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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Anything goes

Whether it's straight to Cannes or straight to video, Takashi Miike is free to do as he pleases

Though he's Japan's most notorious cinematic provocateur, who splatters blood on the screen with manic abandon, Takashi Miike is, in person, the soul of politeness. Even when asked questions he has probably heard dozens of time before, he answers courteously and measures his words carefully, speaking in a deep baritone voice that was a joy to transcribe.

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Filmmaker Takashi Miike

Now with more than 50 films to his credit, Miike moves a bit more slowly than when I first met him nearly four years ago. Also he has exchanged his Afro for a cut that gives him the look of a slightly woolly Zen monk -- but he is, at age 42, not about to retire to a monastery. As always, he has one film in the video shops, one in the can and one in production. We spoke mainly about the first, "Gokudo Kyofu Daigekijo Gozu (Gozu)," which has been described as the first "yakuza horror" movie.

You recently went to Cannes with "Gozu." Was the atmosphere different from the other festivals you've attended?

"Gozu" was in the Directors' Fortnight section -- it's not the same as being in the competition. Within the larger festival I was able to find a time and place that suited my film -- a weekend evening screening. I also got a good reaction from the audience. They laughed and enjoyed it in a way that was very heartening.

Before seeing "Gozu" I'd heard that, with its mixing of the horror and yakuza genres, it was another departure for you, but now that I've seen it, I feel that it's very much in line with your other work.

That's right, "Gozu" is not a completely new type of film for me. But it was the first one in which I was involved from the planning stage. "Gozu" was originally supposed to be just another yakuza movie -- the producer came to me and asked me about making it that way. Ordinarily, once I say yes I try to make the film the way the producer wants, but in this case I didn't think the star he had in mind should be doing a yakuza movie.

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The star was the producer's son -- Hideki Sone. I told the producer (actor Harumi Sone) that, even if this film worked out, there was no future for Sone (as a yakuza actor). Instead, I suggested another sort of film, so we started over from the beginning. We called in a scriptwriter and talked about the story and the type of character that Sone should play.

We wrote the script fairly quickly, but we didn't have much money, so we decided to set the film in Nagoya where we could save on costs. Then we shot the film -- it was the father's first film as a producer.

That film was a big exercise in self-gratification. First the producer was making it for his son. Second, we were able to raise financing from new sources in Nagoya that gave us a freedom we might not have had otherwise. Third, we were able to go to Cannes and enjoy that experience together. In that way, it was different from my other films.

The press materials talk about the film's resemblance to the work of David Lynch, but for me the biggest resemblance was to the manga of Yoshiharu Tsuge.

When I read Tsuge's manga as a kid, including "Gensenkan Shujin (Master of the Gensenkan Inn)" and "Akai Hana (Red Flower)," I wondered why I liked them so much. Why were they so interesting no matter how many times I read them? I still don't understand why.

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Tsuge's manga aren't for children, really, but children can understand them in a purer way, not through words, but feelings. I found "Akai Hana" extremely erotic. There was nothing pornographic about it, but it was still somehow erotic. The people themselves are erotic.

"Gozu" reminds me of Teruo Ishii's 1993 adaptation of "Gensenkan Shujin." In other words, an "ero guro" (erotic-grotesque) film, though it doesn't belong to any one genre.

Directors usually try to express themselves through the story and through images. They try to develop a style that marks their films as their own. I've freed myself of that. (Laughs) Instead of aiming only for self-expression, I regard filmmaking as a profession that I work at with various partners, trying various modes of expression. I make films that are not violent, that are not "ero guro." I don't want to be put into a box.

But no matter what sort of film you're making, there's not much difference in what you're depicting, basically. David Lynch and Nagisa Oshima and Steven Spielberg and Charlie Chaplin are all the same in one fundamental way: They all have to respond to human beings in all their strangeness, with their own astonishment or fear.

Whether you're making a film for children or an action film for adults, you're dealing with the same basic themes. The similarities extend to not just the story elements, but the reasons why the scriptwriter wrote the script in the first place.

For me films are about enjoyment. When you think of yourself as an artist, films become a pain. (Laughs) I don't like to suffer -- I'd rather be free, so I make films as entertainment. That's how I can make so many of them.

I still think it's strange that though "Gozu" was invited to Cannes, it's not being shown in a theater in Japan.

Even if you release a film like that theatrically, it's not going to be a hit. I didn't want the producer, who is really an amateur, to experience that kind of failure. He would just come away with regrets. He might believe that the film could become a hit, but realistically, I know that's not going to happen. It was better to take it to Cannes and let that be the end of it. It's better for the audience to enjoy it on video, whenever they want. Some people will see it next week and some a year from now -- either way is OK.

"Gozu" is not like the typical Hollywood horror movie, where there's a shock every second. The pace is slower and there's a greater stress on atmosphere.

It's a road movie, about a guy who doesn't know what to do. He searches for a body and ends up in a place that baffles him. I wanted the audience to experience the hero's journey in, not movie time, but in real-time, just as he would, though they may find it a little boring.

There are already a lot of horror films in which things jump out at the audience to scare them. But to make that kind of film properly you need money. We didn't have it, so we had to try something else.

Actually "Gozu" is not really a horror film. For one thing, it's not scary. (Laughs) It's a horror movie that's not scary, in which yakuza show up. (Laughs) It doesn't have any of the elements that a proper horror movie should have. But it doesn't need them -- it's not bound by genre.

We could get away with that because we made it on such a small budget. I'd rather have that kind of freedom than be hemmed in because the budget is too big. That why I think I'd have a hard time if I ever went to Hollywood to make a movie.

I've heard that on the set you'll often take the movie in a direction that's not in the script.

Writing the script is the scriptwriter's job and I respect his work. But there are different ways of interpreting that work. A script is a tool for making a film. How you choose to use that tool is up to you. If 100 people read the same passage in a script, they will have 100 different ideas about how to film it. How do you interpret this line? How do you express it? If the script says the character comes running in, you have to ask yourself how he runs, why he runs. Maybe he comes flying in? You have to interpret the meaning of "run."

For me, a script with defects is a good script. When I come across the boring parts I have to think about how to make them interesting. In that way I can work out my own approach to the script.

For a director, a perfect script is boring. All you can do is follow it.

What are you working on now?

It's something like the "Kamen Raidaa (Masked Rider)" action series for kids. It's called "Zeburaaman (Zebra-man)." (Laughs). It's more for adults of my generation than for kids, though. It's based on the superhero stories I enjoyed as a kid, but I hope that kids of today can also enjoy it.

It doesn't have any hardcore violence in it -- it's more of a comedy about a hero who makes mistakes, but keeps trying -- and ends up saving the world. (Laughs) Toei is going to release it nationwide next February.

Is the budget for "Zeburaaman" higher than usual for you?

Yes, a bit higher, but with Japanese films bigger budgets don't make much of a difference, do they? You still end up with a film that looks cheap by Hollywood standards.

Most of the time my budgets are really tight. For an OV [Original Video, i.e. straight-to-video] film the budget is about 40 million yen -- you can't put that kind of film in a theater.

For a theatrical film, producers won't OK a script with a budget of 40 million yen. They would rather spend 80 million yen and get something flashier. But we can make a 40 million yen movie look like it costs 80 million yen. The difference is only 40 million yen -- the staff can make up that gap with their knowhow and technique.

But if you try to make a 200 million yen movie look like it costs 400 million yen, you can't do it with know-how and technique alone. That's why the usual Japanese film is so boring -- the people making it are sweating and straining to fill that gap, but they can't. Filmmaking becomes painful for them. You can see how hard they struggled to make an interesting film, but the audience doesn't want to see their pain. It's painful for them as well. (Laughs)

With Hollywood movies, the hard work is also up there on the screen, but there's something luxurious as well. Audiences can enjoy each cut.

People who make European films try to put their beliefs and values up on the screen and audiences can get pleasure from that as well. With Japanese films, though, all they can see is the suffering. (Laughs) I want to tell the filmmakers to chill out. (Laughs)

The world of "Gozu" is something like "Alice Through the Looking Glass." The characters seem human enough, but somehow they're not.

None of the characters in that film are considerate or kind. Characters usually exist only for the purpose of the film. They're cooperating with it, you might say, by playing various roles -- the guy who helps the hero, the guy who fights him. But in "Gozu" they all couldn't care less [about the hero]. For me, though,they're more realistic than characters who only exist for the purpose of the film. They have their own concerns -- and the hero is not one of them.

The hero is living an ordinary life when he loses his way. He tries to protect himself, but there are more possibilities out there than he is willing to admit. He's involved in this meaningless struggle, defending what is essentially without value -- his own limited view of the world. That's the way a lot of people live their lives. If he left his shell, he might find another, better self.

Anyone could have the same sort of experience if they were to get off the train at a strange station. They would enter a different world -- maybe not the same one that exists in the film, but if they were to ask strangers "Where is my aniki [older brother]?" they might get the same reaction the hero does.

If you go on a journey to discover yourself -- as opposed to the more usual journey to learn about other people and places -- you might find that "Gozu" is very true to life. If you go on a journey expecting strangers to confirm your own view of yourself, you may find yourself in a different world and you may encounter a different self than the one you thought you knew.

Do you ever feel that way yourself -- like a stranger in a strange land?

I was born and raised in Japan, but I feel a sense of isolation -- that I'm different from others. I'm living a different sort of life from ordinary upstanding Japanese -- I'm a dropout, actually. I have the same face, the same blood and the same education as them, but the way I feel about things is different. So even though I'm Japanese I feel isolated. I feel as though I'm in a little stream, away from the main river.

That goes for films as well. I'm not in the mainstream film world -- I'm a free agent, off on my own. So even though I'm Japanese, I feel something like a outsider in Japan.

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