Takashi Miike: Modern Maverick

At the turn of the 21st century, Japanese horror captured the Western imagination. Images of vengeful spirits—drowned girls and pallid boys alike—invaded the nightmares of viewers, sending them scrambling behind their couches in terror. The international success of films such as Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), and Pulse (2001) transformed Hollywood’s approach to the genre and inspired a profusion of woeful remakes. Viewed today, the great works of the “J-Horror” boom remain as unnerving and intriguing as they were upon release, informed both by Japan’s rich canon of supernatural folklore and the tragic legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But among the directors who gained global fame throughout this period, one stands above the rest in his intelligence and audacity: Takashi Miike. 

To cinephiles with a taste for the transgressive, Miike is a god. He has directed more than 100 films since 1991, with no indication that his output will decrease. His oeuvre includes surreal superhero adventures, quiet human dramas, musical zombie comedies, and samurai epics. Yet he is known primarily as an agitator; a purveyor of extreme, often wildly bizarre cinema unconcerned with taboos. For much of the 1990s, he specialized in yakuza films, which attracted cult fascination in the West for their lurid, unflinchingly absurd depictions of violence and sex (1996’s hilarious Fudoh: The New Generation features an oversized cyborg, a stripper assassin, and children playing soccer with a severed head). But their limited distribution prevented him from garnering mainstream success overseas. 

That changed in 2000, when three of Miike’s films from 1999 played at the Rotterdam International Film Festival: Dead or Alive, Ley Lines, and Audition. The latter performed so successfully that it won the prestigious FERPESCI Award, granting Miike his first taste of international acclaim while revealing the depths of his cinematic iconoclasm to an awestruck crowd. Not all attendees, however, were enamored with the film. When Miike took to the stage after the screening to answer audience questions, a woman famously stormed out of the theater, hissing at him, “You’re sick!” Other viewers, nauseated, had already left. 

Although his blood-drenched yakuza pictures are certainly appropriate for Halloween, Audition was Miike’s first horror film in the traditional sense. It follows Aoyama, a widower approaching middle age who decides to find a new spouse. When a friend in film production proposes that he host a mock audition to identify the perfect wife, Aoyama seemingly meets an ideal candidate. But things are not as they appear.

Audition is a challenging masterwork; a study of guilt, trauma, and communication that defies convention. Miike manipulates the viewer through a disorienting narrative structure, alternating between scenes of tender romance and flashes of nightmarish imagery. The second half of Audition is devastating and uniquely intense. But even the film’s most horrific aspects are designed to probe relationships and the human condition, not to exploit. Miike corrupts the distinction between the real world and Aoyama’s psyche. As shocking as certain scenes may be in what they literally depict, they are more discomforting for what they suggest about male desires and anxieties. Audition is compelling in its extremity, but it endures on the strength of its characters’ inner lives.

After Audition, Miike pushed further into the realm of cinematic transgression with Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer, both released in 2001. The former is a hysterically perverse commentary on family life, while the latter, his most violent film, is undeniable in its style. His 2004 release, Gozu, meanwhile, is an insane journey through the mind of a repressed yakuza that uses the residents of a rural town to metaphorically reveal his latent urges. As with Audition, its grotesque surrealism is unrivaled, but its emotional resonance is profound.

Over email, I asked Tom Mes, a film critic and Miike’s most vocal proponent in Western commentary, whether this dynamic can explain the dedication Miike inspires in his most devoted followers. “I think it has to do with the fact that his films are nearly always genre works, so there’s a basic familiarity in that sense, but that he brings an inventiveness to them that often gives them an excitement and a feeling of liberty and surprise that is quite unique,” Mes replied. “When he transgresses, it’s almost always based on human feelings, behavior, and interaction. That balance is what keeps them fascinating over a longer period of time. If it was just puerile excess, there would be little chance of sparking long-term devotion because you’d lose interest pretty quickly.”

Mes attended that fateful Rotterdam screening of Audition in 2000, but the film that enthralled him was Dead or Alive, a work of glorious trash that contains perhaps the most manic opening sequence ever captured on film. Its effect on him, and many others, was revelatory. “It was like jumping in at the deep end,” Mes said. “My life hasn’t been the same since, and that was more than 20 years ago.” Even today, Dead or Alive remains remarkable in its brazen madness; its power to captivate those unfamiliar with Miike’s cinema is undiminished.

For those seeking new thrills this Halloween, Miike’s sprawling filmography can accommodate in all manner of unpredictable regards. The director’s formidable independence of mind has allowed him to craft a singular body of work, one which is ultimately rooted in his delightfully twisted sense of humor. “Everything I’m going to tell you is a joke, don’t take it seriously,” one of Gozu’s primary characters remarks in the film’s opening before turning silent, revealing to the audience that ultimately, Miike only wishes to amuse. Wherever his creative instincts lead him in the future, more viewers than ever will hopefully be present to laugh along with him.

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