An added bonus of discovering Takashi Miike’s films on DVD is following the director’s progress through special-feature interviews, which are often as entertaining as the films themselves. A deadpan, musing presence, Miike is one of the great characters of recent home viewing. Though sounding more mature with each passing year (having come a long way from the interview conducted for the DVD of Audition [1999; interview 2000], in which he dressed up like a skater punk because “the youth of Japan have this game nowadays...where they beat up men on the street who look old; and so, I am trying to look younger”), Miike has retained the quality of sounding pleasantly adrift on the sea of filmmaking, coming to each project without prejudice and discovering cinema as he goes along. (Another memorable moment, when asked about the absurdist liberties he took with the purportedly realist Deadly Outlaw: Rekka : “It’s not that I rewrote the script...It’s that I did what the scripted directed me to do.”)
By the middle of this decade, Miike was alternating genre assignments with denser, more experimental work, and with these discovering—and talking about—new arenas of filmmaking. With Gozu (2003) and Izo (2004), the most experimental of these features, he was becoming a regular at international film festivals. Not only was he seeing more art films but he was meeting a wider coterie of filmmakers, a development reflected by his taking a role in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003). Incidentally, this was also around the time that festivals became host to an increasing number of movies that, however beautifully put together, seemed less the product of original vision than a codification of arthouse directors who had come before. (The current debate over so-called Slow Cinema seems more a response to this phenomenon than to any films in particular.) It was into such a milieu that Miike released Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (a.k.a. 4.6 Billion Years of Love), his most minimal and abstract film to date.
As always, the director interview on the DVD was illuminating. Addressing the film’s slow pace, Miike explained, “Recently, I realized that movies that put me to sleep were good ones...They give you tranquility. There are too many things in the world that make you angry and restless, so movies that help you sleep are important.” Miike once connected his method of directing any film he was offered to his having never walked out on a movie. Even the most routine action film, he argued, will contain some moment of beauty; you just have to keep your eyes open and find it. And Miike’s appreciation of the current festival circuit, delivered without sarcasm, betrays similar good will. He seems to be saying, If there is a glut of familiar-feeling art movies out there, why complain? The yakuza film (like the Western for American directors) spun countless variations from obligatory elements like violence and codes of honor. Should the art film also be defined by certain obligatory elements, it still contains plenty of room for invention.
Another rallying cry: “There’s an assumption that movies have to have a theme. Who decided that?” Indeed, Big Bang Love doesn’t proceed from a set of themes so much as a single image: A young man strangling another whom everyone perceived to be his friend. The scene appears shortly into the film and returns at numerous points afterward, as the narrative circles dreamily around events that may have led the characters to this pont. Thrown in for good measure are the memories of other characters and an ensuing police investigation of the crime. Screenwriter Nakamura Masaru (adapting a manga by Ikki Najiwara and Hisao Maki) claims to write from a “god’s point of view,” and that would imply here an omniscient perspective that sees at once motive, incident, and result. But as directed by Miike, Big Bang Lovebecomes a sort-of cubist narrative, with each scene acquiring a charge almost independent of the others around it.
Still, there’s an overwhelming charge to that central image, enough to suggest that the movie is spinning several big ideas in the air. Chief among them is men’s desire for other men—which can take the form of outright homoeroticism or underlie other close relationships between men: friendships, rivalries, hidden jealousies. Because Big Bang Love is set primarily in a boys’ prison, everything seems to transpire in a frictionless atmosphere where the relationships seem at once more immediate and more allegorical. (As a Westerner, I’m reminded of Melville’s Billy Budd, but a more likely point-of-reference is Nagisa Oshima’s Taboo (1999), with which Big Bang Love shares a lead actor, Ryuhei Matsuda.) An early sequence goes even further in its appeal to abstraction: An old man, appearing in front of a blank theatrical backdrop that could represent any place, instructs a child on how “boys have become men” across history, and then a half-naked figure appears to illustrate this subject through interpretative dance.
Throughout the film, the most striking moments tend to be the starkest in execution. Several scenes depict the boys’ cells as bare, light-filled rooms; others (reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Dogville ) represent the rooms with white outlines on a giant soundstage. Another recurring sequence depicts a post-murder interview with the prison’s warden, but presents the investigators’ questions while title cards while the warden holds a blank smile. Several of the boy prisoners exchange gossip and the promise of sexual favors in the prison laundry room (A scene of perpetual oneupmanship that would have its culmination in the film’s sexualized murder), which is realized as a broad pool of shallow water in the middle of an empty room.
And so on. Big Bang Love could be described as an elaboration of Miike’s Tokyo stage production of Demon Pond, but that would ignore the giant pyramid and rocket ship sitting beyond opposite walls of the prison. At several crucial moments of the film, Ayoshi (Matsuda) and Kazuki—the boy he’s seen strangling—have long, brotherly conversations in the prison garden, flanked by those two massive structures. The intimacy of these scenes also foreshadow the central murder, which comes to resemble a Wagnerian liebestod as the boys’ friendship is revealed in greater detail. “If you had a choice, would you rather go to heaven or to outer space?” is a frequent refrain in their dialogue, which feels like a poetic version of standard-issue prison drama. Kazuki, we learn, is a long-time delinquent who has taken the more fragile Ayoshi under his wing: A familiar premise, certainly, but it practically feels like an afterthought by the time it emerges from the film’s odd, meditative mood—which seems to be the point.
The pyramid and rocket are clearly computer-generated—as proudly artificial as the little green men in Zebraman  or the cock fight in City of Lost Souls . In Miike’s interview, he describes them as “objects that just exist as images”—products by, for and of the imagination. It’s worth remembering that only the mind can see infinity, as the narrator of Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land  instructs; and by pitching Big Bang Love as an invitation to a nap, Miike nudges the mind toward such awesome, ineffable destinations.