Like all movie directors, Takashi Miike has godlike powers. He decides which of his characters will live and die, and—perhaps more important, in his case—what tortures, outrages, and indignities they will suffer before their fates are determined. Yet the idiosyncratic Japanese filmmaker’s control over his own destiny is limited.
Laboring in a national movie business that never recovered from the arrival of television, Miike must work fast and cheap. Such films as Audition, Dead or Alive, and Ichi the Killer—which have achieved cult status in the West—were produced on a whim and a prayer, some for as little as $65,000. The financial limitations haven’t loosened considerably as the 44-year-old director has become more successful.
“By the standards of the Japanese industry, I’m getting a little bit bigger budgets,” says Miike by phone from Los Angeles, where he’s promoting his characteristically outlandish new American release, Gozu. “It looks like I have more money now, but when I try to do something I really want to do, the budget is still lacking. In a way, it’s almost the same as when I was making straight-to-video titles.”
Miike estimates that 60 percent of his films were made for the Japanese direct-to-video market, which caters to the audience for ultraviolent and—within the bounds of official censorship—hypersexual fare. But then again, he’s not exact with figures. Asked about his output, the notoriously prolific director supposes that he’s made “more than 60 but less than 70” films.
Working with small budgets gives him more freedom, Miike says through a translator who introduces herself only as Kana. “I can be very honest. I never miss a chance. If I want to make a film, I always can, since it’s low-budget.”
That’s not the whole story, though. When he talks of wanting to make a film, Miike sidesteps an essential part of his myth: that he has never turned down a single project. As his reputation grows, could this still be the case?
“Yes, it is true,” Kana translates, as Miike begins to chuckle. “He is laughing,” she adds, and joins in.
“If the idea doesn’t appeal to me,” the director explains, “I wonder why the person is bringing such an unappealing idea to me. I become more interested in the person, that he or she doesn’t really understand who I am. Then it becomes more interesting to work with them. What kind of crazy movie can I make with a person who doesn’t really understand what I want to do? In a way, I become more interested in the project if the idea isn’t appealing.
“Most of my inspiration, or ideas about the film, comes from how I’m relating to the person who’s trying to make a movie with me,” he continues. “I feel like the passion for the film has to really please me. When someone has so much passion for making films, it really moves me to make the film.”
Yet Miike is known for radically changing such projects as 2001’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, a remake of a Korean black comedy that the director crossbred with The Sound of Music, and 1999’s Dead or Alive, a gangster flick in which he compressed the first half of the script into a breathless sex-and-violence montage.
“I’m very impatient,” he admits. “I’m not really good at doing one thing for a long, long time.”
As he did with Gozu, Miike generally works from someone else’s script. Despite the violence he did to Dead or Alive’s screenplay (by writer Ichiro Ryu), he claims that “even if I don’t agree with a couple of things in the script, I never really deny the idea. I try to have two lines, but somehow I try to make those two lines to be one. It’s very inspiring, in a way. I still respect the difference between what I think about the scene and what the screenwriter thinks.
“Some of my mind is very solid,” he adds. “I am cooperative with other ideas, but I know when something’s there in the idea.”
Attempt to reconcile Miike’s description of his method with an analysis of Gozu, however, and things don’t seem so solid: The film is a Lynchian yakuza comedy-thriller, in which an inexperienced young gangster, Minami, is sent from Tokyo to Nagoya to dispose of his older “brother,” Ozaki, who seems to have lost his mind. Ozaki accidentally dies, then disappears, and then reappears in a very different guise. While Ozaki is missing, Minami meets such characters as the eccentric brother and sister who run an inn, white-faced Nagoya mobster Nosechi, and the cow-headed title apparition itself.
“I tried to have a child’s perspective,” explains Miike, not all that helpfully. “When you’re a child, the world seems to be very strange. Maybe the life we have looks so weird. Like the Gozu itself, in the film. I tried to make the scene more likely than what we see in daily life. Because what we live in now is so strange and abnormal already.
“Not only Minami, but everyone, is a child in his mind,” he continues. “When you become an adult, you try to close off your curiosities about the world. I wanted to say, through the characters in Gozu, that it’s not a good idea to close your eyes. You should be more open to everything, like when you’re a child.”
“Gozu” is a variant reading of the Japanese characters for “cow” and “head.” Attempting to delve into the significance of the other character names, however, doesn’t yield any insights. “Minami,” for example, means South, and is a rare name in Japan.
“The screenwriter, Sakichi Satô, insisted that he had to have the name Minami,” Miike responds. “I didn’t try to put some meaning in the name. In Osaka, some people have the name Minami.”
The movie’s English subtitler added to the confusion by calling Nosechi “Mr. Nose,” although that’s not what the name means. “I think the person who did the subtitles tried to make some meaning for English-speaking persons,” Miike suggests. “His name was Nosei in the script. I wanted to have the feeling that the white-faced person came from a certain area, the Nosei area.”
As is typical of the director’s work, Gozu is full of private jokes. There’s the American shopkeeper, actually played by a Russian woman, who reads transliterated Japanese phrases off placards on the wall. “I found her in a Russian pub, like a hostess bar,” the director says. “She doesn’t speak Japanese. So we put some lines on the wall. We just decided to shoot when she was reading the lines, because I thought it was funny.”
And then there’s the male innkeeper, played by co-producer Harumi Sone, who gets pummeled during a scene in which he and his uncanny sister conduct a séance. “You know the bald man in the film?” Miike asks, chortling. “I just wanted to beat him, because he’s the producer. I wanted revenge on him in the scene, so someone can beat him.”
Ghosts, demons, and imps feature prominently in Japanese folklore, and they’re not uncommon in the director’s work. Yet Miike says that Gozu wasn’t intended to reflect his interest in such tales. “I don’t really intend to have ideas about the supernatural merge into my own films,” he says. “It just comes unconsciously, in a way.”
Another thing that apparently comes unconsciously in Miike’s films is an awe of female physiology that could be taken for repugnance. Gozu is the director’s second film to feature a perpetually lactating woman, and its bizarre climax includes a visualization of a classic misogynistic fear.
“To me, women are very mysterious—something I cannot understand,” acknowledges Miike, who’s married and a father. “That’s how I portray women in my films. They’re very mysterious.”
He concedes that “mainly men come to see my films. But there are women as well. I believe that the kind of women who complain about the way I treat women in my films never come to see my films.”
The director says he doesn’t worry about audience reaction, because “I believe everyone has a different taste. I feel that as a director I have to show respect to everyone. I really hope that everyone has a different sense to understand my films.”
That includes, of course, Miike’s growing American audience, which he calls “unexpected. It’s almost like movies have their own life, and have brought me to this country. The movie started walking by itself. That’s how I feel.”
He speculates that “the reason why so many Western people try Miike films is that the way I make films is very unique. I have such a different system that it seems to be very appealing to the people here in Hollywood.”
Still, it has occurred to the director that some Americans like his work because it portrays a society that is exotic, disorienting, and just plain strange. “I worry that you think Japan is very weird, isn’t it? Because of my films.”
Not just because of his films, he’s told.
Miike guffaws some more. “He is laughing,” says Kana.