INTERVIEW: "Don't All Guys Fantasize About Bazookas?"; An Interview with Takashi Miike
by Ryan Mottesheard
(indieWIRE: 11.08.02) -- If you only know Takashi Miike from his slow-burn horror film, "Audition" (1999), you might be shocked by the versatility of the rest of his oeuvre. That's not to say that there aren't scenes of graphic ultra-violence in the rest of his films to rival the much-discussed torture scene in "Audition." 2001's "Ichi the Killer" in particular, is NOT for the faint-hearted, like when the 'hero' literally slices a sex maniac in half or when the sadomasochist 'bad guy' gleefully tortures gangster molls and snitch yakuzas in increasingly creative (and gruesome) ways. The Seattle Film Festival described "Visitor Q" as "easily the most offensive of the five or six films Mr. Miike made that year." Further, his "Dead of Alive" series -- capped with "Dead of Alive: Final" (2002, soon to be released by Kino) -- rivals any Hong Kong movie for mayhem and gonzo violence. (When a critic asked Miike why one of "Dead of Alive"'s characters suddenly had a bazooka, he replied, "Why shouldn't he have a bazooka? Don't all guys fantasize about having a bazooka?")
That said, who else but Miike could take the yazuka film genre and turn it into a romance (2000's "City of Lost Souls") or turn the rise and fall of a yakuza kingpin into a subdued, elegiac tale ( 2002's "Graveyard of Honor")? Even more remarkable is that "Graveyard" shows no earmarks of its source material (Kinji Fukasaku's 1972 stylish, violent film, "Graveyard of Honor and Humanity"), instead pitching itself closer to French filmmakers such as Agnes Varda and Bertrand Tavernier or the American Paul Schrader.
All of which brings us to "The Happiness Of The Katakuris" (2001), which is currently rolling out in theaters nationwide courtesy of upstart distributor Vitagraph ("Audition", Marc Forster's "Everything Put Together"). "Katakuris" is unlike anything that Miike has made before, perhaps even unlike anything you've ever seen before. At its core, it's a family film, a template not too far away from something Disney might have made in the early '60s. A family moves to the country and starts a bed and breakfast, and they soon must come together in order to overcome the obstacles they face. Of course, this being a Miike movie, the obstacles include a deranged character who thinks he's a member of the British Royal Family, a sumo wrestler with a proclivity for underage girls, and bizarre Jan Svankmayer-style claymation. And then there are the campy choreographed musical numbers for which inspired by Japanese karaoke. One of the numbers even features a smattering of singing corpses.
Ryan Mottesheard spoke to the ultra-prolific, ultra-playful Takashi Miike about yazuka films, camp and defying audience expectations. Vitagraph will follow the theatrical runs of "Katakuris" and "City of Lost Souls" with a February DVD release. Kino will release "DOA: Final" in New York on November 29.
indieWIRE: Has the success of "Audition" changed the way you look at your own films or the way you go about making your films?
Takashi Miike: Yes, it certainly did. But it's not about changing the content of my films. I'm deeply appreciative that many people have enjoyed my films, films that I made in my own style. The successes have helped me learn how to make films free of expectations and focus solely on the pure filmmaking aspect, without worrying about how much money it'll make.
iW: Can you compare and contrast the production process on a couple of these films, let's say "Katakuris" with "DOA: Final," starting from your initial involvement through production (budget, technical format, etc.) to the release of these films in Japan?
Takashi: Most Japanese filmmakers simply aim to make a commercial profit through distribution inside Japan. Because of that, there are severe budget limitations. Basically, all I want is freedom. I'll stay within a given budget, so just let me do whatever I want to do. As filmmakers, we want this creative freedom and the producers are good about letting us do whatever we want.
If I force myself to point out the differences, "Katakuris" had a crew from Kyoto and we used studios in Kyoto. And "DOA: Final" was with a Hong Kong crew. Both films were very unpredictable for me, and very enjoyable, including all the confusions of the filming process. Also on "Katakuris", I used a 24P camera for the shooting. But I don't think that cameras with time codes work very well for my style of filmmaking. It's far too bothersome for me and the technology just winds up irritating me. But the technology used, whether its video of 35mm, has almost no effect on the films themselves. Whether or not a film is digital or analog doesn't make it a good film or not.
iW: "Audition" is a supreme case of audience manipulation, while "Katakuris" stretches the boundaries of a number of genres (musical, horror, family melodrama, etc.) You've said that you don't worry about how audiences will react to your films, but clearly there is some conscious decision made to, if not shock, then certainly engage a sense of playfulness.
Takashi: Audiences are an unknown mystery to me, so I can't really predict anything. For me, the best audience is myself, my crew, and the actors. I think I have a strong feeling "to enjoy the moment" of shooting and try to make them enjoy this moment, too. Ideally, if we enjoy creating the film, hopefully the audience will enjoy watching it.
iW: Do you feel like you are asking audiences to stretch the limits of what they will accept, or are you merely making a film in the way that interests you?
Takashi: Personally, I tend to go against the grain of what I've done before. I mean, if I make a really bloody violent film, then I might chose to follow it up with a nice, clean family film (laughs) I know there aren't many amongst my films. In any case, making something more reserved gives me the opportunity to bounce back to something even more violent in the following film. I like this contrast.
iW: "The Happiness Of The Katakuris" is a remake of a Korean film, but you've certainly made it your own. The original film was rather dry. Was this decision made to elevate otherwise uninteresting material, or was that why production company Shochiku hired you in the first place?
Takashi: It wasn't Shouchiku's idea. A producer friend of mine, Toshiaki Nakazawa, came to me with "Katakuris." It was initially his project. He asked me "If you were to remake this film as a musical, what would happen?" I gave him my immediate answer, which was, "Well, it will probably be a very awkward film." And Nakazawa says, "All right, Let's do it!" So we took the project to Shouchiku and thus "Happiness of the Katakuris" was born. And once we finished and screened the film for the Shouchiku people, they watched it with a very bizarre look on their faces. As Nakazawa and I expected they would.
iW: You deal with camp in "Katakuris." And you cast rock star Kiyoshiro Imawano as the Navy sailor character. His acting is quite bad but it is woven so seamlessly into the film. Is this a case of a non-actor giving a wooden performance that works or is it a skilled performer who gives a wooden performance on purpose?
Takashi: That was not acting. I think he enjoyed acting like an actor does. But he couldn't. I mean he's exactly like that in normal life too. He has such wonderful expressions.
iW: The performances in your films also vary wildly. You have the more self-conscious acting style that show up in "Katakuris" or "City of Lost Souls" and then you have really restrained performances in "Audition" or "Graveyard." Can you explain how you choose your actors and then how you work with them?
Takashi: The casting process is the same for every movie that is made whether it's a film I'm directing or somebody else's film. I go through the casting process like every other director but once that's finished, I don't talk much with the actors after that. If the actors want me to, I'll try to explain myself with words (though as few as possible). Ultimately all the talking just makes you tired and doesn't add very much to the project. "Professional" actors become confused and ineffective when they feel the shooting has become just another routine. My job as a director is to take them out of that comfort zone, that feeling of complacency.
iW: You make films at such a brisk pace, many on low-budgets. Does the pace ever weigh on you?
Takashi: I don't choose to make low-budget films. But that is the reality of surviving in the Japanese film industry. However, the trade off is, since we're working on small budgets, we have freedom. You can't buy this freedom with money. With this freedom, I think there are an infinite number of possibilities. For me, there's no specific reason I make so many films. It just seems like a natural pace for me. But I think it's about time to stop this pace for a while.
iW: Working so quickly, do you ever look back at a film and wish you'd done something differently, or look back and try to exploit a certain thing that you were pleased with how it came out?
Takashi: Of course I look back and reflect on my past films, my mistakes. But never with regret. For better or worse, I refuse to live my life with regret. Sometimes, I'll look back on my past mistakes with fondness. But I never wished I wouldn't have made them. That's why I don't like re-takes. Sometimes I'll wake up and feel dissatisfied about what I shot the day before. But if I don't have that sense of trying to improve, my evolution as a filmmaker would stop. It's because of my mistakes that I look forward to the next film.
iW: And finally, can you tell us a little bit about your next projects?
Takashi: I'm planning a "Jidaigeki" genre film. Traditionally, it's kimonos and swords and samurais, along the lines of "Lone Wolf And Cub" or "Zatoichi." This film in particular is a film made for the entire family. It'll be something like a mix of Shakespeare and Samurai warriors.