Gozu (2003)

Gozu (2003) movie poster

director Takashi Miike
viewed: 08/09/2017

It’s gotta be said, Takashi Miike is outré there. Or at least he was at one point, for quite a while.

The iconolclasts of contemporary cinema are rather few and far between. Or otherwise maybe too obscure?

Gozu comes from Miike’s ripest period and seems to rank for many among his best movies. And that seems a fair assessment.

Absurd and comic, Gozu is the spiritual journey of a young yakuza flunky, Minami (Hideki Sone), and his crazy (really, really crazy) boss and best friend, Ozaki (Show Aikawa), who winds up dead and then disappears.  Minami finds himself adrift in a very David Lynchian world, trying to figure out where his “brother” got off to. The journey is a prolonged and surreal, punctuated with strange and awkward humor.

If you think you know where this film is going,…well, let’s just say that the last half hour features twists that aren’t just unforeseen but gruesome and vivid.

Of all of Miike’s films I’ve seen, Gozu feels the most Lynchian. I’m not sure I’ve thought of David Lynch in his other works, but this one takes that vibe, runs with it, and then smacks down with some of Miike’s most intense stuff.

Imprint (2006)

Imprint (2006) movie poster

director Takashi Miike
viewed: 06/25/2015

How far out freaky, outrageous, and offensive do you have to be to get banned from Pay Cable television, the realm of True Blood kink and Game of Thrones sex and death?  Showtime found out in 2006 when they commissioned Takashi Miike to make an hour-long film for their Masters of Horror series, which included directors the likes of John Coscarelli, Dario Argento, John Carpenter, John Landis, Joe Dante, Lucky McKee, Tobe Hooper and Larry Cohen.

When they recruited Miike, “a deliberately and spectacularly transgressive director”,  they had to know what they were potentially getting into.  Showtime ultimately balked at showing the film and now it’s available on a DVD-only release.

In the tradition of Japanese ghost stories, it tells a tale of an American gaijin who returns to 18th or 19th century Japan for a woman he fell in love and finds himself on an isolated island of prostitutes and black magic.  He meets a geisha with a deformed face who tells him the story of his lost love, one of horrific abuse and great deceits which ended with the woman hanging herself.  Only that isn’t the whole story.  Or even the real story.

As the tale gets more and more twisted, it delves into grostesqueries of torture, vicious betrayals, incest, parasitic twins, sexual abuse, and aborted fetuses.  Lots of aborted fetuses.

And if you ask me, this is the transgression that probably got it pulled from cable.  The aborted fetuses.  Not that it’s such a horrific grotesquerie, well, it is, but it’s the political angle on the whole thing that probably threatened concerns for the cable operator.

Whatever the production strengths or shortfalls, this winds up being some pretty prime Miike.  In a world where it’s all been done before or you think you’ve seen it all, Miike proves once again that he’s able to transgress in ways that others hadn’t yet, and to do it with vision and invention and depth.  The shock value isn’t purely for shock’s sake, rather something more profound inhabits the work, a social critique, a clarity of artistic vision.  He’s one of the last of his kind, and Imprint is a worthy picture.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Takashi Miike
viewed: 09/05/2011

It’s no Seven Samurai (1954).  But it is a samurai film cast from a mold not unlike that classic Akira Kurosawa film.  But this is no Kurosawa film.  This is a Takashi Miike film.  However, though it is a Takeshi Miike film, it bears very little of Miike’s outre weirdness, iconoclasm, or shock value.  It’s a much more mainstream affair.

Miike does have a broader range, not all of his films are nutso-crazo genre mash-ups, but certainly, his best work, or at least most provocative work is something much more akin to exploitation.  He’s channeled Hitchcock (Audition (2000)), gone totally over the top in Ichi the Killer (2001), gone to places that most Freudians could not have dreamed of (Visitor Q (2001)), and has even made kids movies (The Great Yokai War (2005)).

So, who is to doubt him going for a more “classic” style, an epic samurai flick, with mere hints of the bizarre?  Well, no one puts Miike in a corner.

13 Assassins got reasonable reviews, but it’s nothing spectacular.  Of all the samurai films that I’ve seen, the best ones have a keen visual style, are often societal critiques.  But Miike’s film doesn’t really resonate as political material for me.  And visually, it’s nothing special.

Actually, at this point, maybe Miike is past his prime.  Perhaps like so many outsider film-makers, success earns more money and freedom, but winds up pushing them into more watered down versions of their strengths.  Maybe this is the kind of movie that Miike always dreamed of making.  Sadly, it’s just not all that good.  It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s unoriginal, unspectacular, lacking in verve.

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 02/05/08

For the uninitiated, Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific, bizarre, cult filmmakers out in the world today.  And Dead or Alive is one of his more notable films, a film popular enough to have two “sequels” made.  And I have to say, Dead or Alive, which I’d been meaning to see for ages, is one of his best films.  Typically violent and at times just plain surreal, Miike takes the yakuza gangster film to places it’s really never been to.  And it’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have pulled it off in this way.

The story is chaotic and there a dozens of characters to follow, so it’s no cake-walk even making it through the first 10 minutes.  In fact, the film opens with a heavy metal rage, a montage sequence where images appear just barely long enough to eke out their meaning.  But it’s not just sex, violence, drugs, and gluttony, it’s actually laying out the first part of the narrative in hyper-fast fashion.  I think I caught up about half-way through the movie.  One can only be grateful that this pacing isn’t sustained throughout.

Beyond the narrative, about Chinese triad wannabes trying to kick their way into the Japanese mafia and the cop that want to take them all down, the film is interspersed with truly bizarre moments of Surrealistic nonsense.  In one scene, in a shoot-out, one gangster batters his hand and deep fries it for no apparent reason just before he is shot.  The ending itself is a total break-away from reality, so over-the-top that it’s outright comedy.

And Miike is known for both his violence and perversion.  Bestiality is implied quite explicitly, and one female character dies in a kiddie swimming pool full of her own feces.  Miike’s world is gross and chaotic, violent and insane, and one in which just about anything can happen.  It’s one of the exciting things about his films.  You really don’t know what to expect.  And he’s not just a hack.  His films have interesting development and camerawork, they’re insanely interesting.

Personally, I recommend Dead or Alive, Audition (2000),or Ichi the Killer (2001) as his best work.  Audition is probably the most accessible of the three, while Ichi the Killer is probably the most extreme.  His other films are always interesting, but sometimes less effective in their out and out weirdness.  Anyhow, Miike is the man.

Sukiyaki Western Django

Sukiyaki Wester Django (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 10/23/08 at The Bridge Theater, SF, CA

Part homage, part mashup, part gooffest, Sukiyaki Western Django is cult director Takashi Miike’s bizarro take on the Spaghetti Western, mixed with several parts Samurai flick and a lot of just out-and-out weirdness.  The weirdness is really more in the overall aesthetic and approach.  It’s intentionally bad.  It is intentionally bad, right?  The acting is, most certainly.

The film is in English, though is stars a largely Japanese cast who have varying degrees of pronunciation.  I’ve read that this is perhaps a reference to the dubbing of the Spaghetti Westerns or the weirdness of their dialogue recording.  The acting varies greatly in degrees of over-the-top hammy-ness.  This is broadened and exemplified by the unfortunate choice of having Quentin Tarantino show up in the film.  He is perhaps the worst actor out there, but again, he seems to be a bit intentionally bad, too.  He can’t possibly be serious, I suppose.

The opening sequence, which turns out to be a flashback as well as a metaphor, is on a strange faux-Western set, clearly different from the location shooting of the rest of the film.  It draws attention to the film’s artifice, sets a tone of camp, and lets you know that you are in for a rough hour and forty minutes or so, if you were expecting quality and not just spectacle.

Somehow, it seemed not just novel but kind of interesting, having one of the most prolific and bizarre cult/exploitation filmmakers of today marrying up East-West in the Spaghetti West.  But the thing that the film suffers from is its lack of seriousness.  The Westerns, like Django (1966) and those of Sergio Leone, those films had a lot of humor and irony and spectacle, but there was more at play in the films than genre play.  They weren’t just goof-fests.

Well, it doesn’t matter why I think this film failed, but I didn’t care for it.  There are a handful of scenes that look cool and can be plastered together in a trailer to whet one’s appetite, but it’s largely tedious junk.

Someone please stop Quentin Tarantino from acting.

Visitor Q

Visitor Q (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 02/12/07

Finally, a movie that shows how sex and violence can redeem the conventional family unit!

For Takashi Miike, probably the most prolific and bizarro director working today, this film is often referred to as his most extreme and taboo-rific work.  Which is saying quite a lot.  This film has all kinds of hilarious “shocking” scenes and visuals: heroin addicted mom who prostitutes for her habit and is abused verbally and physically by her son, the son who is harangued by his peers, beaten and abused and humiliated, a sister who is a prostitute, a father who is anally raped with a microphone and airs the footage on his news show, then wants to make a film about his son’s humiliation, the dad murders his lover and then gets aroused and rapes her corpse, but then gets “stuck” when rigor mortis sets in…

This isn’t one to watch with the in-laws.  But it would be a lot of fun to watch with John Waters.  Actually, this film has a lot of Waters-like humor and flavor.  It’s a rip on traditional nuclear family, dysfunctional reality and even the “cures” or therapies that bring about renewed harmonies.

Visitor Q, himself, is a strange, devil/God-like figure, who appears on the scene of this family and in part of his actions, which include kneading the mother’s breasts until they are spurting milk ludicrously.  He works in mysterious ways, for sure.  He hits the family members on the head with rocks to evoke epiphanies.  The catharses end up with the killing of the three teens who have harassed the son.

And the final scene, of the father and the daughter sucking the milk from the mothers freely-flowing nipples…it’s really pretty hysterical.  Miike is a real kook.  It’s hard to know how to react to this other than as a high-camp comedy, yet it’s critique of family stability and redemption and unity are nothing short of hilarious.

The Great Yokai War

The Great Yokai War (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 12/16/06

I caught a trailer for this movie when I was at the Red Vic this summer and it utterly piqued my interest.  It was the most strange and over-the-top series of visuals that I’d caught in a trailer in years, reminding me of the first glimpse I had of Tsui Hark films.  Raging action, with a combination of costume and make-up and lots of strange CGI characters, it is a kids action film fantasy with creatures galore and a sexy, bee-hive wearing villainess.  It’s camp, cartoon, and bizarreness.

And when the credit sequence rolled, and I saw that it was directed by Takashi Miike, that kind of pushed it to the top.  Miike is a nut.  He’s prolific to the extreme, insanely graphic and creative, low-brow with the occasional twitch to the high-brow, and the most manic and surprising directors currently active.  He’s like Tsui Hark mixed with Sam Fuller, Roger Corman, and yet utterly unlike anyone really.  But it has to be said, that most of his films hit points that are so violent and bizarre, they would never be considered for children.

The Great Yokai War is essentially a children’s film.  Older children, for sure, since there is still some graphic violence and it’s highly bizarre.  The yokai are spirits, which I guess originated visually in the comics of a Japanese artist many years ago, based on some traditional folk stories and mythologies.  I have read many references comparing the yokai to the spirits featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant Spirited Away (2001).  Of course, it’s a lot more on the kooky side.

A boy is selected in a provincial festival as the “kirin rider”, who is responsible for keeping the evil spirits at bay, which are defined in this film as all the discarded things of the world, though not by any explicit means implying any environmental address.  This is the kids’ angle.  The whole experience is through his eyes and while it’s totally insane and lurid, it’s kinda cool.  I think that this movie might have really hit home with me when I was 12 or so.

All the visuals are crazy and ambitious, but created on a budget that can’t deliver consistently.  Some scenes and characters broadly vary in the quality of their rendering, particularly the possum-like creature that is supposed to be “cute”.  Actually, what is psychotic in the film is the violence done to this “cute” little furball.  It’s crushed and spews yellow goop and is ultimately thrown into a fiery pit of hate and molded into a violent machine.

That is the sort of psychosis that Miike brings, a twisted, explicit visual attack on logic and sensibilities.  The film has a subversive edge to it in those ways, reaching into the kiddie market and going full-bore with wild imaginings.

But like much of Miike’s work (since there is so much of it) it’s a mixed bag of quality and enjoyment.  The story is pretty straight-forward, and while the visuals are wild and brilliantly imagined, they vary so much in quality that it detracts from what could be so much more.  That said, this mixed quality earns its own aesthetic in some ways.  It’s a jumble and while there is a lot to see, it’s not overly satisfying.  Still, as an experiment, it’s pretty interesting and I do honestly believe that its target audience, if not expecting the quality of high-priced Hollywood FX, would eat this up.

Three… Extremes

Three... Extremes (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Fruit Chan, Chan-wook Park, Takashi Miike
viewed: 04/06/06

Oddly, these anthology style films, which always seem like an interesting concept, always seem to mostly suck. It’s usually that one director does particularly interesting work, maybe another does so-so work, and then the rest are pretty awful. Still, it seems like a good idea. In the case of Three… Extremes we have at least two pretty fascinating directors, Chan-wook Park and Takashi Miike (I am not familiar with Fruit Chan), and the idea of some short horror films by them strung together could make for interesting stuff. There was another anthology flick that came out the same year, 2004’s Eros that included work by Michelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh, and Wong Kar Wai, which I have been vaguely interested in. Though I have read that Wong Kar Wai’s segment was the only good one of that film. Really, it’s essentially watching three short films by different directors. Being a bit of an auteurist, I figure that if I like the director, I’ll probably be interested in the movie. This is the case in point.

But the results a typically mixed. None of it is terrible, I guess. Fruit Chan’s segment, “Dumplings”, is amusing in its transgressively gruesome abortion/cannibalism/eroticism thing. Christopher Doyle, who shoots all of Wong Kar Wai’s amazing cinematography shot this segment, and it’s interesting. Bai Ling is pretty creepy in it, but I don’t know if that was just her or the way she was dressed or something. It has a pervasive gross-out creepiness that earns some credit.

Chan-wook Park, who had become my newest of my favorite directors after watching Oldboy (2003), delivers the weakest effort in the mix, “Cut”. It’s a revenge theme again, seemingly focusing on some self-reflexive aspect of film-making that I didn’t totally understand. It starts with a nice shot of a vampire woman sucking blood from a frozen, mannequin-like man, which turns out to be a scene from a movie that eventually becomes the set where action takes place. The set reflects to some extent the director’s home. There is a lot going on with artifice and there are some comedic things. It’s weird. I just didn’t totally get it.

Takashi Miike’s segment, “Box” is the most interesting of the films. It’s a very arty piece for him, I would say. It has nice cinematography and has all these strange themes in it, people in boxes, twins, live burials, ghosts…it’s kinda wacky. But it’s quite poetic in its open-endedness, and it struck me as the most interesting of the three “extremes”.

This film was overall a little disappointing for me, and really it’s only gone on to support my notion that while the anthology film is an interesting form, it’s rarely turned out rock-solid movies.

Audition

Audition (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 08/10/03

Many writers have cited Audition as Takashi Miike’s strongest film, or at least among his strongest films. And at last, I think I finally have started to “get” him. Having watched The City of Lost Souls (2000) and more recently The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), I wasn’t too sure what all the hubbub was about, though the latter film was so bizarrely over-the-top, that he has clear cult/trash film credentials. But Audition is striking because of the contrast of the exploitation/gore sequences that are set in what could otherwise be read as a more mainstream thriller.

The film opens with a scenario that could I could easily imagine a Hollywood studio re-creating in adaptation ala The Ring (2002). A middle-aged widower is talked into meeting some new romantic prospects by his son and a friend. The friend suggests that he come sit in on an audition for a film role, reviewing the resumes and watching the audition process for a number of young women for a film that will never be made. It’s a perverse twist on the dating process, but for the first part of the film, seems as though it could go anywhere. When the widower is attracted to a beautiful but strangely lonely and depressive girl, their romance blossoms. But as things get more serious, and his friend cautions him, it turns out that this girl is literally psychotic and her traumatic past leads to a traumatic ending.

The first two-thirds of the film is shot as a conventional, mainstream narrative. But as the psychosis becomes apparant, the film veers madly about, and ultimately becomes significantly gory. When in a crazed dream state, the widower starts hallucinating every significant female of the film onto each of the bizarre scenarios that flash past him, much as his life would metaphorically as he faces death. There is a sense that all women are interchangeable for him, though that realization horrifies him. And as the “revenge” is exacted, it echoes strongly of castration.

There is a lot going on in this film, and the experience of it, for me at least, informs the other films of his that I have seen. Perhaps it is simply that this film is stronger and shows the ability to have a more polished product that allows for the bizarre extremes that he reaches for to seem somewhat more intentional and controlled. I don’t know. The other two films of his that I had seen were so unalike and unusual that it was hard to get a sense of him as a director.

Definitely interesting, I still don’t know much else to say, but I will see more of his films.

The Happiness of the Katakuris

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 04/05/03

Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris could easily rank among the more unusual films that I have seen in recent times. A mixture of black comedy, pseudo-horror, and musical, the film was once (somewhere that I do not recall, quite accurately referred to as “The Sound of Music meets Motel Hell.” I actually fail to come up with a terse quip that nails the film so splendidly.

Miike seems to be quite the hip “underground” filmmaker of late. I don’t think I know enough hip people to qualify that assumption. He seems to produce films prolifically, that’s for sure. This is only the second of his films that I have seen, I watched City of Lost Souls last year, which was dramatically different than this film, though also pretty interesting. I don’t know that I have gathered enough experience with his work to get much of a picture of him in total.

One thing that struck me as particularly strange in this film, aside from the pop video singing asides that really seemed to emanate from nowhere, was the strange use of stop-motion animation. The film opens with a sequence that seems unsituated with the bulk of the narrative, but one that seems a metaphorical parallel perhaps? A woman eating soup in a restaurant, pulls up a weird, winged creature on her spoon. The creature pulls out her uvula and eats it, then flies off and is attacked by a crow (I think). There is more to this, but it was a week or so ago that I saw it, so I apologize for not detailing the events more.

Later in the film, out of seemingly nowhere, two live action sequences transform into claymation again. These animated sequences seem to take over in places that would have called for perhaps more complex special effects. In the first, two characters are fighting, dangling from a cliff, and in the second one Mt. Fuji erupts and pours lava down over everyone and everything. The transformation from live action to animated clay figures (whose somewhat resemble the Celebrity Deathmatch style and design) is jarring and largely unaccounted for. The break with “reality” is clear and pronounced, yet the narrative (clearly broken from a knowable reality) never wavers.

Much of this film, from the musical sequences to narrative developments, sound as bizarre to re-tell as they do to experience. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this film is its unadulterated weirdness. I think the weakest thing about it is it’s more basic comedy aspect. The acting and cinematography is almost tv-bad. The acting definitely is as bad as a very bad sit-com, and there is this constant awareness of the over-acting. This may tie into Miike’s aesthetic, some trashy quality of “so bad it’s good”.

Still, for pure weirdness sake, this film has much to offer.