Takashi Miike

1 May 2001
picture: Takashi Miike

by ,

Takashi Miike hardly requires introduction anymore. His sudden rise to fame over the course of 2000, when his films Dead or Alive and Audition made the rounds of international film festivals leaving audiences shell-shocked in their wake, proves the impact of his quite extraordinary work. Miike is one of a rare breed: a director with originality and a truly unique vision on his art and the world. He has walked the tightrope between the artistic and the pragmatic for ten years now with hardly a misstep, an amazing feat considering he has directed more than 45 films.

This interview was conducted in April 2001 in Kyoto, Japan, on the set of The Happiness of the Katakuris, his first musical.

KS: Could you tell us about the film you're shooting here?

It's a musical. We're planning to open it in Japan in the autumn. It's a musical set in the modern day, but it's very Japanese. We used an interior set at Shochiku Studios in Kyoto. It's a set for jidai-geki movies that was built a long time ago, and we destroyed half of it so we could fit in a blue screen. We will be using a lot of CG.

KS: Who are the cast?

Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Kiyoshiro Imawano, and Shinji Takeda. As for Kiyoshiro, we are all aware how famous he is, but when he's on set, he doesn't act that way at all. His presence never puts pressure on other people. I have never seen such a wonderful person, in fact. He never shows off how famous he is. He doesn't even request a cup of tea, but gets it by himself. He comes by bicycle from the hotel to the set every day. He's perfect.

TM: Over the last year, especially outside Japan, you've become more famous and better known. Has anything changed for you here in Japan as a result? Do you get more offers for instance?

I'm happy that my films were discovered by chance by foreign film festivals. This makes me more aware that there is a world outside Japan too. It's an occasion to meet many people and to experience directly the response of international audiences to my films. But for me as a director, my attitude towards making films hasn't changed. I feel it's not good to change as a person anyway.

TM: I hear Ryu Murakami was very happy with your adaptation of Audition. In fact he wanted you to direct the film version of his novel Coin Locker Babies. Is this project still going to happen?

I'm still trying to get it made. I think this story is very suitable for a film adaptation, but it's a difficult project to make in today's Japanese film industry, especially because of the budget, which will be quite high. If we distribute it only in Japan, we can't make back the investment. It's a delicate subject to make into a movie, because in the Japanese film industry to get a big budget we need to make science fiction or some other big spectacle. But this story is essentially about two boys. The Japanese studios don't want to spend a lot of money on what they feel is just a simple drama. But I remain positive and I'm trying to figure out now how we can approach this problem.

TM: Audition is one of your very few horror films, one could say. Yet your television work is mainly in the horror genre, why this difference?

For me, Audition is not horror. At least, there is no monster, it's not supernatural. It's a story about a girl who has just slightly strange emotions, so it's not impossible to understand her. She just wants the person she loves to stay by her side. She doesn't commit a big crime, she just cuts the guy's foot off. But when I read the novel, I was really scared. I felt it was so realistic. Between the two characters there is no conflict. They met briefly at the audition, but such really small incidents can change a person's life completely.

Such kinds of things I enjoy putting on film. I accentuated the aspect of horror a bit more. In horror films, we think the horrific element is a special thing that doesn't exist in real life and that's why we can enjoy it. But there are terrifying things in life too and they are all made by human beings. Everybody has those things inside themselves. So by filming human beings, it naturally becomes a horror movie.

TM: So you don't really think about making genre films?

I don't think about genre at all. My films are categorized as being in a certain type of genre. But myself, I don't make the movie thinking about which category the film belongs in. If the actor changes, the mood of the film changes a lot too. For example in Audition if the lead actress wasn't Eihi Shiina the film would be very different. She smiles when she cuts off the foot, and as a result that moment becomes real horror. If another actress would have done it very seriously and roughly, then it wouldn't become horror. That kind of mood depends on how we find the cast and crew. It's like destiny. So I like to use that destiny to my advantage. I think it's the only way to make a film, so I don't change the actors as I like, because the film would also change as a result.

When I meet the people I imagine what they are like. The way I direct them comes from that impression. Maybe my impression is not correct about that person's real character, but that doesn't really relate to the film. During the process of meeting someone, I make my perspective on the character they will play and give them direction based on that perspective.

TM: I thought The City of Lost Souls was very representative of your films, because of the many nationalities of the characters in the film. A lot of your films have that interest in different cultures within Japan. Is that something that interests you particularly in real life?

The Japanese, even if we live in Japan, we are all drifting. Especially me. My family is originally from Kumamoto in South Kyushu. When Japan was defeated in World War 2, my grandmother was in Korea. When she came back, she went to live in another town in Japan. So since my grandmother, my family hasn't lived in Kumamoto. I grew up in Osaka, but for this reason I don't think Osaka is my home town. I've always felt that I'm drifting, that I don't have a home town that I can go back to. Portraying such people in my films is very natural for me, even in the yakuza stories. So it's not my specific intention to show them like that. I made a number of yakuza movies featuring such characters and after those I was offered the chance to adapt The City of Lost Souls. I found that this book was very suitable to me. I only met the author Seishu Hase after it was decided that I would direct.

I think I am an arranger, not an author. Because I don't have a base, my approach to making a film is also like bringing something to me that is from a different place. Maybe you will understand what I mean after seeing the shooting today. This time we are shooting in Kyoto with a crew consisting of half Kyoto people and half Tokyo people and in a very traditional studio with old sets. We dismantled this old set and put in a blue screen and a Hi-Vision camera, which is the same camera used by George Lucas on Star Wars Episode II, and we put a dolly track on the tatami. That kind of mixture is very strange. Maybe young audiences or foreigners don't understand how that is strange, but it doesn't matter. For me, such an unusual mixture is interesting. I think it's the style of an arranger. I feel very satisfied that I can do the things I want to do.

Of course not having to work so hard is better but even though it's hard work, I enjoy myself while making the movie, so as a result my film also entertains the audience. That is the minimum requirement, that you enjoy yourself. Anything more than that depends on whether or not the director has talent.

KS: So you don't think about the audience, what makes them happy?

No, I don't. Because there's no way for me to know. To try to think of what makes for entertainment is a very Japanese thing. The people who think like this are old-fashioned. They think of the audience as a mass, but in fact every person in the audience is different. So entertainment for everyone doesn't exist. Maybe it existed before, with the Tora-san series, but when the lead actor Kiyoshi Atsumi died it finished suddenly. So those kinds of films that can entertain everyone don't exist anymore.

KS: It seems as if you have no rules. I think that fact relates to the fact that you see yourself as an arranger.

Maybe. I don't make rules myself. I didn't study enough to be able to make them. I'm too stupid (laughs). I spend my whole life making movies, so I have to enjoy it. Even at times when we had a very tight and difficult schedule, it was always enjoyable. Of course I wonder if the film will be successful afterwards. It's wonderful if a film becomes successful as a result of the enjoyment that we had.

TM: You were one of the invitees to Wayne Wang and Francis Coppola's Chrome Dragon project. What happened with that?

I think the whole project began about six years ago. It was going to be a series of six films, but only one film was shot, in Hawaii by a Chinese director. That was a different film than they imagined. They wanted a kind of Asian movie, but that was based on their vision of what is Asian - an American vision, because the company was based in San Francisco. American people thinking Asian style. In my case, I was asked to join about three years ago. I presented them with a screenplay, but just after the first film the project was stopped, so I never received an answer.

TM: I'd like to move on to Dead or Alive 2. The tone, the style, and of course the story are very different from part one. Did you ever at any point consider the possibility of making an actual sequel with the same characters?

Of course not, because they exploded at the end of part 1. Generally I think making a sequel is an insult to the original film, because the producers think we can make something better than the first film for less money. But it is the common thing in the video industry. When the first film is a hit, the company thinks of making a sequel. For example, when we sell 20,000 copies of a video, they think we can sell at least 15,000 copies of the sequel. They don't consider it might only sell 10,000. The budget is decided as being suitable for selling 15,000 copies. A sequel project is always based on negative thinking.

So when I was offered to make the sequel I saw it as an opportunity for resistance, for rebellion, by not making the sequel as a sequel but by changing things around. It doesn't excite me very much to make a normal sequel.

TM: Whose idea was it to dress up Riki Takeuchi as a lion?

It was my idea to make them a lion and a kappa [a water imp from Japanese mythology - TM]. I just gave them the idea, like an arranger as I mentioned before. Myself, I am not the ball, but I'm the person who throws the ball. I suggest something and after that it progresses naturally. I gave the idea to the actors and they created the details together. Of course they are sort of rivals, so if one proposed a daring idea, the others tried to do something daring too. So I just gave them the opportunity as arranger. If you look carefully, when Sho Aikawa plays the kappa, you will notice his left arm is not his real arm, it's a like a robotic cyborg arm. It's a reference to part 1, the scene where he rips his own arm off. So because of that we can say it's a sequel (laughs).

TM: What is Shinya Tsukamoto like as an actor?

I think he is a very interesting actor. For him acting is not work. He directs not as if it's his work, but his destiny. Acting for him is kind of a hobby. You'd think acting and directing are all part of the same game and that there are a lot of similarities. In fact it's really different and for him acting is like going fishing. His style of acting is very orthodox compared to his way of directing, which is very particular. He plays very theoretically, almost reacting instead of acting. I think it's a very peculiar difference.

I know his younger brother who is an actor and who played in several of my films. Because of that I know Shinya too. I think he is a very interesting person and for that reason I offered him the role. It's not important if he is a director. My way of making a movie is very different to his, so maybe to him it's fresh and unusual, but we don't really adopt anything from each other. We know that we are very different types of director and we have never talked about directing together.

TM: With Visitor Q and Family you worked with digital video. Did you enjoy working with this format? And was it different in any way, technically or creatively?

These two films were made with a slightly different approach than usual. They were planned as original video, intended for release on video, which is very low budget. Visitor Q for example had a budget of 7 million yen [about US$70,000 - TM] and it was shot in only one week. Fortunately both films opened in theatres, so they can mention on the video box that it was a theatrical film, not just a video movie. But originally they were meant for video, so we had an incredibly low budget for both.

So my case is different to Dancer in the Dark for instance. They dare to use digital video to make a big budget movie. That's their whole point. Generally by using DV, we catch the mood of normal, daily things. It has a real-life feeling. In my case it's not because I have the intention to shoot it that way, it's because I don't have the budget for something bigger. And also we thought we didn't have any reason to stick to the idea of using film. However, over the years I have realised that I appreciate using film a lot more than video.

For example, I like 35 millimeter blown up from 16mm. I don't like 35mm itself that much. It depends on each person's taste whether you like crayon or oil paint and for me filming on 35 makes it very difficult to achieve the kind of image I like. I have to consider too many things in order to achieve it. As for DV, the image I got with that is not so far from what I imagined it to be. I think first-rate stuff is not my kind of thing anyway. I have the impression that my 16mm films are appreciated more in foreign countries than the ones I made on 35. Especially the ones made in a situation of low budgets and lacking time and money.

TM: What camera did you use to shoot Family?

A Sony VX1000 that you can buy in any camera store.

TM: I'd like to talk about your influences. How much of an influence have the filmmakers been that you worked with as assistant director?

I can't say what I learnt from each director directly. They are all different. Being a director, the way of directing and the way of using budget is different for each of them. But in the end they all make what we can consider to be films. I'd like to throw away the things that I studied on the set as an assistant. To throw away the thoughts of what goes into making a good film and throw away the idea of having to shoot a certain way for it to end up as a real film.

For Shohei Imamura, making a movie is a question of how to live. He created his own production company and found the financing for his films by himself instead of somebody offering it to him. That determination and independence shine through in his films. I make the movies which are offered to me, with somebody else's money. In that situation I consider the combination of every element that goes into making the film. For example if this scene we are shooting here in a studio in Kyoto would be shot in Tokyo, maybe it would become a different image. I like to break my own common sense. It would get broken naturally anyway, so I'd rather break it myself first.

KS: Until now, you made films that were offered to you, including the sequels that you don't think are right to make. But now you're becoming famous...

No, no. Not so much (laughs).

KS: But do you feel any need to change your attitude, like just making the films that you want to?

No. Even before I never made a movie I didn't want to make. After all, the question is why you refuse an offer which is a chance for you. In that situation, if I don't think whether this project is suitable to me or not then I can't find a reason to refuse the offer. That is to say, even if I made many yakuza movies and somebody offers me one again, why would I consider that yakuza movie to be different to for instance a romantic film? In a yakuza movie there is after all the possibility for using romance. There are so many elements that can go into that type of film, it's possible for a yakuza to have a pure love affair.

So my attitude is that I don't refuse any offers, but I really consider the way to do it very carefully. I think there are two types of directors. One is the type that is very careful of himself and chooses the subjects that fit him and that he really wants to do and he does them carefully. The other type does one thing after another and is not afraid of changing himself. He changes naturally while making these films one after another. I am the second type, but for me working so much is not intentional. I worked very hard as an assistant director so that became my routine.

KS: So you don't mind a very tight schedule for filming?

Of course it's hard but once you become used to it, having more time and more margin means you can really make good use of it. Though I would probably waste it by sleeping and amusing myself (laughs).

KS: You don't think you might wear yourself out if you continue working so hard?

No, it's not a question of working quickly or slowly. It's possible that even if you work slowly, you get worn out. It's about strength and tension. Of course a human being will naturally become weak one day, but it's enough to understand and acknowledge that. So I don't think hard work wears me out. Many people ask me that question, so I have to be conscious of it. It gives me a good kind of pressure and it motivates me.

We have to change the negative things into positive. In today's Japanese film industry we always say we don't have enough budget, that people don't go to see the films. But we can think of it in a positive way, meaning that if audiences don't go to the cinema we can make any movie we want. After all, no matter what kind of movie you make it's never a hit, so we can make a really bold, daring movie. There are many talented actors and crew, but many Japanese movies aren't interesting. Many films are made with the image of what a Japanese film should be like. Some films venture outside those expectations a little bit, but I feel we should break them.

TM: How much of an influence has Seijun Suzuki been? His approach to directing strikes me as being very similar to yours.

Actually I'm not so familiar with his movies. I just happened to enter this world, I didn't study cinema. When I went to the Yokohama Academy of Visual Arts [the private film school founded by Shohei Imamura - TM], I got in because there were no entrance exams. At that moment I didn't want to be an adult, I didn't want to work, and I knew I couldn't enter university, so I went there. Also, I lived in Osaka and going to Yokohama meant I could move out of my parents' house.

Above all, my cinematic influences stem from my childhood, like Bruce Lee movies. I didn't know much about Seijun Suzuki, because in my generation being a fan of his films meant being very cinephile. Also his movies were very difficult to see in the theatres. I've seen some of them now and I like them, so if you think we have similarities I'm above all happy. Because I think his films are also very particular.

KS: Suzuki was also a rebel in that period. It reminds me of you.

Hmm. In that period, late 1960s, early 70s, the studios made programme pictures. It's a particular system, where they made three movies by three different directors in about ten days, all using the same set. There was a hierarchy of importance between the directors, where the highest ranking one got to use a star actor and his movie had to be a hit. The third movie was the least important to the studio but usually that ended up being the most interesting movie of the three, because nobody cared for what the director made.

For example Yukio Noda's films are much more interesting than most of today's films. His movies feel very contemporary. They could create a riot in the industry, because they were so unusual for their day. Maybe directors like that didn't mind being fired. They were employees and they had labour unions within the company, so it was actually very difficult for the studios to fire them. That's also a reason why they could act as they liked.

If Seijun Suzuki was a young newcomer today it could be different, we can't say. Today the industry has become more and more conservative. Especially freelance directors have the tendency to become conservative. They try to please people to minimize the risk of missing any assignments. Their movies are very well crafted, like an honour student's. They know how to talk to producers. In the end they become uninteresting.

I heard about Suzuki's new film, Pistol Opera. I think it will be fantastic. From somebody who visited the set I heard that he was still using his very radical framing and editing style. So I think this film will be very much Seijun's style.

TM: What about Bruce Lee? How did he influence you?

When I saw his films, especially Enter the Dragon, I was about 13 years old. In that period the Japanese economy was growing, but the country was not so open to the world. I lived in Osaka and we didn't see any foreigners. Bruce Lee is not really a handsome guy, not such a good actor, he is good at action, but that action is stoic rather than beautiful. With only that stoicism he made it to Hollywood and achieved great success. He got to play the lead part, even though it was only considered a B-movie. That surprised me a lot and it was quite impressive. He was Asian, but he was very cool. We understood that it's not a question of where you come from, but who you are.

So he influenced my generation very strongly. Some of us started studying karate because of him. He had dramatic intensity, also because when his film became a hit, he suddenly died. So he was charismatic but transient.

KS: Why did you become a director? In a mental sense, I mean.

Because I didn't have another choice. I dreamed of becoming a motorbike racer because I love motorbikes a lot. I think anyone can become a director, especially if you have money. Even Haruki Kadokawa became a director. To become a famous musician is also a way to become a director and, like Takeshi Kitano, achieving fame as a comedian and then becoming a director gives you a lot of freedom. There are so many ways to become a director. If there is a 1-10 scale for talent, then a 10-point talent is a director, but a 1-point person can also become a director if he has the talent to make the right contacts.

In motorbike racing on the other hand the winner is always an extreme talent. Even if we train a lot we can't beat them. I admire that kind of world. But I didn't have a choice. I never thought about becoming a director before. I considered the occupation of film director as being for the intelligentsia.

KS: But maybe directing is also a way to get the adrenalin flowing, just like motorbike racing.

From time to time, but sometimes I become anxious because I can't find the energy or strength inside myself. It's not something we can get on demand. Sometimes it comes when I hear a favourite song or when I open up a book, very suddenly. So I just wait for that kind of moment. I rely on nature.