One of the interesting things about doing interviews during Fantastic Fest is that you get a fairly unique setting to chat with genre filmmakers from all over the world. Not just in atmosphere and diversity of attendees, but in the unique settings in which you're having conversations in: The Alamo Drafthouse's themed karaoke rooms, which can range from a Twilight Zone room to a red-curtained Lynchian nightmare.
When SYFY WIRE sat down with legendary Japanese cult filmmaker Takashi Miike, it was in a room dubbed "the Joysticks Room," a video game-themed space with Mario wall decals and a working Pac-Man tabletop cabinet in the middle of the room.
When Miike and his translator David sat down, Miike's attention was immediately drawn to the working Pac Man tabletop machine between us. He looked up with a smile and said "Pac Man" and then laughed. Didn't need the translator for that part, but he came in handy for the rest of the conversation.
Miike was at Fantastic Fest with his 103rd film. The man is prolific to the point of ridiculousness — he put out seven features and a short film in 2001 alone, and he's still trucking. His latest, First Love, is just as insane and bloody and violent and funny as the best of his work.
With Miike also at Fantastic Fest to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award, it felt like a good occasion to dip back into his filmography and get Miike on the record about some of my favorites. With a career as long and varied as his, that means even with half an hour, we had to leave a lot of things out, but we did get to some of his greatest hits.
This one comes across as a Japanese romantic comedy because for the first act that's exactly what Audition is. And then a large bag sitting ominously in the middle of an apartment moves and everything changes.
How important was it for you to hide the insane violence in the back half of Audition?
"The way that film is structured... it starts as one thing and it slowly breaks down into something different. When we start to focus on her private life the film starts breaking down. It takes about an hour for that to happen. There's a point in a film where people will decide if they will leave the theater or if they want to stay and continue watching the movie. We intentionally made a film where it seems to completely break down and goes in a completely different direction. We structured it that way because we felt it worked very well for that film."
Ichi The Killer (2001)
One of Miike's most bizarre movies, and that's saying a lot when you consider just how out there his work is. It's about a powerfully awkward and repressed-but-violent psychopath who catches the eye of a sadomasochistic crime lord. As you can imagine, tonally this movie is a very specific blend of humor and violence.
How do you balance humor and violence so easily?
"That was not something I was particularly conscious of while making the film, but you have these contrasting elements; laughter and pain, love and violence. Then you have these fascinating characters. They're foolish, but they're also very honest, so you end up laughing at them. It was not my intention to mix these juxtaposing elements, but just the way I naturally depict violence I feel like it naturally produces laughter. Honestly, I kind of feel like that's one of my flaws."
(I politely disagreed because Miike's ability to merge humor and violence is one of the big things that draws me to his work. The next film we talked about is a great example of that.)
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Miike's musical remake of Jee-Woon Kim's South Korean dark comedy The Quiet Family. Both films are about a regular family who opens a B&B where all their guest keep randomly dying and they have to deal with the ensuing chaos. Did I mention Miike's version is a musical?
Why a musical?
"The characters just decided to start singing. I didn't actually ask them to sing. It just happened when we were on set and we captured that. It was not meant to be a musical originally. The family just had this desire to sing all of the time.
"The original is a work by a director called Jee-Woon Kim who works in Hollywood these days. I really enjoyed his original work, which came out twenty years ago. It was a film called The Quiet Family, a black comedy with no singing at all. I got a proposal to remake it and I thought it was so well done it doesn't really need to be remade, but if we were to remake it I thought I'd want to do something different with it. If we didn't end up making it into a musical I think it may have ended up being a little disrespectful to the original work.
"The energy that was in the original fed into what we did with it and it ended up turning into a musical. It's also an imperfect musical. Because it is imperfect and kind of crude there weren't really many difficulties making it."
One Missed Call (2003)
Perhaps one of the most underrated J-horror films is Miike's One Missed Call, a creepfest with a great central premise: You get a voicemail on your phone and it's the sound of you dying at some point in the near future. Miike deals with a lot of genre violence in his movies, but One Missed Call is a rare, straight-up horror movie from him.
How do you go about constructing a scare?
"One Missed Call was one of many J-horror films at that time. Ring is an example. There's a typical combination of horror scene techniques. You have your camera creeping up slowly from behind, you build suspense with really scary music and you think something's going to jump out from that side, but then they jump out from the other side. You're creating and breaking these expectations. I actually made a deliberate decision to not break with those techniques. I decided to go with the tried and true established horror film production techniques.
"Personally, these kinds of movies are really scary for me. I'm impressed with directors who can even pull that off. I personally wouldn't pay money to go watch a really scary movie! On the other hand, movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre by Tobe Hooper is a very scary movie, but you also laugh at the same time. I tend to like those kinds of scary movies more than a totally scary movie."
Miike if nothing if not eclectic. The joining together of sword-wielding badasses is a Japanese cinema staple, made famous by Akira Kurosawa with films such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress.
What influences have Kurowsawa's films had on you? Is it even possible to make a period samurai film in Japan and not do it in the master's shadow?
"Even if I were to try to imitate Kurosawa I know that it's absolutely impossible. That era of film was just something else, including the actors. Everything about that era was on a completely different level. I admire Akira Kurosawa. I have a deep admiration for him and I would love to make films like that. I'm influenced by Kurosawa's work in that way, but at the same time, I feel like it's useless to try to imitate him. It's just impossible. So instead of trying to wage this impossible battle, I decided not to even go there."
The director's latest film, First Love, is quintessential Miike. It's about an aimless young boxer who learns he has a terminal illness just as he meets and falls in love with a girl in trouble with the yakuza. The diagnosis he was just delivered gives him a kind of a superpower in that he now doesn't fear death. Think a Nicholas Sparks movie at the center of a Coen Brothers-esque bumbling crime flick; it allows Miike to indulge in all the things he loves doing, like mixing humor and ultra-violence.
Why was First Love the right film for you to do at this very moment?
"This film didn't come about based on a push from me. It wasn't my original intention to make this film. These days in Japan very few Yakuza films are being made for the Japanese market. There are very few young viewers who want to see yakuza films and there are very few sponsors who are willing to fund a yakuza films. Really it's just Toei that's still doing that. Even within Toei there's less and less yakuza films being made.
"I was approached with this idea to make a yakuza film that used to be made and is getting more and more rare these days. People from Toei said, "Maybe we should make a film like this and kind of buck the trend." We decided to go with this. It wasn't my own idea alone, it was a series of circumstances that came about in conjunction with Toei's proposal and I thought it was a good way to push back against the current Japanese film industry in an interesting way. I felt like it was a good way to go, so we did it."
First Love premieres in the U.S. on September 27.