Director Miike Takashi, Japan's gonzo gun-for-hire, describes himself as "an arranger, not an author." Taking a cue from a title of one of his films, I like to think of him as a cinematic agitator. Working largely within the confines of traditional genres (mostly gangster and action pictures), he's the unstable element introduced into the studio formula. His films can erupt at any time, and they usually do.
Mr. Miike came to Seattle in June 2002 to be honored as an "Emerging Master" at the Seattle International Film Festival and introduced the American premiere of his (then) new film Agitator. I expected to see him under the same mop of bleached blonde hair he wore in the movie (he's the one putting a karaoke microphone to obscene use in the opening scene), but he walked into the interview with a short cropped head of red hair, his eyes hidden behind tinted glasses. Wiry and impish looking on screen, he's quiet and soft-spoken in person and he began the interview with an almost stony face. But through the course of the hour, he slowly became more animated, gesturing as he answered questions, even laughing now and then.
This interview was conducted in two parts: a short series of questions over a speaker phone on June 5 with Mitsuhiro Tsuchiya interpreting, and a longer, more in depth interview in person on June 6 with translator Takumi Ono of Junglecity.com interpreting.
I've read that you initially wanted to become a mechanical engineer. Why did you change your mind and become a movie director?
I wanted to become a racing car mechanic. But that was just a childish dream, like wanting to be a baseball player. It's a dream for something that you simply cannot do. You must be good at mathematics (to be a mechanic), but I wasn't good at it. I couldn't do the math, which I discovered after getting into school. [laughs] Then I did not have anything to do, and I found a movie production school which required no entrance exam. I was 18 or 19 at that time and I did not want to become an adult. I was living in Osaka with my family at that time, but I wanted to get away from home. So I decided to enter this school in Yokohama.
What kind of training was V-cinema [films made for the video market]? Did it have an impact on the way you make movies now?
I have never had official training for anything in my life. I got into a film school, but it wasn't because I loved movies and wanted to make movies on my own. In fact, I escaped to movies. Of course, I never really disliked making films. But I did not want to become an adult, so I killed time for two years in school. I didn't study hard, but I had a lot of experiences. I worked at a club - which used to be called dance clubs - in Yokohama frequented by American soldiers. After two years I had to graduate and I reluctantly became an assistant director. After five years, I became an assistant director for Mr. Imamura. I did my job, I worked hard on what was assigned to me. But I never went out to find work for myself. I was given the position of director. I wasn't really trying to make a career for myself, I was just given projects. It's still the same.
Do you develop any projects yourself, or do they all come to you from someone else?
When I made my first film, Japan was in an economic bubble. The economy was good and a lot of people had money. They didn't know how to make films but they had dreams of the film business so they approached me and I started making films for them. I got involved with those who had dreams. As for me, even when I read interesting books, I would not think about making them into films. When I hear about someone who wants to produce a film based on a book, I think, "That's going to be hard work." Usually, you would be motivated to portray your feelings or impressions in a movie, but I don't have such motivations. I don't have a switch in me that turns my passion into ideas for films. I escaped from everything when I went to film school and I've continued to escape. That's why I went into the film industry. So I have the feeling that I just can't get enthusiastic about things. And yet, people still come to me. When someone comes to me with a film, I step away, I think: "I don't want to make films." But even when I say no, they keep coming. They say, "I really want to make this film." In that case, I feel it's my destiny to work with them. I decide I want to do it and then I get very passionate, very enthusiastic about the project. It takes a while for me to get interested, but I do my best in the given job.
Is it still that way? You make more films than anyone I know.
Since the beginning of the last year, I started attending film festivals overseas. I did not talk much with the people there, but as I looked at them, I asked myself: "Why am I here?" At this point in my life, I cannot do anything else (other than make films), and I felt I was in trouble. They are so enthusiastic, they have dreams, and they are very passionate about what do. I'm completely different from them. But it took me 20 years after graduating from film school to get the opportunity to have dinner with such people. I can now look at myself subjectively. When I'm in Japan, I am making movies everyday. Now I'm changing, I'm becoming a little more enthusiastic about making films. Then when I heard about the Seattle International Film Festival, I thought about Bruce Lee. When I was 11 or 12, Bruce Lee was my hero. I loved his movies. If I can visit Bruce Lee's grave while I am in Seattle, I think I'll be a completely different person when I return to Japan. I can become totally enthusiastic about making films.
Your films seem completely enthusiastic. When I watch your films, especially your action films, they are so full of energy that I feel enthusiasm myself.
There is an enormous amount of passion that comes from people who make films with such enthusiasm. I'm a little different, but I have passion, too. I use a lot of this energy to keep up the tension while filming. I think that there is also energy when you take half a step back. I keep receding, but [the producers] keep coming. Then I feel it is my destiny to work with them. Then I start to understand the feelings and thoughts of the writers and producers and develop a chemistry with them. It's like they are starting a fire under me. So once I start the film, I am on fire and running around... then the film is created. [laughs]
You once said that you like it when people on the set offer ideas and that you draw from the energy of the people you make movies with. I notice that you like to cast other directors in your films, like Tsukamoto Shinya and Hiroyuki Tanaka (aka Sabu), in your films. Does their participation give you a different kind of energy or excitement when you make your films?
Mr. Tsukamoto and Mr. Tanaka have a power that professional actors don't have. It stimulates the professional actors. Professional actors know each other's pay and position in the industry, and there is an understanding among the actors regarding who is ranked higher and who is lower. But Mr. Tsukamoto and Mr. Tanaka change the atmosphere on the set. They just enjoy being actors for that moment. They think differently than professional actors and will do things that a professional wouldn't think of doing. It confuses the professional actors and gives them a different perspective. They are trying to find something that is different from the usual. Sometimes they don't find anything, but there is a different energy going on.