During his 26 years as a film, television, documentary, stage play and music video director, Takashi Miike has led the kind of career that rivals that of much more veteran filmmakers. He matured from the shot-for-video domestic market to the international film festival circuit, and finally became a major studio hitmaker with his personal choice of the top productions in Japan. His prolific and rapid success is unmatched by any other Japanese filmmaker of his generation, and while a major international co-production still eludes him, Miike is one of the top craftsmen in his own country: His films still play regularly overseas at festivals or via foreign distribution contracts. His filmography is so lengthy, in fact, and so full of television work and other side projects that one could be forgiven for being mistaken about the exact number of films the director has actually completed.
So it’s in this spirit of forgiveness that one should take issue with the promotional copy associated with the release of one of his latest films in the U.S., the big-budget star vehicle “Blade of the Immortal” (based on a popular manga by Hiroaki Samura), which heralds it as the director’s “100th film.” Alas, it’s neither his 100th work as a director, nor his 100th feature film, but for the sake of argument let’s say that the actual number is somewhere in that ballpark. (By my calculation, he’s made slightly over 100 works as a director if music videos and short films are included, but his feature works number less than 90, still an impressive figure by any calculation.)
Getting any kind of critical handle on such a vast filmography is no easy feat, so in celebration of his (more or less) 100th film, here are our choices for his top 10 movies (more or less; again, there’s a lot to consider). “Blade of the Immortal” opens November 3 in New York and Los Angeles.
10. “Fudoh: The New Generation” (1996)
Miike’s 19th film was originally intended for a V-cinema, or direct-to-video release, but was put into theaters once producers knew they had something special on their hands. Adapted from a popular manga, “Fudoh” marries the yakuza world, a milieu in which most of the director’s previous films had been set, with high school teenagers to create the kind of riotous mix of violence, hormonal overload and jaw-dropping setpieces which would soon become a hallmark of Miike’s over-the-top style.
9. “Sun Scarred” (2006)
Never released in America or screened at film festivals, this revenge saga echoes “Death Wish” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” as it tells the story of salaryman Katayama (frequent Miike actor Show Aikawa), who gets caught up in a cycle of revenge after he stops a gang of teens from beating up a homeless man. The disturbed gang leader targets Katayama’s family, and the grieving father soon sets out to settle the score, despite law enforcement and public opinion being against him. Sandwiched between Aikawa’s work in Miike’s “Zebraman” films, it’s a quiet, disturbing story of violence and loss, and an overlooked gem which serves as a flip-side to some of Miike’s more fanciful depictions of mayhem.
8. “Ichi the Killer” (2001)
Speaking of mayhem… One of the films which cemented Miike’s overseas reputation as a purveyor of the “Asian Extreme” form of violence, “Ichi the Killer” is an unforgettable, all-star gorefest based on a violent manga about an exceptional killer who cries even as he’s dismembering his victims. When Ichi meets up with extreme masochist Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano), the two soulmates are destined for a very bloody showdown. Banned in many countries and censored in most others, “Ichi” might be difficult for many viewers to watch, but it’s one of the director’s best-known, and most accomplished films.
7. “13 Assassins” (2010)
After a series of megabudget manga adaptations (the “Crows Zero” series) or family-friendly special-effects spectaculars (“Yatterman,” “Zebraman”), Miike took on this remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 samurai film, a rarity for him in many ways. The result was old-school, bloody swordplay action at its best, with Koji Yakusho leading a dozen other inexperienced samurai on a suicide mission to assassinate an out-of-control feudal lord. Replicating the original film’s massive finale — a 40-minute nonstop battle royale of mud and slaughter — Miike upped the ante in his own unique way by throwing in rainstorms of blood and flaming cattle.
6. “Young Thugs: Nostalgia” (1998) and “Dead or Alive 2: Birds” (2000)
This pair of seemingly unrelated films — one about youth gangs in Osaka in the 1960s, the other about a pair of hitmen who team up to save sick children — share an important component within Miike’s filmography: the bittersweet yet comforting taste of memories. “Young Thugs: Nostalgia” is the director’s self-confessed favorite within his filmography, and Miike inserted many personal components into the story, itself taken from a series of autobiographical novels by Riichi Nakaba. Though barely released outside of Japan, it remains one of Miike’s most well-constructed dramas. “Dead or Alive 2,” the best film in the DOA trilogy, echoes the earlier film’s nostalgic treatment of troubled childhood via copious flashbacks within its story of two assassins (Show Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi) who flee their urban gangs to return to the rural island orphanage where they grew up, reminiscing about past ambitions before devising a plan to use their deadly skills to create some good in the world.
5. “The Happiness of the Katakuris” (2002)
Just when critics and audiences thought they had Miike pinned down as an extreme genre stylist, he dodged their expectations with this family musical comedy, albeit one about a family that’s hiding a stash of buried corpses near their mountainside inn! A remake of “The Quiet Family,” an early (non-musical) film by Korean director Kim Jee-won (“I Saw the Devil”), Miike throws in claymation and a half-dozen musical numbers across a variety of styles to create a dark but life-affirming story about, believe it or not, family values.
4. “Visitor Q” (2001)
Shot on DV for a miniscule budget, “Visitor Q” took the idea behind Pasolini’s “Teorema” — a mysterious stranger invades a bourgeois household — to its most perverted extreme, and further cemented Miike’s reputation as a cinematic provocateur, with violence, prostitution, drug addiction, necrophilia, and all manners of kinky behavior depicted onscreen. Yet despite its superficial unpleasantness, “Visitor Q” features a plentiful amount of black humor, like “Katakuris,” and is also ultimately a story of redemption for the family in question.
3. “Shangri-la” (2002)
Another essential Miike film never released in America, “Shangri-la” finds the director taking the main theme of “Katakuris” and “Visitor Q,” redemption of the family unit, and burying it within a dark but inoffensive comedy about a group of homeless people who help a bankrupted businessman rebuild his life and get payback on the giant corporation responsible for his financial ruin. Based on a novel that reflected the demise of Japan’s bubble economy and its consequent effects on ordinary people’s lives, “Shangri-la” shows Miike at his most heartwarming and positive, but without an ounce of syrupy sentimentality, channeling the lighthearted social comedies of Juzo Itami (“Tampopo”) in an original and entertaining way.
2. “Rainy Dog” (1997) and “The Bird People in China” (1998)
Made at the beginning of Miike’s transition from minor domestic director of video projects to major international filmmaker, both of these movies were also shot outside Japan, in Taiwan and rural China, respectively. Rainy Dog stars Aikawa as Yuji, a Japanese hitman exiled to Taiwan, where he spends his days doing menial labor and the occasional assassination for a local crime boss. Uprooted from everything he knows, he makes a connection with a mute boy who’s been left with him, supposedly his illegitimate child. Noir-inspired but ultimately a tale of human connection, “Rainy Dog” is one of Miike’s earliest masterpieces, and he followed it less than a year later with the equally magnificent “Bird People,” which follows a young salaryman as he takes an unwanted trip into the rural wilds of China to look for a jade mine, a yakuza debt collector in tow. They never find the mine, but instead discover a remote village whose inhabitants are rumored to be able to fly. Miike carefully guides the viewer on his ride into fantasy, and his protagonist, as unhappy with his situation as Yuji was in “Rainy Dog,” is ultimately redeemed by his connection with the village children and a literal flight of fancy.
1. “Audition” (1999)
Although Miike’s best-known film internationally, “Audition” is almost completely unknown inside Japan, possibly as a result of its limited distribution there, but more likely because of its antagonistic relationship with its own audience. A classic example of a film that pulls the rug out from under its viewers, “Audition” begins as a domestic drama, following Aoyama, a timid TV producer and widower, as he conducts a series of fake auditions in order to find a new wife. When he discovers the willowy Asami (the iconic Eihi Shiina), an ex-ballet dancer with a mysterious and tragic personal history, he falls for her immediately. But Miike reminds us to be careful what we wish for, and as the film shifts on a dime into horror-film mode, audience surrogate Aoyama suffers beyond his wildest imagination. Many viewers who caught “Audition” during its original U.S. theatrical run probably felt the same, with bewildered walkouts and sick audience members a common occurrence.
Honorable mention: If it had been made in Japanese, “Imprint” (2006), an hour-long episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series which was famously banned from the network after Miike had been given carte-blanche to create something as extreme as he could manage, would certainly also have made this list. But as the non-English-speaking director’s first English-language project, it suffers from inconsistent line delivery, some poor acting, and many characters forced to speak in halting, phonetic English. But overlooking those deficiencies, “Imprint” (which was written by Shohei Imamura’s son Daisuke Tengan, also responsible for “Audition” and “13 Assassins”) is one of Miike’s best and most disturbing works, a deliberately anachronistic period tale bursting with theatrical colors, Grand Guignol violence and a carnival sideshow aesthetic. For a director who’s still constantly reinventing himself, it’s one of his most unique and interesting works to date.