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Blood, Guts, and Soul: The Worlds of Miike Takashi

Written by Mike Crandol Tell a Friend

Say "Miike Takashi," and most people immediately think of severed limbs, bullet-ridden corpses, ruthless yakuza hitmen, coke-addled whores, and maybe a dancing zombie or two. Modern Japanese Cinema's most infamous auteur, Miike is renowned at home and abroad for elevating the dark and violent themes that had been lurking in the flickering shadows of Japan's moviehouses since the 1960s into a kind of gloriously gory pop art. Not so obtuse as Suzuki Seijun, and defter than Ishii Terou, Miike and his movies descend into the darkest corners of the human psyche with an almost childlike sense of wonder. What ends up on the screen frequently disturbs, but also unabashedly entertains. The sheer energy Miike injects into his work - and perhaps more importantly his grim sense of humor - endears in spite of its often egregious excess.

But there's more to Miike than just blood and guts. It's easy to forget that the director of Audition and and Ichi the Killer is also the mind behind introspective dramas like like The Bird People in China and the kiddie fantasy fantasy The Great Yokai War. Although he's often likened to Quentin Tarantino in the West, Tarantino's buddy Robert Rodriguez (who followed up From Dusk Till Dawn with Spy Kids) might serve as a more apt point of comparison. However - no disrespect to Mr. Rodriguez intended - Miike's ability to craft adults-only splatterfests and family-friendly crowdpleasers with equal panache stands in a class by itself.

Miike is also one of the world's busiest filmmakers, famously helming 25 pictures in a three-year period, and to this day averaging three or four movies annually. Miike may be unique in film history for his ability to turn out so many movies at a consistently high level of quality, spanning every genre imaginable while maintaining his signature style.

Go Directly-to-Video

Apart from a few bright spots, the once-illustrious Japanese film industry had been creatively bankrupt for decades when Miike Takashi began directing low-budget, direct-to-video features in the early 1990s. The rise of "V-Cinema" in the 1980s reflected the same vices of its theatrical cousin, but the format's less stringent censorship standards and lower expected profits gave direct-to-video filmmakers more creative freedom than they were finding on the big screen. Far from the artistic dead-end that Hollywood's direct-to-video market became, Japan's V-Cinema proved the salvation of the nation's filmmaking community. Takashi Miike led the pack for a new generation of talent who proved their worth on video before reinvigorating the theatrical film industry with their bold new visions.

Not that Miike's early direct-to-video work represents Ozu-calibur filmmaking. Even after hitting the big time, Miike has frequently indulged his own appetite for pure exploitation, and part of his appeal lies in his guilty-pleasure approach to his craft. If Human Murder Weapon isn't exactly high art, well, it isn't supposed to be. Miike's early efforts aren't so notable for their aesthetic nuance as they are for their unique voice, which heralded the arrival of something new and exciting.

Miike begins to find that voice in the Bodyguard Kiba series. A remake of an old Sonny Chiba flick about a gangster and his bodyguard on the hunt for stolen loot, Miike mixed typical yakuza motifs with some quirky martial arts cliches. The tongue-in-cheek throwback to vintage pulp proved popular enough to warrant several sequels, and it gave Miike the opportunity to try his hand at big-screen filmmaking.

On top of a full plate of video features, Miike went to work on several modestly-budgeted theatrical films in 1995. Shinjuku Triad Society, the first of his eventual Black Society trilogy, set the pace for much of his subsequent career. Like his later Dead or Alive series, Shinjuku Triad Society and its follow-ups Rainy Dog and Ley Lines tell an unrelated set of tales linked only by the themes of organized crime, the Chinese immigrant experience in Japan, and the presence of the same actor (Taguchi Tomorowo in this case). Their sometimes undisciplined use of shocking sex and violence would later be refined in the director's subsequent output.

That refinement starts with 1996's Fudoh: The New Generation. Based on a manga about a high school yazuka boss and his school-aged gang, the movie wears its kitschy sensibilities on its bloodstained sleeve. Katana-wielding Ricky Fudoh leads a pack of comic book thugs that include 3rd grade hitmen, stripper schoolgirls, and a hulking giant in a metal mask. Like Miike's previous efforts, Fudoh is crass in the extreme, with buckets of blood and boobs on display, but it is a film that is constantly winking at its audience. After all, any movie that features AV star Miho Nomoto queefing poisoned darts out of her vagina can't demand to be taken too seriously.

Miike pushed the cartoony elements of Fudoh even further with Full Metal Yakuza, another direct-to-video release from 1997. A kooky blend of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Robocop, the tale of a murdered yakuza brought back to life as a cyborg complete with robotic genitals remains a cult favorite of Miike devotees.

Branching Out

Coming on the heels of Fudoh and Full Metal Yakuza, a lot of people probably expected The Bird People in China (1998) would be about a race of carnivorous mutant birds terrorizing the Chinese countryside. Imagine their surprise when Miike delivered a poignant drama about a young Japanese salaryman unwittingly thrown into a quest for self-discovery in rural Yunnan. Several of the usual Miike earmarks are present, including a grumbling yakuza sidekick and moments of bizarre humor. But Bird People is virtually blood-free, and the woes of Miike's often exploited female characters are replaced by a gentle almost-romance between the Japanese lead and a mysterious Chinese villager with blue eyes whose grandfather supposedly fell out of the sky. Largely forgotten in the wake of his later, more sensational successes, The Bird People in China is arguably Miike's most important work, in which the director employs his distinctly quirky style in the service of unusually thoughtful material.

Less successful, but no less important in establishing Miike's versatility as a filmmaker, is the same year's Andromedia, a decidedly commercial vehicle for J-pop band SPEED. Shimabukuro Hiroko stars as a lovestruck teenager who becomes an automobile-struck corpse. Resurrected by her scientist father as an AI computer program, Hiroko attempts to continue her teenaged romance from behind a computer screen. Predictably angst-ridden, Andromedia panders a bit too much to its built-in teenage audience. When Miike returned to family entertainment several years later with Zebraman and The Great Yokai War, it was entirely on his own terms.


1999 proved to be Miike's breakthrough year, with the release of two very different films that shocked the international film community bolt upright in their seats. One is a deceptive and tightly-controlled descent into depravity, the other an unbridled excess of exploitation that simultaneously glorifies and tears apart genre conventions. After years of working on the cinematic fringe, Audition and Dead or Alive heralded Miike Takashi's true arrival as a world-class filmmaker.

Like Hitchcock's Psycho, the less one knows about Audition's story, the more enjoyable it is to watch unfold. Suffice to say the first half of the film is almost sweetly innocuous and might appeal to fans of onscreen romance. Those same fans might run screaming from the theater during the final act, and Audition's gruesome finale inspires all the more horror for how disturbingly plausible it seems. Miike brilliantly restrains his usual penchant for pervasive excess until just the right moment, making the move's inner demon all the more ferocious when it's finally unleashed. Audition remains one of his most acclaimed works, and justifiably so.

If Audition initially suppresses its dark side for dramatic effect, Dead or Alive lets it all hang out from the first frame. The opening sequence, a brilliant orgy of editing that packs gunfights, stripteases, drug use, and assorted sexual acts into an almost hypnotic five minutes, celebrates everything that's oh-so-wrong (but oh-so-right) about the movies. The subsequent plot, which has something to do with Takeuchi Riki as a second-generation Chinese gangster and Aikawa Sho as the hardboiled cop on his tail, is negligible. Miike underlines the ultimate disposability of plot in genre filmmaking with the movie's notorious final showdown between Takeuchi and Aikawa. Like Audition, the less said about Dead or Alive's finale the better. Let's just say Dragonball Z couldn't have done it better.


Spurred by the critical success of Audition and Dead or Alive, Miike's output cranked into high gear. Between 2000 and 2003 he directed over 25 film, video, and television projects with an uncanny consistency in quality. Highlights included a feature-film version of manga favorite Salaryman Kintaro, the ultra-violent TV miniseries MPD Psycho, a reunion with Riki Takeuchi and Sho Aikawa in Dead or Alive 2, the period TV-movie Sabu, working with Sonny Chiba in Deadly Outlaw Rekka, and a remake of Fukasaku Kinji's yakuza classic Graveyard of Honor. He continued to explore the plight of Chinese immigrants trapped in the Japanese underworld with City of Lost Souls and the futuristic Dead or Alive: Final, starring Hong Kong imports Michelle Reis and Josie Ho, respectively.

And lest anyone think he was becoming too predictable as a filmmaker, he also gave the world Happiness of the Katakuris, a relentlessly cheerful musical remake of the Korean black comedy The Quiet Family. As if the original movie's tale of a family-run inn where a series of grisly accidental deaths occur wasn't warped enough for Miike's sensibilities, Katakuris adds sugar-coated musical numbers and decomposing, dancing corpses for good measure.

The next Miike movie to truly shock the world after the one-two punch of Audition and Dead or Alive was 2001's Ichi the Killer. Although his direct-to-video release from earlier the same year, Visitor Q, had been purposely engineered to push the limits of bad taste, it was the theatrical release of the almost-as-depraved Ichi that got everyone talking. Ichi is a delirious rollercoaster ride of eviscerations, mutilations, and every kind of brutality imaginable, anchored by Asano Tadanobu's superstar-making turn as a gleefully sadomasochistic yakuza lieutenant on the trail of the guy who's been bumping off his cohorts. Asano's wonderfully entertaining performance redeems the picture, but Ichi the Killer was nonetheless heavily censored for release in Hong Kong and other foreign markets. When the uncut version was shown at US film festivals, special Ichi the Killer vomit bags were distributed to the audience.

Going Mainstream...sort of

In 2003, Miike simultaneously released his most commercial film since Andromedia and his most outrageous film since, well, 2002. For One Missed Call, Miike threw his hat into the J-Horror ring established by Hideo Nakata's Ring and Shimizu Takashi's Ju-On series. To established Miike gorehounds, One Missed Call's comparatively tame tale about teenagers getting cell phone calls from the future predicting their own deaths must've seemed like a bit of a sellout, but the J-Horror hungry masses ate it up. One Missed Call was Miike's biggest box office hit to date and was optioned for the inevitable American remake. Gozu, meanwhile, reassured Miike devotees that the director was still committed to his unconventional filmmaking principles. Shot on a shoestring budget over a three-week period, Miike threw out the script during filming and had his actors improvise all their scenes. Containing such oddities as a minotaur in lingerie making out with actor Sone Hideki and the infamous "yakuza lap dog" scene, Gozu is what might happen if John Waters and Wong Kar Wai made a movie together.

To no one's surprise, Japanese moviegoers weren't particularly interested in Gozu, but they were keen to see what the director of One Missed Call could do with family-friendlier fare. They got more than they bargained for with Zebraman, Miike's 2004 superhero spoof and his second box office home run in as many years. Starring Miike regular Aikawa Sho as a milquetoast teacher and single father who dons the guise of his favorite childhood TV superhero to save Japan from an intergalactic threat, Zebraman possesses all the quirky charm of Full Metal Yakuza or Ichi the Killer in a package that's safe for children and adults alike. Coming on the heels of One Missed Call, Zebraman's success found Miike Takashi in the unlikely position of an A-list, in-demand director who had remained completely committed to his own iconoclastic vision.

Miike cemented that position with the following year's The Great Yokai War, an homage to the folklore-inspired works of manga artist Mizuki Shigeru (creator of Gegege no Kitaro) and Daiei's Yokai Monsters movies of the 1960s. Miike's weird style proved a perfect match for the Yokai War project, even if the film was conceived in part as a vehicle for popular child star Kamiki Ryunosuke. A makeup and special effects-heavy adventure about Japan's traditional ghosts and goblins banding together to fight a rouge spirit threatening to demolish Tokyo, the overall genial film nonetheless showcases moments of Miike's warped, grim sense of humor, and the ending may be his most brilliant anticlimax since Dead or Alive. Most important of all, The Great Yokai War was another unmitigated artistic and commercial success.

Extremes and Imprints

After directing The Great Yokai War and several episodes of the Ultraman Max TV series in the same year, the madman behind Ichi the Killer ironically was becoming a go-to man for family entertainment in Japan. But the old, bloody Miike was still in demand abroad, and two short films put together for a pair of international projects reminded audiences just how dark he could be. For 2004's pan-Asian horror omnibus Three...Extremes, he crafted a sublimely demented and surreal story about murder and sexual deviance; still, "Box" looked downright tame next to Park Chan Wook Park's grisly "Cut" and Fruit Chan's wonderfully repellant "Dumplings." But Miike outdid himself when the American cable anthology "Masters of Horror" commissioned an episode from Japan's most famous shock auteur in 2006. Even though Miike was asked to make it as bloody disgusting as possible, the producers deemed the result too disturbing to broadcast. Imprint never aired on US television, although it was released as part of the "Masters of Horror" DVD series.

Back in Japan, 2007 proved to be Miike's highest-profile year yet at the box office. Sukiyaki Western: Django, challenged Happiness of the Katakuris for the title of wackiest Miike movie. A retelling of the 800-year-old samurai epic Heike Monogatari in the style of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, Django was an intentionally bizarre amalgamation of Japanese actors portraying historical samurai in cowboy duds speaking barely-intelligible English alongside a prominent cameo by Miike's friend and kindred filmmaking spirit Quentin Tarantino.

Nobody really knew what to make of Django, but to no one's surprise, Like a Dragon and Crows - Episode 0 were big hits. Respectively based on hugely a popular video game and manga, this pair of yakuza flicks allowed Miike to get back to his roots telling gritty tales of organized crime, and the movies' multimedia tie-ins ensured a huge ready-made audience. Crows Zero in particular proved to be a box office slam dunk and Miike's best-ever haul at the domestic box office. Ironically, the film's story of a teenage yakuza conquering and then uniting the delinquent gangs at his school recalls heavy shades of one of the director's earliest critical successes, Fudoh: The New Generation.

From Fudoh to Crows, Takashi Miike's career had come full circle. And what a delightfully bizarre circle it was, full of cyborg yakuza, zombie chorus lines, zebramen, and samurai cowboys. Where Miike will tread next is anyone's guess, but not even the movie camera lens will likely contain it. The director's latest accomplishment, a tremendously well-received stage version of Zatoichi starring Aikawa Sho, proves that even live theater isn't safe from Miike's demented genius (Zatoichi is actually Miike's second stage production, following Demon Pond in 2005). He's currently wrapping production on the comedy-fantasy God's Puzzle and gearing up to make the live-action feature film version of the 70s anime classic Yatterman. The days of cranking out dozens of movies every year seem to be behind him, but Miike remains dedicated to putting his blood, guts, sweat and tears up onscreen for all to enjoy. The world is a better, bloodier place for it.

Published June 10, 2008

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