Anything But Banal; Takashi Miike on "Gozu" and His Ups and Downs
by Steve Erickson
Since the 2001 American release of "Audition," Japanese director Takashi Miike has rapidly found a cult following in the U.S. Ironically, "Audition" is the only Miike film to receive much of a theatrical release. His audience seems to follow him mostly on video: one New York video store has 20 Miike DVDs, half of them bootlegs or imports. The Sundance Channel plays his films constantly. His latest American release, "Gozu," is unlikely to attract any new converts. Rather than breaking fresh ground, it's a retread of ideas and images from Miike's earlier films.
Miike has made 60 films since his 1991 debut. I've seen 10 of them. Therefore, it's hard to sum up a typical Miike work -- or even claim that I have much of a handle on the oeuvre. He has a predilection for extreme violence, yet he's also made family films. He's made both the slapdash "Visitor Q" (a John Waters/Pier Paolo Pasolini take-off, shot on video in one week) and the exquisitely photographed and lit "Ley Lines." Some of his films seem like excuses to exercise all the bizarre images his prodigious imagination can come up with, while others are carefully modulated. "Audition" gradually morphs from a gentle story about a middle-aged widower looking for love into horrific torture. At every step of the way, Miike seems to know exactly what he's doing. On the other hand, "Dead Or Alive 2" starts off like a throwaway -- albeit entertaining -- exercise in gratuitous weirdness but somehow winds up a poignant buddy drama.
In "Gozu," Minami (Hideki Sone) is an underling to yakuza Ozaki (Sho Aikawa). Ozaki seems to be going crazy. Convinced that a tiny chihuaha, which he sees outside a restaurant is an attack dog trained to kill gangsters, he kills it. The gang boss decides that Ozaki has become a security risk. Minami is ordered to kill him. Reluctant to do so, he manages to get the job done accidentally, when Ozaki breaks his neck while the car comes to a sudden stop. He goes to a coffee shop to look for a phone. When he comes back, he discovers that Ozaki's body is missing.
The opening and closing reels of "Gozu" are pretty solid, but its 129 minutes are a rough ride. Although there's some violence, it's hardly a conventional gangster film. Nor is it simply an exercise in bizarre-itude. At its most ambitious, it plays around with identity in a manner akin to David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and "Mulholland Drive," but this comes as too little, too late. Still, there's always something to look forward to when you're a Miike fan. Since "Gozu" premiered at Cannes last year, he's already made five new films, two of them for television.
indieWIRE talked to Miike at his hotel on a New York visit in June 2004; Pathfinder Pictures releases "Gozu" tomorrow at New York's Cinema Village.
indieWIRE: Many of your films have a lot of abrupt changes of tone and mood. When you look over a script, are you particularly attracted to ones that have a varied range?
Takashi Miike: Filmmaking is not a balancing act, although some directors think it is. I don't believe in it. I like ups and downs. They're the best way to translate my feelings to the screen.
iW: "Audition" goes through some very extreme shifts. Do you think of it as a prank on people who went in expecting a romantic comedy?
Miike: That's not my intention. I tried to build up a mood where nothing seems to be happening. This break with that mood destroys the film itself. I originally had other ideas, that the images could be destroyed by music and sound. I wanted to do more, but at the end of the day, I changed my mind. I want to leave the audience stranded and change the speed of the story.
iW: Your films haven't faced any problems with censorship in the U.S., but "Ichi The Killer" was cut by more than three minutes for British release. Have you had any problems with censorship, or with films being particularly controversial, in Japan?
Miike: In Japan, violence isn't as controversial as it is in the West. Pornography is more restricted, but it's not hard to make a crazy, extremely violent film. But I don't mind ratings boards. As a viewer, you have the right not to see a film.
iW: Some of your films, especially "Visitor Q" and "The Happiness of the Katakuris," are about the importance of a family coming together. In "Visitor Q," it's treated as a joke, but in "The Happiness of the Katakuris," it's taken more seriously. Do you see this as a theme in your work?
Miike: I didn't consciously bring up the theme of a family reunion. I don't constantly try to insert it. But it's nice to have a place you can go back to.
iW: You've made a lot of made-for-TV and straight-to-video films. Do you differentiate between them and the films you've made for theaters?
Miike: Every medium has its own kind of freedom. I don't want to just cross from one to the next. I want to enjoy the freedom each one has. Sometimes, you can do something for TV that you can't do in the cinema.
iW: What qualities do you think TV and video have that film doesn't?
Miike: In terms of making TV drama, not everything has to make sense. In cinema, you usually strive for reality and a natural environment, but in TV, it's more acceptable to do something crazy and break with naturalism.
iW: Do you change your shooting style much between lower-budget and bigger-budget films?
Miike: Bigger-budgeted films have more restrictions and less freedom to create. Because of this, I try to find freedom in the people I work with. I often work in ways I don't want to. It's more about controlling the situation. Lower-budget films are freer.
iW: How do you see your work fitting into the history of Japanese cinema, or the work of other directors like Takeshi Kitano and Kiyoshi Kurosawa?
Miike: I believe that every director's films reflect their lifestyle. Kiyoshi Kurosawa leads a different lifestyle than me. It's very interesting to see the choices he makes. I don't really judge it.
iW: Are there any specific ways that you see a director's lifestyle coming out in his films, or is it just a general attitude?
Miike: By lifestyle, I mean how your filmmaking is integrated into your life. I have no reason to make so many films, but it's how I am now. It's what I want to do. That's become very characteristic of me, part of my personality, and I think it shows up onscreen.
iW: Do you think you can keep up the pace of making four or five films per year indefinitely?
Miike: I never really decided to make 4 or 5 films a year. For example, I've only made one film this year. [According to the IMDB, Miike has already made two.] That's very different from how I've been working. Maybe I'll go back to that pace.
iW: Immigrants and foreigners are another subject matter that frequently come up in your films, particularly in "City of Lost Souls" and "Ley Lines." Is their experience something you're particularly interested in?
Miike: It could be because I had so many childhood friends who were not Japanese. I was raised in an area of Osaka where there were a lot of people who were born in mainland China but decided to come back to Japan. I'm also interested in asking "Who am I?" and "Where do I belong?" I'm always on a journey to explore my identity. That's reflected in my characters. Even if they're Japanese, they're trying to find out where they belong.
iW: Your films depict a lot of extreme subjects, like rape, torture, and necrophilia. Are there any themes or images you find too upsetting or disturbing to show?
Miike: Normal things. Banal things that bug me in everyday life. They disturb me more than the violence.
iW: Have you been influenced mostly by other filmmakers, or other media like manga and rock music?
Miike: I can't single out one thing that influenced me. My generation was influenced greatly by the manga that came out during our childhood. As a filmmaker, you've got to have a nose for what's going on culturally. You have to feel it. It doesn't have to be manga or music, but you need some kind of antenna. That's very important.
iW: I was curious about the scene in "Gozu" where the woman reads Japanese off cards on the ceiling. Is there any larger point to it, or did you just include it because it's funny and strange?
Miike: In the script, that woman was supposed to read her lines in Japanese. But the woman I cast was Russian. She can't speak any Japanese. I wanted some kind of spontaneity, something only she could do. I enjoyed the chance to come up with a solution on the spot.
iW: I was also wondering if you see "Gozu" as a kind of love story between the characters of Ozaki and Minami.
Miike: At some moments, you feel attracted to someone of the same sex, even if it's not sexual. You just want to be like him. If it's a love story between the two, Ozaki wants to be his brother. Minami's a guy who even straight men are attracted to.
iW: What projects do you have right now?
Miike: "Hobgoblins and the Great Wall." That's an exact translation. It's a story about a person who teams up with the hobgoblins to save the planet, to create a big wall of human beings and hobogoblins against evil.