A conversation between Spank The Monkey and The Belated Birthday Girl
SPANK THE MONKEY: This Friday sees the UK theatrical release of Takashi Miike’s second film, 13 Assassins. It’s been a full decade since his debut Audition was in cinemas here, and it’s hard to understand why a director with such a low work rate has achieved the reputation that … oh, I’m sorry, I can’t keep this up. I’m just trying to see if I can write the single most inaccurate opening paragraph ever published on Mostly Film. You’ve got the IMDB stats there: how many films has he made?
THE BELATED BIRTHDAY GIRL: Between Audition and 13 Assassins, about fifty. I think we’ve watched about 33 of his in total, but a couple of them pre-date Audition, so we’ve seen around half of those fifty.
STM: That’s handy. It’s always good to establish your credentials before the jump, I think.
BBG: Audition was the first Miike film that I actually saw: I’d heard a lot of talk about people fainting in it and things like that, so I knew to expect something out of the ordinary. What’s delightful about it is that for the first third or so, it plays just like a romcom, before it switches genre completely. We had a lot of fun at the time on the internet talkboard we both frequented trying to sucker unsuspecting viewers into expecting the film to be a romance – although there are a couple of moments early on which warn you that something’s coming (hang on, what’s in that bag?). I really liked it, but at the time it was just an interesting standalone film. I didn’t have any suspicion that I was going to turn into a Miike obsessive.
STM: I guess the thing that probably tipped us both into obsession was when we saw his earlier “Black Society” trilogy not too long after that: I think it was part of the big Japanese season at the National Film Theatre in summer 2001. They were Yakuza movies, but very different from the ones I’d seen before, with a lot of focus on people existing on the outside of society, either because they’re criminals or immigrants. In particular, the third film (Ley Lines) is just glorious. Wasn’t that around the time that you realised just how much stuff he’d done?
BBG: This was the thing: the NFT always hand out programme notes, and they included a selected Miike filmography, which was huge. But that was when I noticed that Ley Lines was made in 1999, and so was Audition, and so was Dead Or Alive (which you’d seen at the London Film Festival a year earlier). So this guy’s managed to make three very different, very good films in the same year. You can imagine a hack could turn out lots of the same thing over and again, and lots of directors have done just that over the years, particularly in Asia. But that’s not what he was doing, and that’s what interested me.
STM: After that, Miike started turning up in festivals more frequently, and the next film that made an impact on the circuit – probably his most notorious one, I guess – would have been Ichi The Killer. We’ve seen it several times in a number of different censored edits, but even if you allow for the various cuts people have made, it’s one of those films that’s different each time you watch it.
BBG: Yeah, the first time I saw it I was most aware of the whole cartoon violence aspect. As long as you consider it as a manga adaptation, it’s really just over-the-top manga violence, and for people to get worked up over it as they did is just silly. I enjoyed it on that superficial level first time round. But on the second viewing it’s apparent it’s a much more complex film than that, with some astonishing sequences. There’s a particular scene in a noodle shop which intercuts between a couple of different timelines, which is just a stunning piece of cinema.
STM: The problem with Ichi is that it set Miike up as a director who specialises in extremes of violence and perversion, and sort of inspired a whole wave of video labels importing cinematic weirdness from the East. It ended up kind of ruining Japanese cinema in the UK for a few years: the overall perception was of Ozu and Kurosawa on the one hand, Miike and less talented hacks on the other, and we got to see nothing in between. Now we’re at the stage where labels like Sushi Typhoon are making these sorts of films specifically for the Western market, and Miike’s there at the end of their trailer reel giving their gored-up nonsense some sort of blessing. As a result, people have a perception of him as a director who makes a particular kind of film. But he’s made 83 of them since 1991, and you can’t do that successfully by making the same film every time.
BBG: Well, you could, and some people have – just look at the Tora-San series, which have the same plot and characters with just a few minor changes from film to film. But it’s clear that that isn’t what Miike is doing. Anyone who picks on one film in his catalogue could probably find one other similar one in there which could support a theory that “this is what Miike’s about.” But you could just as easily find another film in those 83 that completely says the opposite. He made Ichi The Killer, but he also makes family films like The Great Yokai War. Whenever reviewers say about one of his films, ‘this is a departure for Miike,’ I’d be interested to hear how many of his films they have seen to be able to make that comparison.
STM: So if we’re trying to define what Miike does, what does he do?
BBG: Tom Mes has written a lot about Miike (including the book “Agitator”, a film-by-film study of his career so far), and he talks about Miike’s focus on the outsider, which you picked up on back there. He plays a lot with the interactions of Japanese people with non-Japanese, and ideas of belonging and not belonging, which are very important cultural ideas in Japanese culture and language – you can’t even speak properly to someone without knowing whether they belong or don’t belong. But he is also just a very skilful director – when you make eighty-odd films, you learn how to do an awful lot of things. I think that’s why he’s been used a lot more by the studios in recent years, because he’s experienced.
STM: I think it’s the directorial skill that’s his main characteristic – that he can turn round films incredibly fast, on low budgets, and to a very high standard. He’ll do whatever it takes to get the film done, whether it’s the use of cheap and cheerful CGI or (in the case of Happiness Of The Katakuris) doing all the money shots in claymation to save a few bob – and the anything-goes approach carries the viewer along with it, so it never feels like obvious cost-cutting.
BBG: Japanese DVDs cost a fortune these days thanks to the strong yen, and hardly any have English subs, so most of the time you have to settle for cheap Hong Kong or Taiwan editions from yesasia.com if you want subtitles. Most of the films of his that get DVD releases in the West these days tend to fit into the genres that are covered by schlock labels like Sushi Typhoon. (I don’t think he’s actually tacky enough for Sushi Typhoon, but you never know, I’m sure he could be if he wanted to…)
STM: Yeah, you just don’t get a feel of his range from the films you can buy over here. Stuff like Big Bang Love Juvenile A, which I know you love enormously: it’s pretty much a Derek Jarman film! It’s a gay prison romance with no sets and fancy schmancy lighting!
BBG: Miike said that with that one he was setting out to make ‘a beautiful film’, and I think he completely succeeded in that. The other one I really love, which I’m not sure there’s even a Japanese DVD for, is Shangri-La, which I think has had two UK regional arthouse screenings and nothing else. It’s light, it’s warm-hearted, a delightful film…
STM: …kind of a Japanese Ealing comedy, I think. And if we’re discussing obscure Miike favourites, I’d have to add God’s Puzzle to the list. Why has nobody in the West made a film yet about the Large Hadron Collider going nuts and destroying the universe? Miike did it back in 2008.
BBG: The tagline was something about “physics plus rock ‘n’ roll” because the universe gets saved by an electric guitar turned up really loud.
STM: But with all these big commercial films and culty oddities, 13 Assassins is still only the second proper theatrical release Miike has had in the UK. So why this one, as opposed to anything else he’s made since Audition? Is it that samurai vengeance stories are what people expect from Japan, or that it’s got a big-name English producer like Jeremy Thomas involved, or what?
BBG: I think it’s mainly because it’s in the sort of genre that people think is respectable: people who watch the Ozus and Kurosawas can be brought in and say, “ah, it’s Seven Samurai, only there’s thirteen of them.” It hasn’t got any wacky weirdnesses – okay, quite a lot of samurai fighting, but no over-the-top spurting arteries. You were saying there are two things that people expect from Japanese cinema, either blood and gore, or jidai-geki samurai drama – so it’s easily pigeonholeable, but just in a respectable genre this time.
STM: I like how in 13 Assassins, there’s a focus on the codes of the samurai. When our hero Shinzaemon (Kôji Yakusho) realises that he has a major fight on his hands, he has this extraordinary expression of joy on his face: up until now, he’s been a samurai in a time of peace, but now he has a cause that will give his life – and death – true meaning. Whereas bad guy Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki) goes into battle because it gives him a stiffy, and he has no moral code whatsoever. So it’s the contrast between the two of those I find very interesting: the established way of the samurai, and how easily it can be perverted.
BBG: I think that’s true, but I also think – going back to why it’s getting a release here – it’s a very well-shot samurai epic that works in its own right, while keeping some of the Miike themes we’ve discussed here. The idea of the outsider really comes in with the character who, if this was Seven Samurai, would be played by Toshiro Mifune: the guy who isn’t a samurai, who’s watching it all from the outside and saying, ‘this is all a bit daft, but I fancy getting involved anyway.’ I also think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Naritsugu and the two main characters in Ichi The Killer – I won’t say any more, but I’d encourage people to see both films.
STM: And if they like 13 Assassins, then Miike’s got a huge back catalogue for them to explore, plus another two films already in the can. Just about to debut at Cannes is Hara-Kiri, another samurai remake (this time in 3D!). Meanwhile, his big summer release in Japan is Ninja Kids!!!, whose three exclamation marks suggest it’s another one of his family films. It’s a common criticism that Miike makes too many movies, and should slow down a bit. But it’s the sheer lunatic range of his work that makes him interesting, surely?
BBG: It’s the whole reason why I got obsessed with him in the first place. I hope that he keeps on doing it, and that we get to see more of his range over here.
“13 Assassins” is released in the UK tomorrow, 6 May
The further adventures of Spank the Monkey and the Belated Birthday Girl can be followed at The Unpleasant Lair of Spank the Monkey