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Revisiting the works of director Takashi Miike

by Mark Schilling

Takashi Miike is one of the few Japanese filmmakers now working, Takeshi Kitano and Hayao Miyazaki being two others, who enjoy a measure of recognition outside Japan’s insular film world. Though hardly a household name in Kansas, Miike has long been a favorite with the international Asian Extreme Cinema crowd, who first loved him for his bad-boy violence and black-comic weirdness: The bodyguard with the dart-shooting vagina in “Fudoh: The New Generation” (1997), the psychotic former dancer who saws off her middle-aged lover’s foot in “Audition” (1999) or the dancing corpses in “The Happiness of the Katakuris” (2001).

RE-AGITATOR: A Decade of Writing on Takashi Miike, by Tom Mes. Fab Press, 2013, 160 pp., $34.95 (hardcover)

But as early fan and critic Tom Mes argued persuasively (if at time repetitively) in his 2003 study “Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike,” Miike was more than the sum of his outre antics and, despite his brutal pace (since lessened) of four or five films a year, was no hack for hire. Instead he had themes and concerns that carried over from film to film, as well as an immediately recognizable style full of brio and invention, however patchy its execution. He deserved to be taken seriously for not only bringing a fresh, imaginative approach to the tired tropes of the horror and gangster genres, but tackling everything from the situation of Japan’s Asian minorities to the ancient mysteries of the human heart with surprising (given his bomb-throwing notoriety) intelligence and sympathy.

This view of Miike as respect-worthy auteur has since been validated, if his many festival invitations and honors are anything to go by. Also, his status in the Japanese film world has risen from go-to guy for straight-to-video quickies (which nonetheless include some of his best films) to sought-after maker of big-budget commercial projects. This director of “13 Assassins,” the hyper-violent samurai swashbuckler that screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival in 2010 and earned a rousing ¥1.6 billion at the Japan box office, is now a cultural force to be reckoned with.

So Mes’ follow-up volume, which collects his writings on Miike over the past decade, appears at the right moment in its subject’s career. Issued in hardcover and lavishly illustrated with color stills and set photos, it is clearly for hardcore Miike fans, with 200 of the 1,000 first-edition copies signed by Miike himself. But it is also not “Agitator Part 2.” Compared to the previous volume, which gave a detailed plot summary and analysis for every Miike film in the first 11 years of his career, the new one is more scattershot: Several of the films analyzed in “Agitator,” such as the career-breakthrough shocker “Audition,” are re-examined, while some of the newer releases, such as the 2011 Cannes competition invitee “Harakiri: Death of a Samurai,” are either ignored or mentioned only in passing.

Also, the entries include not only reviews for MidnightEye.com, Mes’ own pioneering site on Japanese films, and other publications, but liner notes and press kit blurbs that are almost uniformly on the positive, even boosterish side. This is the nature of the beast, DVD makers being understandably reluctant to pay for negative appraisals of their product. Also, Mes is often making not a slick sell, but an impassioned defense of films such as “Deadly Outlaw: Rekka” (2002), that he feels have been unjustly neglected or dismissed, though he rightly describes the films Miike made with producer Hisao Maki as some of the most “knuckle-headed turkeys” in the director’s oeuvre.

In addition to the critiques of individual films, there is a wealth of information about all things Miike in the book, presented without a trace of academic jargon, but with an expertise born of long study and personal acquaintance with the director. Of particular interest is a meticulously researched essay on the V-Cinema (straight-to-video) industry that arose in the 1980s and gave Miike and other talented young filmmakers opportunities to experiment freely within genre labels. Mes also conducted a revealing Q&A with Miike about his hit 2005 kiddy fantasy “The Great Yokai War” (2005), in which Miike makes the telling confession that “even if you want to control your choice of projects, you can’t.” But the book would have benefited from the sort of full-length career interview found in “Agitator.”

Adding an insider’s view of Miike is the introduction by Christian Storms, who has worked with him as an interpreter, subtitler and actor on many projects, including the made-for-U.S.-television horror “Imprint” (2006) and the Eastern-Western parody “Sukiyaki Western Django” (2007). In contrast to reporters who visit Miike’s set for a day, Storms has been in the production trenches with him for weeks and months at a time — and delivers tart, informed observations on Miike’s churn-it-out methods, as well as the Spartan conditions prevalent in even the upper reaches of the Japanese film industry. He is also a stout loyalist: “For me and a lot of the Miike staff,” he writes, “he is our raison d’être, or at least a reminder that we are all in the right field — mind you, I am not saying business.”

Despite the few bumps along the way, “Re-Agitator” is recommended for anyone fascinated (if occasionally frustrated) by the cracked brilliance of this workaholic, never merely workmanlike, director.

Mark Schilling is the senior film reviewer for The Japan Times and the Japan correspondent for Variety.