The Japanese Noir of Takashi Miike

For years I’ve observed and enjoyed Japanese cinema. My love began with “Rashomon” – a tale of a thief who robs a a traveling couple, rapes the wife, and several of them end up dead. The events are retold after the events have occurred and not just through a single source but through several sources at a trial (they even go so far as to have a medium call upon one of the deceased – and the deceased speaks through her in a crackling voice that heightens the unease) but the twist is, we’re not hearing the trial as it happens either, instead we’re hearing it passed on as gossip between three lower class men. Each time the tale is retold from a different witness during the trial we wonder how much of it is true and how much of it has been unintentionally rearranged by the men. The complexity and simplicity of the film that played out in front of me struck a deep nerve, and immediately after viewing it, I took it to several friends and made them watch it. I believe I watched it four times that day. Then came “Seven Samurai” and “Stray Dog”. The films of Kurosawa embedded themselves in my subconscious.

Then the films of Ozu came into my life, “Tokyo Story” and “A Tale of Floating Weeds” are truly two of the most magnificent and emotional films I have ever seen without bringing sentimentality into it. Ozu tells stories with such a matter-of-factness that he doesn’t need to add any extra dramatic elements to the stories or characters or camera (which typically avoids movement and stays planted directly in front of the actors as if we were sitting in front of them listening intently) – these characters simply exist, and are that much more powerful for it.

Now a new Japanese Director has entered into my conscious as a truly visionary filmmaker. That Director is Takashi Miike. It began, as it did with most American audiences, with “Audition”, a film much like “Misery” only more gut wrenchingly painful to watch. Where Rob Riener captured the Stephen King essence of sudden bursts of brutal violence and horror mixed with that over the top silliness that King brings to his yarns, Miike gives us a much more subtle and nuanced build, one that as we become more enveloped by the film, leaves us feeling that much more unnerved, until the car-wreck of an ending, where it was more hard to look away than watch. Truly horrifying.

Here is a clip of a BBC interview with Miike in which you’ll see some of the moments that will forever be engraved in my mind as a film lover. Pay close attention to how the actress says the words (as they are translated into English) “Deeper, deeper”. It is not so much what’s happening on screen that sells it, though that is a big part, but the sounds you hear along with it.

Here is the trailer…

He is a master of psychological horror and brutality, but this is not the film that Miike is known for in his native country. While effective, he is not. Instead he’s known for his string of sometimes bizarre and over the top, and other times brooding and thoughtful gangster films. The Black Triad Trilogy is a notable set, the third being what is referred to as quintessential Miike, “Ley Lines”. This is a film I just watched, and loved. It follows the lives of two half-breed brothers and a friend as they go to Tokyo to make it big. They become involved with low level drug dealers, get into a tangle with a local Yakuza-type Lord, and befriend a hooker. Now at first glance the description may seem like just about any other movie, but through Miike’s eye, the story unfolds with such an original understanding of cinema and how to build an emotionally resonant film that it’s hard to not be affected by the final half hour as it rolls out in front of you. I would say go in expecting the unexpected, but his slyness keeps you off guard until the last few moments of the film.
I caution you though as viewers, I feel I must. Miike pushes the envelope. Back in the day when Film Noir was the studios gold, filmmaker’s were doing the same thing. Working with low budgets, dealing with unsympathetic characters, not even allowing the option of a happy ending. This was a seedy life the filmmakers were portraying, one of excitement and intensity. Showing the world in shadows and from low angles allowed us to live a life we never actually could. But there was an elegance at times, even in the violence and especially in the sex, this elegance was prevalent. It was the only way to get it past censors. I remember one story in which a female character disappears below the camera, the studios had a fit, the filmmakers reply was to suggest the studio heads were the ones with dirty minds, since nothing could be seen. The scene is in the film today.

Miike has been known to use such elegance in his films, but not all the time. He captures the world of modern underground gangsters with an unflinching eye. The sex is grungy and perverse at best. Though there isn’t a lot of nudity (most of it is hidden from us as it was in Film Noir of the past) it’s the type of sex that is shown that these characters have that lends to the characters animalistic natures. These are characters from the depths, many times from the hells of some David Lynch film. Sometimes even I am disgusted when watching a Miike film (just as I would be if I met such people in the world), but to those who have patience and a bit of tolerance for these short lived scenes, you will be treated to some of the most interesting and powerful films you will ever see. many with mind-bending endings, none of which I will give away – what kind of an ass would I be if I ruined your experiences with these films?

He doesn’t only make Yakuza films though. He does make dramas, teenage pop films, horror films, David Lynch style films, over the top comic book films, science fiction musicals, and now family films. While many of his films are released theatrically, a lot of them are released straight to DVD in a genre called V-Cinema – it’s much bigger in Japan than here. He also directs TV movies. He’s above nothing if the story is interesting.

Here is a list of the films I have seen, with a short comment on each. He’s one of the most active directors in the world, putting together up to 4 at a time, so this is merely a handful of the ones available in the US. And looking at Miike’s profile on Wikipedia it says, “Miike has directed over sixty theatrical, video, and television productions since his debut in 1991. In the years 2001 and 2002, Miike is credited with directing no fewer than fourteen productions.”

Audition – A psychological horror film in which an actress shows some skills that are not on her resume to a middle aged widower who fakes an Audition looking for a suitable wife. Left me with more chills than ice cream in the dead of winter.

Andromeda – A science fiction pop film. This is one of his bigger budget earlier films. The cast is made up of Japanese pop stars. It’s a strange film, with some interesting elements (a pop video in the middle?). But does not Miike’s usual brilliance.

Ichi the Killer – Based on a Japanese Manga (comic book), Ichi is the definition of over the top gore. This film is only for the hardcore viewer, and just having rewatched the trailer I suggest no one ever watch it. The violence at times is so over the top it becomes tongue in cheeck, but there are scenes in which you have to turn away. The thing to take from this film is the second antagonist. A character whose lips have been lengthened by slits on both cheecks which are held together by staples, and when he removes the staples his mouth it spreads an extra 4 or 5 inches. Almost tasteless, but at times fun and inventive. If you’ve seen “Dead Alive” it’s harder to watch, only because the brutality isn’t directed at zombies.

Gozu – One of Miike’s first Yakuza films. Already you see him pushing the boundaries of perversity and realism. This is truly an abstract film. One that reminded me very much of David Lynch’s films. The sexual perversity is so bizarre it’s laughable, and the ending (well most of the film) slaps you across the face with its generous dose of surrealism. Worth the watch, but maybe not for a first timer.

What it’s actually about though… a Yakuza Boss’ right hand body guard is beginning to go crazy. Just as a hit is put out on him he disappears. A young Yakuza member is sent to find him. As he searches he sinks slowly into the world created by the body guards psychosis. Alice in Wonderland indeed.

Here is a clip of the body guard losing it. Be prepared to see something you have not seen before in an American cinema ( though somethig I’ve always wanted to do to those little “Yippers”, but watching it, makes me think otherwise). Notice how even in a clip Miike’s powerful visuals and direction draws you in. In mysterious and grotesque, and sometimes darkly comedic.

Deadly Outlaw: Rekka – A Yakuza revenge film. This film is so over the top, it’s just fun to watch. It’s not great, but it’s not bad.

Rainy Dog – The first Miike film in which I finally saw his voice begin to appear. That subtlety began to take hold of him as a filmmaker. It’s about a hit man who befriends a young boy and a hooker, and they create a strange little family. The end is an emotional one. Definitely worth seeing. It is the first of his Black Triad Trilogy, and the first I saw of his truly Film Noir stylings.

Dead or Alive (part one) – Another entry into the Yakuza genre, one that could have been just another ho-hum film, but Miike turns it upside down and shakes it. A cop who walks the line, and a gangster go head to head, it builds and builds until you wonder how it can continue to build, so Miike ends on a note that leaves you stunned, shocked, breathless, and befuddled. True fun. It does have some hardcore moments if I remember correctly, but which of his films do not.

Three Extremes: The Box – Miike directs one part of this three part film of Asian directors. Each a horror story, Miike’s is the most interesting, a subtle, and beautiful ghost story that is a horrific tale of a pair of twin sisters, though not everything is as it seems.

Bird People in China – A slow moving but involving drama about a young man who is accompanied by a low level yakuza brute to the hills of China where they discover a tribe involved with something truly unique. It’s a solid piece of cinema that doesn’t always work, but is intriguing enough.

Shinjuku Triad Society – Two brothers, one a cop, one a low level gangster. The cop spends the film trying to save his brother from such a yakuza life style. The interesting thing is that the cop is in many ways just as cruel as the gangsters. Another truly realized Film Noir. No one is completely good, though some have the best of intentions. Miike’s vision of what good and bad are and the places they merge is truly frightening and remarkable at the same time. Keeps the viewers on their toes.

Ley Lines – Definitely one to see. Two half-breed brothers and a friend travel to Tokyo to escape their uninteresting lives in a small town where they were always looked down upon. They befriend a hooker, sell drugs on the street, and tussle with a crime boss. By the end all of these pieces come together and create a breathtaking portrait of characters that are constantly fighting to earn their respect in the underworld. There are moments in this film that capture the quality and essence of some of the greatest foreign films. Take for instance the moment these four delinquents exact their revenge on the mob boss. They travel through the city on their mopeds as if they were two Itallian characters who had just fallen in love. It’s a moment of sheer deranged beauty. Which is pure Miike.

Who do we root for in Miike’s films – the lesser of two evils of course. The ones who are willing to step into the darkness to bring someone into the light. His films won’t be for everyone, but those that take the chance may just find a refuge from a lot of the stale films released here in the US.

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9 Responses to “The Japanese Noir of Takashi Miike”

  1. Josh Says:

    This is a great entry. I found Audition and I plan to watch it when I get a chance. The videos add a lot to this analysis, and definitely make me want to see more. I’m glad to read about his other movies as well.

    I’ve always said that you have an intuitive and powerful insight into the structure and force of storytelling, and this entry is further proof. One day the world may see the “Ebert & Kelly: At The Movies”–but of course Ebert may be a robot or brain-in-a-jar by that time. All the more interesting.

    I don’t think I’d heard of Miike before, so thanks. You remain my only real source for excellent films–especially foreign.

    Keep it up.

    PS: Did you ever watch those ‘Films of Artistic?’ Maybe we could plan to watch one the same weekend and then talk about it that next week. That might be fun since we’re not in the same city. Others could do it too, I suppose, like book club, but with less commitment.

  2. Phillip Says:

    Hey Josh,

    The movie club thing is not a bad idea at all. I like the reintegration of the original idea of this being a journal for everyone to keep their ideas. Have assignments to complete by a certain time, and leave comments on my original thoughts. It’s a wonderful idea. Even friends I have here in LA can hardly find time to do things like that together.

    I’m trying to remember… the “Films of Artistic” were the ones directed by Zhang Yimou. I imagine my first will be “Raise the Red Lantern”. I’ll start putting together this idea though. Truly inspiring my friend.

  3. Rob Gokee Says:

    Have you seen “Afterlife?” It’s a brilliant Japanese film about the time spent waiting between the two worlds of life and death. It’s in my top ten list of best films, you should check it out if you get a chance.

    Rob,  I could write a whole book of Blogs about my love of Japanese Cinema and Chinese Cinema for that matter.  I have not seen “Afterlife” though, but I’m always interested in expanding my base.  If you have not seen “The Human Condition” trilogy, give that a try.

  4. Weekly Movie Update May 23- June 3: Depp, Paprika and Miike « Phil-zine! Says:

    […] My first problem with a film like this is the ease with which people try to place the label “experimental” upon it. Because it treads into depths that most people have the decency not to go it’s given a category to make it feel far more important than it is. That aside I’m always challenged by what Miike puts on the screen and maybe that’s the point of his more “taboo-breaking” (another pathetic label) films. I’m challenged to think about the worth of the images on the screen; can a subject be braved without putting the audience through such a despicable showing? I think so. Ingmar Bergman dealt with incest in “Through a Glass Darkly” in a much more subtle but just as disturbing, haunting and meaningful way than Miike has chose to do it. But Miike has his mind set on a vision far more absurd than Bergman did. Considering this film in such terms one could call it a dark comedy, though anyone that would laugh at such a depiction of a family’s falling apart I would arrest on the spot. Since I haven’t said so I will say so now, “Q” is about the disintegrating family structure in the realm of reality television (the first part is easy enough to tell, the second I read on the Netflix cover, and it makes sense in retrospect). And by the point of view Miike takes you can see he must loathe reality television (I won’t argue with him there!) It’s in his desire to exaggerate everything to the limits of absurdity that this film comes crashing down. Does incest, beating ones mother, drug abuse, rape, prostitution, murder, necrophilia, etc. need to be treated with such absurdity and with such an in your face ambivalence? And with a train ride that merely starts with incest you can imagine how far he pushes the boundaries in acknowledging the depravity of the other individual acts. That isn’t to say there isn’t something going on in Miike’s head. One thing I will give him is that, unlike Kubrick’s similarly touchy “Clockwork Orange”, there is no mistaking the tragic deprivations in this film as “cool.” He shows all of it for what it is…sickening and corrupting, a disease that can tear a family apart. To Devil’s Advocate myself maybe this absurdity is the reason why it’s watchable at all. In showing us how he handles these issues perhaps he’s actually telling us how he thinks reality television handles such issues. While there could be some truth in this observation, I’m probably over thinking and giving too much credit where credit is not due. Is it really difficult to disgust someone into thinking a certain way? In the end a balance is found in these character’s lives, a “thank you” is given to the strange visitor but the cost it takes to get there leaves you numbed and hopeless, asking yourself is that as good as it can get (if you get it at all)? One thing Miike does remember is how to be a brilliant director. He shows you the action just long enough so that it burns an image onto your retina and leaves it imprinted in your head, at times after leaving the camera utterly still for a long period, he’ll cut to a shot that shows little or nothing so that the more potent image and action remains in your head, allowing you to think or feel disturbed, I suppose that depends on your stamina. I’ve been moved by Miike before, intellectually provoked and thrilled. The only thing I can take out of a film like this is to be brave when finding my own voice in the world of film making and storytelling, and that if this can make it to a screen out there, my words and images certainly have a fighting chance.  For more of my thoughts on Miike and the films of his I’ve seen click this: […]

  5. Orlynow Says:

    Great article, though for the record Gozu is one of Miike’s last yakuza films, not one of his first. Gozu was 2003 after a good decade of churning them out, then he made Yakuza Demon, but since then, yakuza have been very sidelined in his flicks. (Crows Zero being the closest to a come back)

  6. Sniffing Squid 02 « «HOW TO PLAY BIG SCIENCE» Says:

    […] – I should have been in bed hours ago with her, but am instead down here watching freaky-ass Takashi Miike […]

  7. Sniffing Squid « «ALIEN FICTION» Says:

    […] – I should have been in bed hours ago with her, but am instead down here watching freaky-ass Takashi Miike […]

  8. yarnieharris Says:

    Hi Phil, great article. I’m doing a research project on Miike and have 1 question:

    With the violence in his films, do you think Miike is making a statement on Japanese history (Yakuza, wars with China, WW2, American occupation), or is he only employing it for shock value and to stick one to censors across the globe?

    • Phillip Says:

      Hey there!

      Thank you for the compliment.

      I think, like any great filmmaker, Miike’s use of violence mirrors what he’s trying to do with each individual story. Sometimes, yes, he goes overboard and pushes buttons. The film he made for Showtime (Masters of Horror) is a prime example of that. With “Ichi” he pushes the violence to almost slapstick effect, though it never looses it’s edge (I frankly didn’t enjoy it.) “Ozu”, the blood and violence I believe is to make a political statement. In something like “Rainy Dog” he knows when to cut away from the violence and it heightens the dramatic storytelling. And in his more subtle films, in which he doesn’t use violence at all, you see his effectiveness as a filmmaker (“Bird Men of China”) or with his stage productions (“Demon Pond”) which are quite good.

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