Takashi Miike is a thrilling director who makes films that are nearly impossible to recommend. Many of his releases have been accompanied by stories of mass walkouts; of people fainting in their seats or even throwing up in the aisles. While many of his films are worthy of this reputation it’s unfair to bracket him simply as a shock-and-awe director. Amongst all the violence, exploitation, and horror there are pertinent questions being asked and ideas being discussed. And for a man who makes an average of 3.5 films a year (to date he has made 102 different features) he has had plenty of time to refine and explore those ideas.

For example, Miike’s Black Society Trilogy (1995-1999), follows three separate stories of a Triad organisation that stretches from Japan to Taiwan. Taken individually they could be seen as cheap imitations of Martin Scorsese or the Hong Kong action wave. However, with each new installment, the nature of the previous film is changed. What, on the surface, was a simple police story becomes a meditation on inherited trauma and the reproduction of violence both generationally and internationally. What emerges then is something far more complex; for Miike’s films refuse to be just one thing.

The first film to gain him international attention was the J-Horror Audition (1999). It follows a recently widowed father who works as a producer for a television network and decides to set up a fake audition so he can meet his potential spouse. The first half of the film seems to be a fairly straightforward romance, but then it takes the sharpest left turn in cinematic history.

The successful candidate turns from a shy pianist into a woman out for revenge armed with needles, syringes, and (most memorably) a roll of razor wire. The film is on one hand praised for its feminism and on the other condemned for its misogyny. Whether the film is one or the other is down to the audience. While Miike virtually assaults the audience with what’s happening on screen, the audience, in turn, are forced to question why it’s happening. Often this requires an exploration of both your own morality and the strength of your stomach.

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Courtsey of: dts

For this reason, Miike’s films (despite there being so many of them) have a long-lasting effect. They exist much more in the meta-space that surrounds the film, than the action that plays out on screen. Visitor Q (2001) is probably his most controversial film, following a horrible, pathetic, and incestuous family. Filmed in just seven days, it can appear off-puttingly cheap. However, its cheapness begins to look like a reality show, just one that refuses to behave as such. Which is appropriate given it’s following a man trying to make a reality show about his surreal family.

It’s a film that becomes so meta it somehow manages to find itself back in reality again. Yes, it’s horrible, even hateful, but it’s a reflection of a depthless industry that has come to dominate 21st-century entertainment, which pushes drama solely for the sake of drama and controversy for the sake of controversy. By the end, you may ask why you watched it, but Miike is asking why you would want to watch anything.

That’s not to say that Miike’s films always engage the audience by upsetting them. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) is a comedy about a family-run inn where the guests mysteriously die, turn into zombies, and then burst into song. All while playing out as a loose remake of The Sound of Music. Ichi the Killer (2001), infamous for its hyper-violence, has a twisted tale of masochistic love and sexuality at its core. His Dead or Alive trilogy (1999-2001) is packed to the rafters with glorious cyber-punk action.

Miike’s Kurosawa-esque samurai epics (13 Assassins – 2010, Hara-Kiri – 2011) demonstrate his skill at directing on a much larger scale with both nuance and pathos. His latest, First Love (2019), may be his most accessible film to date. True, it centers on a man who thinks he’s going to die, who gets dragged into a world of violence, drugs, and prostitution where many a limb gets hacked off. But it also has a sense of humour and at its heart, there is a genuinely sweet love story. Each of these films are as multi-faceted and thought-provoking as the rest of his work.

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Courtesy of: Signature Entertainment

At the end of the day, Miike’s challenging style makes him just as difficult as ever to recommend. Yet he is a filmmaker with an established and well-developed cinematic language, which is becoming increasingly rare in a world of remakes, and reboots. Whatever his films are, they are certainly something; they stick in the brain and get under the skin. After thirty years he is still unafraid to make movies that push the envelope and what can be found there is still as fascinating as ever. Just don’t forget to bring a bucket.

Audition is part of BFI Japan: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema celebration (launching 11th May)

Hara-Kiri is available on Amazon Prime

13 Assassins is available on Amazon Prime

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