The prolific Japanese director’s latest film is a Yakuza comedy with a generous body count – he tells us why it’s perfect for Valentine’s Day
In 103 films, Takashi Miike has carved out, rather bloodily, a reputation for on-screen provocations. Take Audition, the Japanese director’s 1999 breakthrough, in which a ballerina kidnaps a middle-aged sleazebag, slices off various body parts, and forces him to slurp her vomit like it’s a chunky soup from Pret. Maybe you’ve seen Visitor Q, a sort of visualisation of the Aristocrats joke: incest, necrophilia, and other sex scenes that will put you off human contact for life. Or perhaps you haven’t seen Ichi the Killer, which was banned in Germany, Norway, and Malaysia for out-Joker-ing Joker with its carnage.
So why is Miike’s latest film, First Love, coming out on February 14? Well, First Love, a Yakuza comedy with a generous body count, is one of the 59-year-old auteur’s more commercial prospects. While the deaths are admittedly gruesome and plentiful, each inflicted injury is often played for humour: limbs fly off like wicked punchlines, squeals of anguish are timed with comic precision, and victims rub heroin into their bullet wounds for the sheer hell of it. And, if you’re squeamish, relax: it’s almost three whole minutes until the first beheading.
Initially, First Love might seem a little familiar. There are double-crossing gangsters, a shipment of class A drugs, and numerous weapons bandied about – you don’t need to be Chekhov to know what’ll happen to those guns. But the crime-caper swiftly subverts expectations with idiosyncratic touches, such as a ghost (a half-naked gyrating man in tighty-whities) who is only visible to one character, and a tiny toy dog that’s wired to blow up a house. The chaos builds and builds, amounting to a riotous, cartoony second half that will have audiences cheering every time a disembodied skull rolls along the ground. It’s enormously entertaining, unpredictable, and, if you’re hooking up with a sociopath, ideal Valentine’s Day viewing.
“First Love is a perfect movie for a date,” Miike writes to Dazed via email, in response to our questions. “I would say it was rather made for a date!” The clue is in the title. Amidst the bloodshed, a romance blooms between its young protagonists: a boxer, Leo (Masataka Kubota), and a sex worker, Monica (Sakurako Konishi). Suffering with a brain tumour, Leo wanders the night, unsure of how long he has to live. Then, in a meet-cute that trounces any Richard Curtis screenplay, Leo stumbles into a misunderstanding involving Monica, her gangster handler, and the ghost of her dead father. One powerful punch later, Leo and Monica are running off together, only to be caught in the crossfire of deadly assassins – including a yakuza’s vengeful, sword-swinging girlfriend, Julie (Becky Rabone – from what I can gather, Japan’s version of Caroline Flack).
Before the shootouts and swordplay, Leo demonstrates his graceful and balletic moves in the boxing ring. The sport, to cynics, is mindless violence, but to others it’s a beautiful artform. So does Miike, whose gory filmography sparks similar debates, identify with Leo’s profession? “I admire boxers,” the director says. “I know that I would never be successful as a boxer. I’m a coward and can’t even stand in the ring. I am jealous of their toughness.”
Boxing, Miike notes, held a specific cultural role after the Second World War. “In Japan, after the war, boxers were a star of hope to rise up from defeat – in other words, to beat foreign fighters with their fists and to stand at the top of the world. As Japan became economically rich, mixed martial arts, which show more skills, became more popular than boxing. But now, simple martial arts fighting with only fists is again in the spotlight.”
“For the birth of one champion, there are many young boxers behind them who had setbacks” – Takashi Miike
In a way, boxing conveys a similar power on a movie screen. In a world of guns, swords, and mechanical dogs setting off bombs, what could be more romantic and old-school than a knuckle to the head? “For the birth of one champion, there are many young boxers behind them who had setbacks. In terms of that, I think boxing is very dramatic.”
Unlike a Marvel film, in which the fights are haphazardly edited with too many close-ups, the action of First Love is kinetic, character-driven, and rivetingly framed with coherence. Miike, as with his Dead or Alive trilogy, choreographs the anarchy as if he’s a musician playing his favourite violent instrument. So much so, the more frenzied sequences are heightened by a squealing, free jazz soundtrack by his regular composer, Kôji Endô.
“When I was filming movies released direct-to-video, the budget paid to the musicians was limited,” Miike says. “What would you do if you attacked with one instrument? I think it’s common throughout the world, maybe a guitar or a saxophone. The common thing between the two instruments is a melancholy that can only be played by veteran musicians who have physically languished. The key instruments in this movie were saxophone and didgeridoo.”
The saxophone and didgeridoo go particularly wild during an impossible car stunt towards the end. The vehicle ramps up for a death-defying leap into the air – and the movie temporarily transforms into 2D animation. It’s a trick Miike fans might recognise from the claymation of The Happiness of the Katakuris. “Car stunt movies have not been made for a long time in Japan, and now all the car stuntmen have gotten old,” Miike explains. “Another reason is that in terms of production, we tend to avoid high-risk car stunts. But I felt regret deleting it from the script, so I described it with animation. I think it was influenced by all the animations that I have crazily watched since I was a child.”
As the animation suggests, Miike can be family-friendly when he wants to be – and not family-friendly, like the incestuous finale of Visitor Q. Recently, he’s been directing Idol x Warrior Miracle Tunes!, a Japanese TV series aimed at six-year-old girls. “I think I should evolve each work’s characters individually so that they reach the hearts of each audience,” Miike says. “I do enjoy children’s shows.”
But in terms of breaking barriers, First Love earned acclaim when it premiered at Cannes (“glossy, gratuitous and great fun,” raved Variety) despite resembling a Midnight Madness gore-fest. Noticeably, it was produced by Jeremy Thomas, whose credits include features by Jim Jarmusch, Harmony Korine, and Richard Linklater. However, Miike is yet to shoot an English-language movie – though he would be one of the few ways to get me to watch a Marvel sequel. (“I feel (Marvel) are more violent than my movies,” the director notes.)
“I do not proactively approach Hollywood, but also I do not always turn down offers,” Miike says. “But since I’m living as a movie director, I have a desire to shoot something like ‘This is a Hollywood movie!’ at least once in my lifetime.” In 2014, Miike was supposed to direct The Outsider, but Tom Hardy quit the production, without explanation, weeks before the shoot. Did Hardy ever apologise? “As for Tom Hardy, it was a matter of the situation and I don’t think he did anything wrong. So there is no need to apologise.”
In the past year, Japanese arthouse icons like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Sion Sono have directed their first movies with English-language A-listers – in their case, it’s Ethan Hawke and Nicolas Cage. According to Miike, the Japanese film industry is slowly dying. “Once (Japanese filmmakers and distributors) were a champion of a post-war entertainment, but now they have not caught up with the times. As a result, they no longer spend money developing new talents. I don’t think the future of the industry is bright. But the urge to make films still exists. I suppose these powers will take the film industry to new avenues because everything is ‘scrap and build’.”
Still, Miike, to nobody’s surprise, is already working on his 104th movie, and he describes the impulse as “wanting to do what I have never done before”. It’s a stark contrast from Quentin Tarantino’s incessant declarations that he will retire after ten movies. Does Miike ever wish he was more selective like Tarantino? Or is he mentally planning on how to reach 150 films before he dies?
“150… 200 movies,” Miike writes, with that exact punctuation. “After all, what decides the number of works you can make in your lifetime is your stance on how to approach movies.” But Miike, it turns out, is not only prolific, but modest, too. “Whatever type you are, you need a certain talent. As I don’t have it, I guess I am going to compete on numbers.”
First Love is out in cinemas, and on Blu-ray and DVD, from February 14