From a gang of teenage assassins to a Monty Python-style comedy, here’s the cult Japanese director’s most memorable works
One of the most irrepressible filmmakers in Japan, Takashi Miike has directed over 100 features since his debut in 1991 in a career that’s never been shy of controversy. Inspired by the visceral works of Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg, he was once described by Quentin Tarantino as “the godfather of ultra-violent, get-under-your-skin movies.” With his latest film, First Love, hitting UK cinemas today, don’t be surprised if more than a few unwitting viewers find their Valentine’s Day ruined.
The film, which follows a triplicated plot concerning a sick young boxer, a prostitute, and a yakuza gang war, sets the tone within the first three minutes when a man gets his head cleanly decollated via medium of samurai sword. But like Miike’s best works, this is no run-of-the-mill shock flick. Mixing comedy, action, romance and drama across a riotous and completely OTT two hours, First Love has already been compared to films like Pulp Fiction and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas since it premiered at the BFI London Film Festival last year.
It’s been described as a love letter to the director’s frenzied early days, when he made his name as an unhinged force of the Japanese V-Cinema industry, churning out up to seven films a year. He is the antithesis of the ‘auteur’, maintaining a nihilistic stance on the artistic value of filmmaking while frequently working as a director-for-hire. Accordingly, this diverse and robust career is lined with hits and misses, while spanning almost every genre and budget conceivable.
First Love serves as a refreshing and fun reminder of everything Japan’s premiere cult director has achieved – and an opportune moment to reflect on ten of his most memorable works.
FUDOH: THE NEW GENERATION (1996)
After cinema attendance plummeted in the 80s, a new format of low-budget film production opened the floodgates for a wave of directors to make their mark on the industry. V-Cinema is essentially Japan’s version of direct-to-video filmmaking – only without the reputation for poor quality. Rather, the broad parameters of the medium are favoured by directors who want to realise ideas quickly and easily, without major studio intervention or censorship.
Takashi Miike’s career was established in V-Cinema, where he became the poster boy of a generation of 90s filmmakers challenging perceptions of what movies could be. While he’d already made a slew of low budget films in the years prior to Fudoh: The New Generation, it would be this 1996 entry that elevated him above his contemporaries.
The film follows the Fudoh gang of teenaged assassins, who wreak havoc on an organised crime syndicate as they avenge the murder of the titular character’s brother. A complete subversion of the conflation of youth with innocence, it’s a balls-to-the-wall, comic-book style crime caper packed with bloody violence, goofy acting, and an explosive soundtrack by industrial musician Chu Ishikawa. It’s the perfect introduction to the mad, mad world of Takashi Miike.
Fudoh is notable for being the first Miike film to receive a wide cinematic release after it was deemed “too good” to be released straight-to-video. It was subsequently submitted to film festivals worldwide, eventually placing in Time Magazine’s list of the top ten films of the year.
For fans of Battle Royale, The Running Man, A History of Violence
RAINY DOG (1997)
90s V-Cinema was dominated by the yakuza (gangster) genre, and Miike was no stranger to it. The Black Triad Society trilogy arguably served as the thematic backbone to his work during this prolific period, and Rainy Dog, the middle entry, might be the highlight of his low-budget crime works.
The moody character study concerns a Japanese hitman in Taipei (played by regular Miike collaborator Shō Aikawa) burdened with the responsibility for a mute son he didn’t know he had. More serious in tone than many of Miike’s other works within the genre, it maintains a cynical world view, as emphasised by the harsh weather that serves as the story’s backdrop.
Saturated colours and dynamic camera work make the setting feel vivid and alive – indeed, it’s very unlikely that the crew would have obtained filming permits to shoot in the busy back alleys on screen. And the soundtrack, which features a refrain of brooding slide guitar, draws parallels to Neil Young’s work on Jim Jarmusch’s similarly noir-ish western Dead Man.
For fans of Hana-Bi, Mystery Train, Dead Man
THE BIRD PEOPLE IN CHINA (1998)
Mixing fantasy, comedy and light-hearted drama, this gorgeously shot road movie greatly improved Miike’s stock at home. The fact that a V-Cinema director could take a small crew to China and re-emerge three weeks later with a film of such charm and quality proved to producers that he was a capable and flexible director – and not simply a shock merchant.
A salaryman and a gangster form an unlikely duo when they are both sent to investigate a jade deposit in a remote Chinese village. Their bumpy adventure, dotted with a variety of pitfalls, culminates when they arrive at a harmonious village where children are taught to fly, at which point the film shifts from wacky buddy comedy to enchanting spiritual meditation.
Veteran actor Renji Ishibashi is in fine form as the film’s comic relief – Ujjie the hapless, Hawaiian-shirt wearing, and frequently disgruntled yakuza enforcer. The fluid and memorable character actor would go on to play memorable roles in many of Miike’s most well-known films, with his most recent performance in 2017’s Blade of the Immortal marking over 20 years of collaboration.
For fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Down By Law, The Straight Story
Miike was very much a low-key figure prior to 1999. Audition changed everything.
Production company Omega Project was keen to capitalise on the runaway success of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (‘The Ring’), which in 1998 had sparked growing Western interest in what would be dubbed the “J-Horror” genre. They hired Miike to direct Audition, an adaption of a Ryu Murakami novel about a widowed man searching for a new spouse, only to discover that the demure, young ballet dancer he has chosen is not all she seems.
The director claimed that his intention was to make the first two thirds of the film as boring as possible in order to make the final act’s dramatic shift as shocking as possible. In doing this he completely shatters the tropes of traditional horror movie-making. The majority of the film operates as a slow and unspectacular romance drama before the blanket is pulled from beneath the audience as in a devastating climax.
Miike’s international breakthrough became notorious after sparking a mass walkout at Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2000. It was awarded the FIPRESCI prize there for the best film in competition, and it went on to make more money in the US than it did on its entire box office run in Japan. The words “kiri kiri kiri” are today as much an icon of J-Horror cinema as Ringu’s black-haired demon-child Sadako.
For fans of Possession, The Ring, Under The Skin
ICHI THE KILLER (2001)
“I’m not a man of principle,” claimed Miike in Ichi The Killer’s production diary. “I don’t live by a set of ethics.”
An extremely controversial thriller to this day, Ichi The Killer was banned in several countries due to its graphic depictions of cruelty and violence. At the Toronto International Film Festival, vomit bags were handed out with the words “For Viewing Discomfort” printed on the front. And in the UK several minutes of footage had to be cut by the BBFC in order for it to receive an ’18’ rating. In spite of this, it maintains one of the largest cult followings of all of Miike’s catalogue, with many considering it his masterpiece.
When a crime lord is dispatched by a mysterious killer, his gang’s sadomasochistic enforcer takes it upon himself to track down the assassin, stopping at nothing in his pursuit of the adversary whom he believes will provide the ultimate test in combat. Dramatic use of colour and a frenetic soundtrack by members of noise rock band Boredoms help heighten the feverish tone of this skittish and gratuitous study of the concept of violence.
Tadanobu Asano, who was selected for the starring role “at any cost”, is unforgettable as yakuza psycho Kakihara - the single most iconic character in Miike’s eclectic rogues' gallery. With bleached blonde hair, facial scars, and a spectacular wardrobe (including a tartan suit, sequinned shirts, and a silk trenchcoat), he is the lifeblood of a film that is primarily concerned with shedding it.
Alongside Ichi The Killer, Miike directed five other full-length films in 2001, including three-and-a-half-hour gangster epic Agitator, and the thoroughly depraved Visitor Q, which was filmed on a handheld camera with a budget of just $70,000.
For fans of Death Wish, Saw, House of 1000 Corpses
THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)
Miike’s final film of 2001 is possibly the most batshit insane entry of his whole career. “The hills are alive with the sound of screaming!” reads the tagline on the poster for The Happiness of the Katakuris, a comedy-musical about a family hotel near Mount Fuji where the guests keep turning up dead.
Family ties are at the heart of this eccentric genre mash-up, which somehow manages to fuse The Sound of Music with Dawn of the Dead. The acting is completely over the top, and farcical comedy of the Monty Python variety is highlighted by frequent bursts of emotion, comically fake sets and regular bursts into song and dance. There’s even a claymation sequence. And zombies.
“The minimum requirement is that you enjoy yourself,” Miike said in an interview with Midnight Eye at the time of the film’s release – on The Happiness of the Katakuris he was clearly having a ball.
For fans of The Sound of Music, The Life of Brian, The Little Shop of Horrors
Gang elder Ozaki (Shō Aikawa) shows signs of losing the plot after he savagely murders a “yakuza dog” (in fact, a perfectly docile chihuahua) in broad daylight outside a restaurant. The clan’s boss (Renji Ishibashi) orders rookie gangster Minami to take out a hit on him – only Ozaki’s body apparently disappears after Minami crashes their car outside a strange village in the countryside.
This lucid road movie goes to surreal lengths to explore Minami’s psyche as he searches for his “big brother”, and the numerous breaks from reality qualify Gozu as the closest thing there is to a Japanese David Lynch movie. It screened at Cannes in 2003, two years after Mulholland Drive had won Lynch the Prix de la mise en scène at the same festival.
Bizarre characters include an eccentric, cross-dressing diner owner (played by Sakichi Sato, writer of this film and Ichi The Killer), a cow-headed minotaur, and a sexually depraved gang boss who can only perform with the help of a well-positioned soup ladle. And at the film’s climax, there’s a scene where a woman gives birth to a fully-grown man. Yep.
For fans of Wild At Heart, Paris, Texas, Natural Born Killers
BIG BANG LOVE, JUVENILE (2006)
Miike’s 70th feature (or thereabouts) eschews visceral action in favour of an intricate and abstruse narrative that raises a variety of philosophical questions. While there are violent scenes, this surreal, arthouse prison drama is more concerned with the homoerotic relationship between two young prisoners who are interred on the same day.
The minimal production and labyrinthine setting liken the film to an immersive theatre production, while the fractured narrative and symbolic use of colour only add to the disorientating atmosphere. The opening scene, a contemporary dance sequence set to a pulsating industrial rhythm, paves the way for the psychological ruminations that provide the film’s thematic backdrop.
Later, pivotal scenes between the two main characters take place on a purgatorial astral plane, where a gargantuan Mexican pyramid and a rocket ship pose questions about the nature of death and the afterlife.
Big Bang Love, Juvenile A is convoluted, frustrating, and deeply ambiguous - but it’s also artfully stylised, creatively executed and undeniably thought-provoking
For fans Of Dogville, Das Experiment, Brokeback Mountain
Miike’s contribution to the American horror anthology TV series Masters of Horror was his first foray into English language filmmaking. While many of the series’ other directors (such as John Carpenter and Dario Argento) hadn’t made low budget TV films since the start of their careers, Miike was so well-equipped for the task that he ended up submitting a full-length movie that then had to be cut down to fit the show’s 45-minute format.
Imprint is modelled on the traditional Japanese kaidan format – a kind of folkloric, old-fashioned horror story set in Feudal Japan. It follows an American journalist (played by The Untouchables’ Billy Drago) searching for his missing lover at a brothel in rural Japan. Her terrible fate is gradually revealed in a broken narrative that is full of cruel twists and turns.
While the B-Movie acting and cheesy dialogue is occasionally distracting, Miike’s atmospheric lighting and well-plotted narrative mystery are masterfully utilised. Throw in a syphilitic dwarf, a conjoined twin, and, rather less tastefully, a subplot concerning an infanticidal family, and you’re left with a twisted love story that’s even more transgressive than 2003’s depravity nadir Visitor Q.
The episode was immediately banned from broadcast by Showtime due to its disturbing content. “I kept checking to make sure that I wasn't going over the line,” Miike told the Japan Times in 2006. “I evidently misestimated.”
For fans of The Grudge, The Witch, Kwaidan
THIRTEEN ASSASSINS (2010)
On the basis of (and in many ways, in spite of) his reputation as a director, the past decade has seen Miike transition successfully into blockbuster movie-making in Japan. Thirteen Assassins is rightly viewed as the apex of his high-budget oeuvre – though Blade of the Immortal, Miike’s much-celebrated “100th film”, released in 2017, should not be overlooked.
Heavily indebted to classic Akira Kurosawa-directed jidaigeki (period samurai dramas) like Seven Samurai and Ran, Thirteen Assassins tells the story of a band of renegade fighters who plot to assassinate a cruel warlord in order to prevent his appointment to the powerful Shogunate council. While laboured plot development slows the pace at the beginning, the film gradually builds up to a truly epic climax: a 45-minute battle sequence at a heavily fortified, booby-trapped village.
A colourful cast of stock characters keeps the film fun on the journey towards its explosive finale, while a rousing score from longtime musical collaborator Kōji Endō (The Bird People In China, Audition, First Love) only adds to the film’s sense of scale.
It was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2010 and went on to gross over $17.5 million at the box office worldwide – a feat that singles Miike out as one of the most successful graduates of V-Cinema filmmaking in history.