Takashi Miike is not only one of the most exciting but also one of the most prolific directors working today. So it's little surprise that we had a lot of catching up to do since the last time we talked with him. Thanks to the tremendous help of translator Kana Koido from KlockWorx and some creative scheduling by Rebecca Fisher at TC:DM, Jonathan Marlow was able to pose a few questions following Miike's presentation of Gozu at CineVegas this summer.
Marlow: What was your experience working as assistant director to Shohei Imamura on Zegen (1987) and Black Rain (1989)?
Miike: Before I started working with Shohei Imamura, I was in the television industry. It was really my first time working with a film director. I was very surprised that Imamura has so much control of everything, that he has his own production and that he keeps his ideas exactly as he wants to do them. The best thing about working with Imamura was that his style was very inspiring.
Marlow: You made over a dozen films on video before your first theatrical release of Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), also your first film to be seen outside of Japan [it screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 1997]. However, you mentioned earlier that your most satisfying filming experience was the V-Cinema (direct-to-video) Kenka no Hanamichi (1996) completed right before Fudoh (1997). How did this film set a new trajectory for your work?
Miike: The most significant thing about Kenka no Hanamichi was that we shot the movie in Osaka, where I grew up. The characters in the story live exactly how I lived as a high school kid. When I make other films, like those in the Yakuza genre or other genres, the characters are not really based on my experiences or even represent my personal feelings for the characters. The actors in Kenka no Hanamichi play roles that are very close to how I lived - the time and the generation. It became the most personal and important work that I've done in my career.
Marlow: You still feel that it is your most satisfactory film?
Miike: Looking back on the way we shot the film, it was just such a pleasure making it. Now I feel that the very freshness of shooting that film, looking back at that time, reminds me of how wonderful the experience was.
Marlow: When you were at the Seattle International Film Festival a few years ago to accept your Emerging Master award, you mentioned that you were excited to see your idol Bruce Lee's grave. I learned later that you were able to do exactly that. You noted that you thought your films would change afterward, that you believed you would become "a completely different person" when you returned to Japan, "totally enthusiastic about making films" again. Was that ultimately the effect?
Miike: Watching Bruce Lee's films as a child, I learned entirely about entertaiment through his performances. I feel such an appreciation, thanks to my work as a director, that I was invited to Seattle and had an opportunity to visit the grave of someone that I admired so much. Bruce Lee, for my generation, is such a mixture of the real person and his death. Seeing Brandon Lee's grave next to his father, I thought about the meaning of death in front of these two graves. It feels like fate that I became a director, as if Bruce Lee brought me to this moment somehow.
Marlow: Trevor Groth (programmer for CineVegas) and Greg Hatanaka (Acquisitions Director for Pathfinder Pictures, distributor of Gozu, Agitator and Andromedia, among others) both mentioned independently that you were quite interested in attending the film festival in Las Vegas in order to meet with David Lynch.
Miike: I have watched many interviews with Lynch and he was exactly the same in person when we met yesterday. In the interviews, David Lynch seemed to be a very warm and nice person. I was happy that he wasn't mean to me when I talked with him! It would have completely changed my impression of him. Fortunately, he was friendly as I expected.
Marlow: In addition to your prolific output as a director, you've been acting lately. You appear in Pen-ek Ratanaruang's wonderful Last Life in the Universe (2003). Were you brought into the film by Riki Takeuchi, the iconic "bad guy" actor that stars in Fudoh and the Dead or Alive series, or did Pen-ek contact you first? [There is also a poster of Ichi the Killer humorously hanging in the background of one scene in the film...]
Miike: I met the Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang at a couple film festivals, when he was very new to attending international festivals as a director. Pen-ek was going to the same festivals with his first film, 6ixtynin9. Somehow there was a chemisty between us, without having the same language. We always seemed to be at the same festivals. We almost became friends, "eye-contacting" without really talking to each other. I was drawn to Pen-ek and Pen-ek felt the same. After Pen-ek came up with the idea that he wanted to make a movie with Japanese characters, I told him that I would be willing to contact actors that I knew if he needed any help. But Pen-ek approached Riki Takeuchi first. Since I know Riki really well, I said to Pen-ek, "If there's something I can do for you, I'll encourage Riki to do this role." In a way, Pen-ek approached both of us simultaneously. I guess that I helped him get Riki rather than the other way around.
Marlow: You're also the voice of Kakihara in the animated Ichi the Killer: Episode 0 (2002). "The show picks up where the live action film ended, and follows Ichi's story of becoming a killer." How did that project come about?
Miike: Tadanobu Asano played Kakihara in the original Ichi. The Episode 0 project had a simple beginning and I offered to dub Tadanobu's voice. On the other hand, the producer of the animated film is a producer that I've worked with before. I couldn't refuse him since he'd done so much for me before! It wasn't that tough and I had a good time doing it.
Marlow: With efforts like Visitor Q (2001) and Family (2001), by shooting on video versus film, do you approach the material differently? Do you feel that there are fewer constraints in your shooting style and in your selection of subject matter?
Miike: I worked with Hideo Yamamoto as the DP on this project, as with many others [Yamamoto is Miike's regular DP, since the aforementioned Kenka no Hanamichi]. For Visitor Q, using digital video for these projects instead of 35mm, Hideo was surprised how easily he could move with the camera compared to his usual camera. In a way, Mr. Yamamoto has so much freedom [on Family and other digital video features]. He enjoys shooting these projects because he doesn't have to carry a heavy camera all the time! At the same time, since these films are made with extremely low budgets [Visitor Q, for instance, was made for 7 million yen (roughly US$65,000) over a single week], everyone on the crew has some kind of release from all of the usual pressures of making an expensive film. Not so many people will watch these films anyway, so why don't we just do something we like? In a way, Visitor Q is like all of these professional people getting together to make a kind of home movie. That's why the movie came out with so much "freedom," because of a limitation of the budget and we didn't expect that the movie would be widely seen.
Marlow: It was relatively well-seen on this side of the Pacific, though. There is a strange title that appears on the film, Love Cinema Volume 6. It appears on one of the trailers for the film and in the opening credits. What is the origin of that reference? Where does it come from?
Miike: Six filmmakers were given the subject to make a film about "love" [also known as Sex in Tokyo and produced by Arakawa Reiko, including films by Hiroki Ryuichi and Shinohara Tetsuo]. Each director had an identical budget of US$65,000 to make the movie. That's how everything started.
Marlow: Since we only have a few more minutes to talk, I wanted to discuss your relationship with the Rotterdam International Film Festival. There was a generous display of your work with the World Premiere this year of Zebraman (2004), an inspired and unusual take on the superhero genre which left me wanting to see complete episodes of the fake television show featured in the movie. You were also represented at IFFR by Gozu (2003) - even by your standards, two exceptionally perverse scenes end that particular movie. Merely a week later, the Berlinale screened another of your films, the Ring-inspired One Missed Call (2003). Film festivals, from Melbourne to Montreal, are obviously very supportive of your work and have embraced your filmmaking style.
Miike: I have a great appreciation for IFFR because I used to make a lot of straight-to-video titles before Rotterdam really found me. Rotterdam had such a unique way to approach my work because they never catagorized my films as "genre pictures." They judge my films on their own merits, regardless of the genre. I really respect that approach. I never feel nervous there. I am always relaxed in Rotterdam. Since Simon Field left [Field resigned as Festival Director this year], I am a little bit worried that his replacement will not invite me to Rotterdam next year!
Marlow: You just completed a film with Takeshi Kitano called Izo: Kaosu mataha fujori no kijin (2004). Very little is known about it yet. Is there anything you can reveal about the film?
Miike: It's a crazy film! The way it turned out is really very funny and crazy.
And anyone who's seen the trailer, with its blips of time travel, vampires and samurai grudge matches, knows he's not kidding and that we have another extreme Miike cinematic experience to look forward to.