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A Decade with Takashi Miike. The Joy of Work: "Negotiator" (2003)

Whereas some make movies for themselves and others make them for the audience, Takashi Miike—who has gone on the record saying that he doesn't believe there's such a thing as a single "audience" and that he became a director because he was no good at racing motorcycles—often seems to be making movies for his characters. When he says that he thinks of Ishimatsu, the vicious low-life from Graveyard of Honor, as "a friend," I belive that he means it. Miike is unfaithful to realism, surrealism, plot and pacing, but he is devotedly married to his protagonists. They may not be good people, but they're his people. While other directors stage scenes, he stages fantasy getaways, surprise parties, belated homecomings, resurrections and sobering interventions for his characters.

Why does this ultimately matter? Why is this fact something more than a mere auteurist observation? Great directors (and Miike is one) are often governed by a sense of responsibility, and their films in turn are governed by the methods (or madnesses) through which that responsibility is fulfilled. There's the responsibility to continue the theatre (Griffith, Bauer, Protazanov), the responsibility to the "natural world" (Rohmer, Straub & Huillet), a newspaperman's responsibility to the public (Fuller, Sembène, Chaplin, Ivens), a responsibility to avoid sentimentality (Pialat, Davies), a responsibility to avoid "cinema" (Bresson)—the list goes on. What these responsibilities have in common is that they are as capable of destroying a film as they are of creating one. The history of cinema is the history of itches, consciences, desires and compulsions, because cinema did not ask to be invented, nor was it merely willed into being; it has developed from and through impulse, conscious and subconscious, personal and cultural. If out of the films of all living directors, Miike's seem the most ambidexterous, the most comfortable with both the quickness and dullness of life, it is because those films, more than anyone else's, represent a fulfillment of the inner lives of fictions.

In his 2003 TV movie Negotiator, Miike directs a portion of the finale—a scene in a cafe that the average director would shoot and edit as two close-ups cutting back and forth—as a wide shot filmed with the camera across the street from the actors. We have a frame within the frame: the window of the cafe forms a screen on which we watch the action of two people talking over coffee play out. Their scene is intimate. Around the window is a border of mild winter night, a sense of loneliness, a hint of professional isolation, a certain resigned quality. It's as though by being placed further physically from the characters (in image only; the microphones keep us close), we come closer to their experience of the world; after all, we don't see ourselves, but what exists around us, so perhaps we will see these characters more clearly if we see what exists around them (this is the thesis of another great TV movie, John Carpenter's Elvis—a film which, in terms of form, could puckishly be called the first film of the Taiwanese New Wave). So what makes the scene strike instead of simply work, what elevates it from the mere fulfillment of a plan into both directorial gesture and cinephilic moment, is Miike's contrapuntal approach.

The above still—which, if it were presented out of context, I wouldn't blame you for mistaking for one of Steven Soderbergh's 2009 movies, maybe The Informant!—appears to be a shot of a sign, though it's actually a shot of a man leaving a room. As in the case of the Soderbergh (or Martel or sometimes even Tsai) shots it resembles, the framing is contrapuntal: it depicts an action while focusing on something else. Meaning: in the image of a man leaving a room, we are shown the sign on the door of the room he has left. But it's a different form of counterpoint, because of the context editing provides. Whereas Soderbergh, even in his jumbled chronologies, would still probably show the shot before a characters enters a room, Miike uses it only after a short scene has already occured in the room. It's only after the scene ends that we know for sure that it had taken place in an archive. The intention of Soderbergh and his abstracting angles is to step aside and see human motivation from a different perspective (such as the perspective of objects and geometries: see The Girlfriend Experience, Underneath, Che, etc.); Miike uses the same technique to enter the world of the characters, to more fully depict their experiences than he could if he shot them head-on or in close-up.

Throughout Negotiator, Miike finds opportunity in the cop show cliché of announcing the time at key moments; much of the plot occurs in flashbacks, but the only time we're told proceeds chronologically, from around 7 pm, July 7th, when the movie starts. It gives action a fluidity: these moments from the past are happening right now. If it's not always clear when scenes are taking place (this becomes less and less clear as the movie moves from a hostage crisis into its aftermath), there is never a sense that they are out-of-place in the film. Even when the action proceeds chronologically, it often moves backwards in terms of traditional dramatic construction (why is by its very nature psychological and analytical), as in the case of the sign on the door that is shown only after we already know what's on the other side. Movement is placed above chronology, an idea Miike would take to its relentless conclusion in Izo.

This approach to the arrangement of shots and scenes makes Miike a remarkably anti-psychological filmmaker, something made more remarkable by the fact that the script to Negotiator, adapted by Kôta Yamada from a novel by Takahisa Igarashi, is essentially a psychological drama. Yet (as always!) Miike isn't directing in opposition to the script. Unlike another wild-man-of-the-cinema, the similarly productive and wide-ranging Raúl Ruiz, Miike doesn't have an agenda. His contrapuntal technique is pure responsibility (and it might be possible to construct an entire history of film directing along the lines of responsibility vs. agenda), the obligation to fulfill what he feels are the possibilities of the material; it needs a point in order to add its counter-point and expands the mechanics of the plot (which, over to the course of Negotiator's many fake-outs and reveals, moves from police procedural to workplace romance to jokey crime movie to completely mysterious revenge tale to tender family story) into more complex territory. Ruiz and Soderbergh ask, in their own ways, "Why show one thing when you can show another?" Miike asks, "Why show one thing when the frame has space for two?"

This still comes from a scene about an hour into the film, and by this point the set-up has been established. Three men in motorcycle helmets have held up a convenience store. They behave strangely (for armed robbers) and drive off in a blue truck with flames airbrushed on the side. A bicycle cop spots the truck in a hospital parking lot. As he looks up, the lights in the hospital go out and becomes it obvious that the doctors and patients have been taken hostage. The convenience store clerk tells the police that he believes the three men were foreigners. Ishida (Hiroshi Mikami), the head hostage negotiator, is called in. Stern with high cheekbones, the skin pulled tightly across his forehead, his long hair combed back, he's strikingly handsome, even though his big bulging eyes sometimes make him resemble a marmoset. At first Ishida is reluctant to negotiate for the release of the hostages, because he knows that his wife (Kumi Nakamura) is amongst them. He suggests the task be given to Capt. Tohno (Mayu Tsuruta), his former protege. The two had an affair that's still discussed in gossip at their precinct (as is the untimely death of the negotiator's son, who was born after years of fertility treatments), but Ishida tells the chief (Masatô Ibu) that he and Tohno are no longer on speaking terms. She is, however, the best person for the job, and he will assist her to the fullest extent of his abilities.

An entire scene is played out in this shot, which lasts for almost six minutes. In the introductory essay to this series, Ben Sachs rightly identified that most Miike films exist at the intersection of work and play. The framing, which places several objects directly in front of the camera and comes off as pretty funny within the context of the film, is half art-house gag (play) and half contrapuntal responsibility (work). It shouldn't be overlooked that Negotiator happens to be a very broadly entertaining film, and sometimes a conventionally accomplished one, just as it was intended to be. Neither should we overlook the fact that the long immobile takes are just as much a part of the film as the tense moments shot with handheld cameras and edited with quick cuts, that for every Houism and Tsaism there is an equally thought-through application of conventional techniques. It's important to think of the movie totally: Miike directed all of these scenes equally and, unlike what you sometimes see with Ruiz, there are no lapses of laziness on his part. The formal variety is conclusive proof that Miike's use of stationary long takes doesn't constitute an artistic agenda (as it does for many young contemporary directors who fetishize the technique for its supposedly "contemplative" qualities; their numbers grow with every film festival), but just one way of fulfilling a responsibility.

So in Miike's films, it's common to find the worst tendencies of a genre turned into qualities and opportunities. Every tendency movies may have, good or bad, is approached as something inherently beautiful (Miike is, after all, the director who claims to have made a movie because, having spent a lot of time at film festivals, he too wanted to direct something that would make the audience fall asleep). In Negotiator, the worst tendency of thriller screenwriting—characters explaining to each other what just happened so as to make sure that the audience got it—is turned into a repeated and frequently comic device. The first of many big reveals that Negotiator introduces, about a third of the way into the film, is that the foreigners who robbed the convenience store are not the same people as the ones who are currently holding the hospital hostage.

The three men (one Chinese, one a white European, the third Iranian) are slackers who share an apartment, and Miike uses them as clowns. They watch the hostage crisis unfold on their TV and commenting on with deadpan literalness ("Oh, I see," one says, "we were just the set-up."). The existence of this fully-realized comedy trio mostly apart from the plot is a reminder that Miike is a great director of actors. But that greatness lies in the fact that he is very indulgent, which can often be a dangerous quality: he doesn't stop his actors and he lets them go as far-out or as hammy as they want to. This means wooden actors won't be goaded into being more natural, but it also produces moments of performance rawer than the script calls for, as in a scene late in the film where Ishida lets out a terrifying animal yelp in anger.

But again, you'll probably ask, why does this all matter? Why tell you about fun Miike seems to be having in making the film, in fulfilling his sense of responsibility? Miike's projects don't always originate with him, but they become the films they are entirely through his influence. I've mentioned conscience and desire, but one of the greatest impulses of the history of movies is the joy of filmmaking. Not merely pride in having made a thing, but a sublime joy. The shallowest form of analysis is to think that movies present a fantasy for the audience. When one goes deeper, one discovers that they can be a window into the world, or the mirror of it. Dig deeper, and you will discover that movies are the world itself, and not just an imitation or a copy. But further underneath, one finds fantasy again, the fantasy of the filmmaker: the greatest dream cinema offers us is cinema. In Miike, I see that dream.

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