping sex scene you could ever want to see.
It’s loosely inspired by the episodic structure of Greek mythology, but buried under Miike’s stylistic excesses. As with many of his films, it’s one for the most devoted of cult aficionados, with imagery that will stay with you forever.
13 Assassins (2011)
I’m guilty of breaking my own unwritten rule here as I was ruling out Miike’s remakes of other films (such as Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor from 2003 and Masaki Kobayashi’s sublime 1962 masterpiece Harakiri, reworked as Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai), but 13 Assassins is a superb piece of work and warrants your attention. Very much in the grand tradition of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and holding up to scrutiny against that illustrious company, it’s based on a 1963 jidaigeki of the same name by Eiichi Kudo.
The plot is familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of samurai cinema(or indeed, westerns) as a group of warriors come together to fight an evil warlord. 13 Assassins is notable for its jaw-dropping final battle sequence that lasts for over forty minutes. In that time, Miike juggles every strand with perfect dexterity, embracing the chaos of battle, but never letting events become confused. This is the master mischief maker at his most controlled and mature. Credit must also go to editor Kenji Yamashita for his sterling work. 13 Assassins is an ideal introduction to Miike’s work, showcasing his technical skill, without throwing the viewer in at the deep end of his maddest excesses.
What’s your favourite Takashi Miike film? Let us know.