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A Decade with Takashi Miike. Only in the Movies: “Detective Story” (2007)

Early on in Detective Story, there’s a scene where the title character bumps into his secretary on the street.  He’s working undercover (which consists solely of an awful wig; he hasn't changed from his typically flamboyant outfit), but she recognizes him anyway.  She’s on her lunch break, on her way back to her day job at a market research firm.  “Why don’t you try getting one?” she asks him.  “You can make a lot more money in this line.”  “There are more important things in life than money,” he answers, shaking out his fake locks.

In this moment, we get the essence of Takashi Miike’s art: A scene familiar from so much genre cinema becomes a meeting place of the ludicrous and the surprisingly heartfelt.  As funny as Kazuya Nakayama is in this scene (doing a broad-comic variation on the bumbling detective character), the mention of a crummy day job is just as integral to its effect.  The great surrealists often located their most unusual ideas in the mundane, proving—as Dave Kehr wrote of Luis Buñuel, the filmmaker Miike most often resembles—how much realism is required in surrealism.  Here, in the middle of a story about the search for a hyperbolically disgusting serial killer, Miike brings in the reality of the salaried world, and he depicts it as neither pathetic nor contemptible.  It’s simply what most people do to earn a living.

Scenes like these earn their credibility as realism by evoking—and with no condescendion—the director’s working-class background, which was painted succinctly by Tom Mes’ critical study Agitator.  Miike’s father was a welder, his mother a seamstress; after he finished high school he rode dirt bikes for a few years because he didn’t know what else to do.  Like many of the great studio-era Hollywood directors (former engineer Howard Hawks, former Air Force pilot William Wellman, former inventor Preston Sturges, etc.), Miike came to cinema with a thorough understanding of what it means to work for a living.  This may explain why his films (along with Hawks’, Wellman’s, Sturges’, et al.) strive to entertain above all else, a credo that’s strengthened rather than contradicted by these frequent intrusions of the mundane—details that remind us of why people watch movies in the first place.

Certainly, there are more important things than money; going to the movies is one of them.  For Nakayama’s Raita Kazama, it’s living the life of a swinging bachelor well into middle age, wearing wild outfits and getting hammered every night.  It’s a silly fantasy, but modest, and Nakayama’s let-it-all-hang-out performance indulges the character lovingly.  In contrast, Miike’s direction is more reserved, letting shots linger on Kazama’s dull apartment complex or stretching out scenes with dialogue that alerts us (much like the film’s title) to the utter familiarity of his story.  A choice exchange, after Kazama coaxes a confession from a character witness: “How did you know that?”  “I was bluffing!  You see, you can’t hide anything... from a detective!”

Like Negotiator before it, Detective Story displays a curious infatuation with bad writing.  It’s hard to say whether this is one of Miike’s surrealist touches—fetishizing the familiar so that it's made strange—or just an honest appreciation of journeyman filmmaking.  Either way, it’s produced some of the most memorable jokes in his recent work: In Negotiator, there’s the seven-minute shot near the end where a character summarizes the plot; here, the main characters often mug at the camera after explaining their detective work step by step.  It’s in this self-aware but generally exuberant attitude toward genre cinema that brings Miike closer, arguably, to the French New Wave than any other active director.  Miike also invokes this comparison in his random employment of jump cuts—a fixture of his movies since at least Agitator (2001) and especially jarring in an early scene of Detective Story. (If the jump cuts of Godard’s Breathless suggested "a needle skipping gaily across a record," to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum, Miike’s jump cuts evoke the skips on a favorite CD.) It’s a kind of joyous vandalism that brings to mind much urban street art, the most proletarian mode of creative expression today.

We come to discover that the mysterious villain of Detective Story is an artist slaughtering young women so he can use their ground-up organs in his chicly disturbing, Francis Baconesque canvases.  This development—a surreal fusion of high art and splatter movies--has a precedent in Roger Corman’s underground classic A Bucket of Blood (1959), but it’s a pretty apt metaphor for Miike’s recent acceptance in the realms of serious art.  It’s worth noting that Detective Storyis, among other things, a great blowing-off-steam movie, made after a long (for Miike) stretch away from the genre films at which he's most at home.  Following the of festival-circuit acceptance of Gozu (2003), Miike split his time between serious art moives (Izo and The Box [2004], Imprint and Big Bang Love(2006)] and more commercial projects (Zebraman [2004], The Great Yokai War [2005], Sukiyaki Western Django [2007])—both of which inhibited the more provocative Miike responsible for the (in retrospect) Orton-esque Visitor Q (2001).  Even if the premise of psycho-killer-as-artist wasn’t meant as self-parody, the sight of middle-class patrons blithely admiring human guts remains a pretty good joke on artistic respectability.

These jokes would feel disingenuous if Detective Story wasn’t also satisfying as genre filmmaking.  Many of the murder sequences are indeed scary—and they're scary because of their atmosphere and manipulation of suspense; they contain surprisingly little gore. But best of all is the scene where Kazama visits an incarcerated serial killer for advice on how solve his latest case.  It’s an overt parody of the famous Thomas Harris adaptations (especially Manhunter [1986]), but it's also an effective reworking of those movies' themes.  Locked in a room, the old killer sits restrained to a chair with a leather mask over his face, maggots inexplicably roosting in a wound in his arm.  He provides maxims familiar from the Harris adaptations (“To the killer, the insane is not insane,” etc.), but they're clearly MacGuffins: What the viewer really wants to know is what's behind that mask.  Miike withholds the answer until the scene reaches its breaking point--a reminder that yes, the director is a master of visual storytelling.

The other major genre at play in Detective Story is the buddy picture, which the film is no less successful with.  Early in the film, Kazama finds himself with a new neighbor, a straight-laced bureaucrat and amateur hacker also named Raita (Kurodo Maki). (His nickname: The Brilliant Hacker.) Kazama immediately recruits him as a drinking buddy, but his computer skills prove useful in solving the case.  By the middle of the film, Raita Takashima a full-fledged partner; and by the end, he’s Kazama’s closest ally.  The nerd/wild man partnership is another familiar routine, but rarely is it the basis for such genuine affection.  Male camraderie of a certain industrious type—the hitmen partners in Dead or Alive 2, the sham-businessmen in The Guys from Paradise, the intelligence agents inZebraman, and, of course, all the yakuza clans—has been one of the few constants in Miike’s films, and it may be through these images of working that Miike conveys his most personal sentiments.

The growing trust between the two Raitas is often lingered on long enough to distract from the central mystery; tellingly, the film ends with a scene between the two of them.  Following a gory and highly unprofessional showdown with the killer , Kazama has lost his fingers and Takashima has lost his job. (It would be a shame to reveal the details) The two commiserate, as they’ve come to do, over lots of beer.  Miike shoots the bulk of the scene from a funny stationary angle from the point of view of a cache of empty beer cans. (It looks more like Kioyshi Kurosawa than Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whom Miike evoked in a lot of his earlier “artful” shots) It breathes with a life independent of the movie we’ve been watching, relaxed in its own rhythm and malleable to its own flux.  But, as we should expect in a Takashi Miike film, the scene ends with a development totally impossible in real life, a hilarious non-sequitur that’s also deeply in love with the possibilities only movies can offer.

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