Enfant terriblé is probably the term most commonly used to describe director Takashi Miike. Considering the insurmountable violence that lathers his most revered and infamous work (Ichi the Killer, the Dead or Alive trilogy) and bejewels the last act of his most internationally recognised (Audition), it is understandable that unfamiliar audiences could perceive him this way. But Miike’s part-time penchant for hyper violence is far from a prevailing trait. He may be the only director from the Master of Horror series to have an episode banned by Showtime (because of its “extremely graphic and disturbing content”) but his innovative crafting and deployment of bloodshed is one of many facets which combine to define his style.
Mammoth imagination, fractured characters and striking surrealism that sizzles at the level of subtext before exploding to reshape the narrative, are the lifeblood components of Miike’s features (maybe less so his earlier makeshift DTV productions). In his one hundred plus film canon, his work spans multiple genres melding frenetic action, absurdist comedy and supernatural horror, all of which point towards Miike as being more of a driftwood visionary with a need to rip the medium a new one than a guileless gore hound going through the motions.
While much of his one hundred film canon consists of Yakuza/ gangster features and epic period samurai dramas, there are many off-kilter subversions/ genre spins (most of which have never even been released outside of Japan). These include zombie musical The Happiness of the Katakuris, incestuous black comedy drama Visitor Q, punk action sci-fi Terra Formers, stupid superhero stint, Zebraman, supernatural gangster action (Yakuza Apocalypse, Gozu) and seditious children’s fantasy; The Great Yokai War, all of which retain facets which pool to make Miike an auteur.
Blade of the Immortal is Miike’s one hundredth feature as director. It tells the story of an immortal samurai (Manji) played by big (in Japan) popstar Takuya Kimura. Manji is forced to face his harrowing past after meeting a young girl, Rin (Hana Sugisaki), who reminds him of his late sister.
HeyUGuys recently met Miike at the Mayfair Hotel in London to discuss Blade of the Immortal, its production, the process of adapting the manga it was based on and his film-making MO which involves flouting style, inspiring ingenuity and reining in a raging creativity.
HEYUGUYS: What first attracted you to Blade of the Immortal and how did you come upon the project?
TAKASHI MIIKE: The original story came from a nineteen years old manga series. Several people have attempted to make it into a film over the years but in present day Japan there isn’t much demand for period samurai films. This is because Japan’s main cinema goers are much younger now. For all sorts of reasons and after several attempts, nobody had ever managed to realise the story. I think it was just down to luck and timing that the project came to me. One of the other problems was that many people felt there wasn’t an appropriate actor for the lead role. When the budget was finally agreed, I felt that this particular actor, Takuya Kimura, could play the part of Manji well. His involvement contributed to the film being made.
I thought Hana Sugisaki was excellent as Rin Asano. How did you go about casting her?
TAKASHI MIIKE: About three years ago I first saw Hana in a TV commercial for instant Chinese stir fry food. She must have been about fourteen or fifteen. I noticed she was eating the food very enthusiastically and with an animalistic quality like it was really delicious. When women actors eat they usually try to do it nicely, not messily but as nice as possible. Hana had a very happy eating look. I think that’s what really attracted me to her.
I recall a reference to her character’s eating style near the start of the film. How did the cast take to your one take, rapid fire method of directing?
TAKASHI MIIKE: Some actors are not easy to work with, especially those who are famous pop star types similar to Takuya, but I have a particular method. Sometimes I start filming in the middle of the action instead of at the top of the cut and work a certain way with particular lighting and positioning. Rather than simply telling the cast via instructions, they are made to simply fit into our manner. This can happen during the preparation stage when we are fitting the wigs and the costumes. There is a subtle way of communicating to them and through that we develop a trusting relationship.
When we get to the actual filming stage they just fit into the way we work. I don’t have a relationship with actors outside of the work though. Yes, I communicate with them about what I would like them to do, if necessary, on the filming but we don’t go out for meals together or anything like that. I am the director and they are the cast. That’s how it starts, that’s how it ends and that’s how it’s been with most of the actors I work with.
You distort reality quite often in your work, to the point where it’s so bizarre it’s distracting, even within the context of the story. Did you have that same kind of creative freedom when working on Blade of the Immortal?
TAKASHI MIIKE: I started off in commercials and video production work. All I was told back then was as long as I can sell four thousand videos then it would pay and I would have the freedom. I have always been used to that. As long as I have a leading actor who could attract fans then I can just make it as I please. When people approach me with work now, they do so knowing that I have complete creative control. This means, when there is source material I have to really like it. I have to be a really big fan. I have to find something that’s good in there and really, truly appreciate the original.
In the process of adapting the source into a film which in most cases involves lengthening it, I feel that I am always true to the original because my creativity comes from a love I have for it. In Blade of the Immortal there are pictures, illustrations, manga that I have to turn into real people. Yes, I also have a script but when I am filming, if there is something that doesn’t work or feel right, I will think of something that will make it even more true to the spirit of the source and veer from the script there and then. But to me, I feel like I am always true to the original.
Have you ever wanted to take the film and story to a place that was so far out there, so wild that you have had to stop yourself or do you just surrender and allow it to happen?
TAKASHI MIIKE: I am constantly trying to limit myself because where I want to go is infinite. There is always further and further I can go but I can’t go all the way. It’s impossible. So yes, I am always having to limit myself.
Are you conscious of your style evolving as a film-maker?
TAKASHI MIIKE: Maybe not evolving but I do have a particular way of working that I have managed to establish through experience: a particular way of communicating with cameramen and staff. But as a director I am not really conscious of a specific style I have or how it is developing. I just like to be natural, not thinking about style or the process of style. When you think about style you aspire and that means you are considering a goal or becoming into a role you would like to be that is not necessarily something that you are. I like to be as natural as possible. If you try and make something that is something you are not or stems from something you aspire to be then that compromises yourself and the work. I like to let everything flow like water. I don’t think about my own style.
You have directed many films but written very few. Is there a type of film that would like to make or story you would like to tell that you haven’t found captured in a screenplay yet?
TAKASHI MIIKE: Yes. There are quite a number of pieces I have been involved in on the screenwriting front, twenty or so. I have actually written myself but because the way it is credited, sometimes I provide an idea that a scriptwriter gets credited for. Sometimes there is an original story, an original author and then there is a scriptwriter and script which I adapt. It gets passed on to me and I input a lot myself but for crediting purposes it won’t have my name on it. In Japan, the trend in the film industry is that a producer puts a film in order according to what the audiences want and the scriptwriter works to please the producer, rather than them generating original ideas. Scriptwriters used to be writers for themselves but now the trend is for them to be more writers for producers. I am disappointed in the way it has turned out because I do want to encourage young people to come up with more ideas and not necessarily a good script for someone else. If there are good ideas out there then I would really like to encourage them to be written. This is something I would like to see more of.
Blade of the Immortal is released in UK cinemas on 8th December – find out more here: http://bladeoftheimmortal.co.uk