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Another Decade with Takashi Miike: An Introduction

In the 2010s the cinema of the legendary Japanese maverick shifted significantly in ways that will be traced in this multi-essay series.
Ben Sachs, Scout Tafoya
Another Decade with Takashi Miike is a series of essays on the 2010s films of the Japanese maverick, following Notebook's earlier survey of Miike's first decade of the 21st century.
Following Takashi Miike's progress over the 1990s and 2000s was one of the preeminent pleasures in world cinema of the past generation. Like a champion surfer, Miike rode the waves of modern moviemaking wherever they took him, making surprising turns, executing wild stunts, and maintaining remarkable stamina. He often released a half-dozen films a year, and his output was never predictable; Miike directed Yakuza movies, children's movies, art movies, outré cult hits, manga adaptations, and the occasional straight drama. He once said that he would accept any assignment that was offered to him, and it sounded like he wasn't exaggerating. Miike's movies weren't always good, but they were seldom boring; no matter the project, he usually exhibited flashes of impish wit, technical prowess, and a taste for the absurd.
By 2010, however, it felt as though Miike, by virtue of making movies so frequently, had become an institution—the one thing, in his constant reinvention, he most resisted. Did the director appreciate the irony? If nothing else, Miike altered his approach to filmmaking around this time, slowing down his pace and working in fewer genres. The director's work over the next decade would be divided largely between two types of films: one, high-profile dramas that were more formally controlled than anything he'd made previously; and, two, lowbrow, even disreputable assignments that included at least one video game adaptation, kiddie action movie, and teen musical. (The biggest outlier of this progression might be Yakuza Apocalypse [2015], a labored return to the sort of ridiculous midnight-movie fare that helped establish Miike's international reputation.) Miike still managed to surprise in the 2010s: not only did he make a movie even sicker than Ichi the Killer (that would be the 2012 mass-murderer saga Lesson of the Evil), he released a slick, sensitive docudrama (2015's The Lion Standing in the Wind) that was more grown-up than anything else he'd ever made. He also continued to refine his art during this time; indeed, the most impressive thing about his tony remakes of 13 Assassins (2010) and Hara-Kiri (2011) may be how focused the storytelling is. So Miike could make “normal” films after all, with consistent visual motifs and just a few shifts in tone. After so many years of wild abandon, these appeared to be his riskiest experiments.
It feels silly to write that Miike's output “diminished” to two or three releases a year in the 2010s; this is still tremendous by almost any other filmmaker's standard. At the same time, Miike did become less visible to American audiences in the past decade. Only a half-dozen of the roughly 20 features he made got theatrical distribution here, and only a few others got released on Region 1 DVD. As with so much world cinema of the decade, Americans had to scour the Internet to see some of the more compelling Miike films of this time. One looked for Miike movies as if on a treasure hunt—which seems fitting, given the playful nature with which the director has always explored different kinds of storytelling. There were virtues to being a Miike completist. For one thing, it meant you could still engage with the myth of the director as an incredible shape-shifting artist (a myth that he himself seems to have never quite believed). It also meant you could get a better handle on how he evolved over this period.
Hanging over the myth of Miike's progress in 2010s is a certain self-consciousness, on the parts of both Miike and his audience. Everyone seemed curious to know how a director famous for going to extremes could continue to top himself. And really, where do you go from piles of limbs, puddles of semen, and miles of cocaine? Miike didn't exactly go straight, despite trying a prestige drama (Lion) and becoming a mainstay at the Cannes Film Festival. It's just that his gaze became more intense. What's changed in the former enfant terrible is that now there seems to be a purposefulness behind his unblinking watch, a depth of feeling impelling and complicating each act of violence (and most Miike films contain considerable violence). You feel this in the pointless deaths of so many teenagers in Lesson of the Evil, in the way the cops in Shield of Straw (2013) risk their lives for a criminal who'd gladly watch them perish, or in the suffering of the hero of Blade of the Immortal (2017), who can't die but can still feel pain. Miike at some point hit on an apocalyptic emotional register that his most powerful films this decade all managed to sustain.
Though he was always a talented director of children and young adults, Miike seemed increasingly drawn to young protagonists after he turned 50 in 2010. There's the young stalwart in the Mole Song films (2013, 2016), the mystical sleuths in Laplace's Witch (2018), the teenagers of Lesson of the EvilFor Love's Sake (2012) and As the Gods Will (2014), the lost young fugitives who meet cute over drugs, abuse, and murder in First Love (2019), and of course those adorable Ninja Kids!!! (2011). When Miike did consider adult identification figures in the 2010s, they often looked after children, and their fears were usually parents’ fears (they lose sleep worrying about how they can't save everyone).
Miike started and ended the decade making movies with producer Jeremy Thomas, whose impact could be felt in the cleaner cinematography, higher budgets, and intricate design elements. A producer associated with more traditional art-house fare than Miike's forays into that realm (GozuBig Bang Love), Thomas was, on the whole, a good foil for the director, who's delivered some of his best work when fighting against constraints (traditionally stemming from genre conventions or limited budgets). Thomas also made Miike seem more grown-up, bringing to the films an artful sheen that lent a newfound sense of gravity to the stylistic flourishes. In the years between these collaborations, however, Miike's invention felt positively childlike: consider the deliberately cartoonish wigs of Ace Attorney (2012) or Terra Formars (2016); the fuzzy frog costume in Yakuza Apocalypse; or the bizarre fashion choices of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable - Chapter I (2017). The director seemed to draw inspiration from children in multiple ways. On the one hand, he delivered the sort of eye-popping, kid-friendly entertainments he might have wanted to see as a boy (Ninja Kids!!!JoJo's Bizarre Adventure); on the other, he often gave voice to defiant and destructive impulses, sticking characters against cruel fate and taking delight in their suffering.
In honing his cinema down to a few recognizable creative personae (as opposed to the half-dozen Miikes we got in the 1990s and 2000s), the director has also revealed more of himself. The optimism with which Miike regards children suggests that he's a romantic; at the same time, he can't commit to the trappings of romance, so he places one ghastly obstacle after another whenever things seem to be looking up for his characters, like one-armed assassins, dancing gangs, and school shootings. Miike's sense of life's unfairness seems to have intensified this decade, peaking with Lesson of the Evil and As the Gods Will, which subject their adolescent characters to hideous cruelty (the first in a random environment, the second in an ordered one). Miike still enjoys tormenting his characters, but the torments mean something else now—they're reflections of the dark places of the soul. He also knows to offset the despair of his darker films with the hopefulness and happiness of his lighter ones, like Ninja Kids!!!Ace Attorney, and First Love. Where Miike's filmography might once have been described as schizophrenic, now his films often stand in purposeful conversation with each other.
With this series of essays, we intend to consider the two principal sides of Miike's development in the 2010s, how they interact, and what they express on the whole. The Japanese director has continued this decade to remind us that cinema above all is a medium for play—one finds evidence of this philosophy virtually everywhere in his output, even the disturbing violence of Lesson of the Evil and As the Gods Will, which communicates a sense of invention in the content and staging. Miike may have matured in some respects (the moral seriousness of Hara-Kiri may be the most obvious example of this), but many of the memorable moments he delivered this decade revealed him to be as youthful as ever, delighting in—and even elevating—stories that many filmmakers would consider beneath them. In doing so, Miike reminded us of cinema's power to transform any subject through imagination and craftsmanship. And when he's at his best, Miike is still one of the most imaginative and crafty filmmakers around. 
INDEX
by Ben Sachs
by Scout Tafoya
by Ben Sachs
by Scout Tafoya
by Ben Sachs
by Scout Tafoya
by Scout Tafoya
by Ben Sachs & Scout Tafoya
by Ben Sachs

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