My Life With Miike
Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is prolific. With 78 films under his belt as director since 1991, Miike has tackled what seems like every conceivable genre, style, mood, and sexual perversion. His films themselves (of the 8 or so I’ve seen) are nothing if not memorable. Forever entrenched in my mind: the notorious and sadistic piano-wire slicing/sawing in the end of Audition, the cum-dripping high kick decapitations of Ichi the Killer, a dwarf brushing his teeth with cocaine in The City of Lost Souls, the blood-soaked bathroom murders and machine gun bullets to exploding stomach of pasta opening montage of Dead or Alive (and the bazooka blast apocalypse ending of Dead or Alive), the explicit birthing a full grown man in the Gozu, the grace and mystery of the Three…Extremes short Box, and (of course!) the hyper-violence of Fudoh: The New Generation that served as my introduction to Miike.
Let’s rewind: I moved to Chicago in the fall of 2003 to attend college. I was a young and naive whippersnapper (i.e. drunk and surly) in the Windy City, and my newly acquired Facets Multimedia membership opened me up to a plethora of films they didn’t carry at my previous rental location, Video Villa in Glen Ellyn, Illinois*. Being 18 years old and thirsty for obscurity, I came across the films of Takashi Miike. I’m almost certain he came to my attention when I read a write up of Fudoh: The New Generation somewhere on the Internet**, but I don’t remember exactly. What I do remember was the accompanying image. A low angle shot, possibly from the ground, of a naked girl. She was pretty, in a compromising and awkward position, and most importantly, preparing to shoot a dart out of her vagina.
I remember coming home from class some mornings, cooking up a bowl of ramen noodles, and popping in a Miike movie. Most times I wouldn’t even eat the ramen, and almost always couldn’t even begin to relate what had happened in the film to inquiring friends. A mixture of Miike’s incoherence mixed with his hit or miss plotlines was most likely the culprit. I remember seeing Ichi the Killer at the Facets Cinematheque, which was my first time experiencing a Miike film not by myself in my dorm room. I remember the sensation of sharing the gross-outs and repulsion with a hundred or so kindred spirits. We came to witness unthinkable violence and torture, got what we came for and more, and were pleasantly disgusted. Later I remember watching Battle Royale ,Versus, and the films of Shinya Tsukamoto and Chan-wook Park.
The years went by, and the influence of J-horror and the “Asia Extreme” movement manifested itself in the worst of American cinema. Saw came and went, as did unwatchable sequels. Eli Roth and his hair gel evoked Miike’s name enough times to use the “If I had a dollar for every time he said…” phrase. Rob Zombie cited Miike in the creation of his House of 1000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects. The Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call, and Pulse remakes happened. “Torture porn” became a commonly used phrase and “style” in the States. Michael Haneke remade Funny Games shot-for-shot so it could be released in the US, so he could prove how bad of people we all are. In short, shit got out of hand, fast.
While the bulk of the “Asia Extreme” films I saw made an impression on me at the time, most of them had little to no lasting power***. My interest faded – novelty at best, I thought. I mean, I wasn’t a teenager any more! It took more than Tadanobu Asano cutting off his tongue in close up for me to get my kicks****. So with my waning interest in ultra-violent Asian cinema, Miike was cast out with it. In retrospect, this seems totally unfair, as Miike is a seemingly inexhaustible work-for-hire type of robot, a man who has cranked out an endless stream of diverse films. But pigeonhole him I did, and a year or so after my fading interest, I rented Gozu, an absurdist, Lynchian tale of alienation and full of Freaks-esque sideshow characters (which not coincidentally played at Cannes, it being “arty” and all). I remember being startled by the restraint and beauty of his short Box, which, accompanied with Fruit Chan’s dead-baby eating Dumplings and Chan-wook Park’s torture comedy Cut seemed the work of a seasoned art-house director. These two films showed me a different side of Miike, a man capable of more than single-minded genre films. Then time, as usual, came and went
[Excluding Box, Miike has made 15 films since Gozu (the last Miike film I saw). I remember one playing in Chicago, Izo, a film about a time traveling samurai/assassin, and while it sounded awesome, for whatever reason I didn’t make it out. Naturally I was excited to see that Sukiyaki Western Django was getting some sort of proper release in the US, which is most certainly rare for a Miike film despite his rabid cult following and torture-porn trend setting.
Sukiyaki Western Django
Sukiyaki Western Django opens in acid-western territory, where a computer generated sun, sky, and mountain backdrop pour out saturated reds and blues. The faux set is emphasized, and its fakeness is played for laughs. Miike wants you to know that this is a movie, and at that, a movie-movie, so in other words, hardly a movie at all. What you are seeing is not a spaghetti western, or a samurai film for that matter. What you are seeing is the appropriation of two film movements (i.e. genres, loosely) as chewed up and spit back out by a violence-obsessed workaholic with a penchant for cinematic insanity.
The film is introduced by way of Quentin Tarantino channeling Elvis/Eastwood as Ringo, who appears by slicing open a snake and mowing down some rival gunslingers. As master of ceremony for the picture, QT is given the special duty of ‘telling the tale’, which more or less involves him hanging around for too long in iconic close-ups. The tale, too, leads us to “400 years later” and to “Nevada”, neither of which make any sense.
The real set up, by way of Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars, involves a lone and unnamed gunman (Hideaki Ito) offering up his mercenary services to rival gangs in the war torn town of Yuda. The rival gangs in question are color coded for clarity (the Red and the White), and what follows is easier described in vague comparisons than in plot description – a big old fucking spaghetti western samurai milkshake (metaphor).
Like most Miike, the film is structured in alternating stretches of high-octane lunacy and sterile, undercooked drama (i.e. backstory). If anything has changed since my previous encounters with Miike, it’s that his stretches of tedium have been compressed. Gone are the epic stretches of monotony (e.g. Dead or Alive), but that’s not to say he’s become a balanced filmmaker. If anything his divided skill set is as noticeable as ever (as evidenced by the several uninspiring flashback sequences), he just seems to have scaled back the attention necessary “plot” points. All the better, I think, since Miike is truly at his best when he’s throwing it all up on the screen without giving a fuck. And that’s really what makes Sukiyaki Western Django enjoyable.
If you’re A.O. Scott, or whoever, it’s easy to dismiss Sukiyaki as a pointless imitation, homage, pastiche, or whatever the fuck. But what we all need to remember is that spaghetti westerns were imitations to begin with. The attempt by Italian directors to imitate the old masters (e.g. Ford, Hawks, Walsh, et al.) and their subsequently incomplete, bastardized interpretation of the American west and the western genre is the key to their notoriety. The result of this interpretation was the western stripped down to its core—manifest destiny and the American morality of studio era westerns were told to get the fuck out, and what remained was greed, violence, greed, violence, memorable Ennio Moriccone scores, three day beards (e.g. Eastwood, Nero), radical CinemaScope framings, bad post-sync sound, and more violence.
The tradition of the spaghetti western puts Sukiyaki in a curious position. If the original spaghetti westerns were at worst cheaply imitative B-westerns, then what to do with a film that is imitative of an already inferior genre? If you’re Takashi Miike, you can have all the actors, who are Japanese, speak in phonetic English. Being one of the weirder filmmaking decisions in recent memory, it takes a while to get used to. The actors toss up cliché after cliché, sounding it out in often the wrong tone and/or mood, making one’s native language sound foreign and familiar at once. This makes for an odd, almost post-sync type effect that is synonymous with the spaghetti western, and it also helps to cultivate Miike’s absurdist aspirations.
Sukiyaki’s central position (i.e. point) is that it is a derivative of a derivative genre/movement, and this could lead one to read the film in a plethora of meta, but for real it isn’t much more than Miike flexing knowledge on his DVD collection. Corbucci’s Django is evoked by way of extensive gatling gun use, along with a cover of Luis Enrique Bacalov’s title theme. The lone gunslinger is jacked from every (spaghetti) western ever, the out of nowhere snow recalls The Great Silence and possibly Altman’s anti-western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the warring factions are straight out of the Yojimbo/Fistul of Dollars camps, and the list goes on and on and on.*******
The question, then, is why this film isn’t just a pointless exercise in director masturbation. The answer, though not unfortunately, is that it is. But with Miike’s filmography in the rearview mirror, it is still a work of strong personality. Miike is an auteur in the truest Cahiers du Cinéma sense of the word. His personality is recognizable through all the muck (perhaps his personality is the muck itself), and it’s as recognizable as a Tarkovsky dolly shot or the always professional Hawksian protagonist. While much has changed in the years between Audition and Sukiyaki Western Django, the only glaring difference is the restraint in gore and graphic violence that was once Miike’s trademark. In a treacherous time of studio homogenization and celebration of faux-liberal cinematic Hollywood hogwash, it’s pretty fucking great to watch and enjoy a movie made by and for a man who first and foremost loves movies (the film’s energy and high flying spirit are not dismissible). I think it might be time to rediscover Miike not as the single-note violence monger I once thought (and loved) him as, but instead as an ever expanding, improving, and constantly shifting artist with a bright future still ahead of an already storied and proven past.
*To be fair, Video Villa had (I think?) every Cronenberg movie on VHS, which, among other VHS rentals (see: Caligula, Lost Highway) was essential to my lengthy coming of age / becoming a cinephile period (1997-2002).
**This image might have come from a review on Filmthreat.com, but I don’t remember for shit. In an interesting side note, TIME Magainze listed Fudoh: The New Generation as one of its top 10 films of 1997. The Internet tells me this but I can’t find it to actually confirm. Corliss? Really?
***With probably the sole exception of Shinya Tsukamoto, whose work I’m not as familiar with as I’d like but am very much impressed by to this very day. Seeing A Snake of June on Sundance Channel last year was a pleasant surprise, and I’ll probably forever be a fan of Tetsu: Iron Man and Tokyo Fist.
****I realize this might sound serious and/or condescending. It’s not. But there really is only so much extreme violence you can take before the whole ‘desensitization’ thing comes in. It just doesn’t pack that much of a punch. I think at this point I became whole-heartedly obsessed with the American west, which means lots of Hawks/Ford/Peckinpah/Fuller.
*****This past weekend a friend of mine explained his love of Quentin Tarantino’s acting with analogy similar to Jason McElwain, the autistic basketball player who hit all those sweet shots when he had the chance to get in an actual game last year. Basically, he was suggesting that Tarantino is a bad actor, and that it is overshadowed because he’s transparently trying so hard whenever he gets the chance (i.e. it’s cute, funny, sad all at once). While I partially agree with this theory, Tarantino’s acting reminds me more of the annoying kid on your football team who wore a hockey jersey to school everyday, had a real bad attitude and talked massive amounts of shit despite crapping the bed any time he actually got a chance to play (i.e. Tarantino is so fucking annoying I will give him no credit).
******This is a generalization, but speaks very close to the truth. From where I’m sitting, there are only two genuine masters of the spaghetti western, Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. All told, they combine for around 6-8 mostly excellent films, which is more or less the cream of the crop as far as spaghettis go. There are exceptions everywhere, but everyone needs to get real, since most spaghetti westerns absolutely suck. This is probably because outside of the aforementioned auteurs, many spaghetti westerns were in fact not cast out of the unique Italian revision of the American Western, but rather cast from the mold of A Fistful of Dollars, Django, and the ‘best-of’ the whole ‘genre’. [It’s also important to note that zombi master Lucio Fulci made some Italo-westerns, and the only one I’ve seen, Massacre Time, starring Franco Nero, was pretty awesome in its own sweaty, bloody, bar-fighting way.]
*******This is acknowledged as being both lazy and not wanting to sound like “I’ve seen all these movies you haven’t” guy so I can reference them in this article. The truth of the matter is that the bulk of my Italo-western viewings/introductions were in a Spaghetti Western class in college, which was an excellent gateway.