Saturday, March 26, 2011
THE FAMILY GUY: Takashi Miike
THE FAMILY GUY
Takashi Miike's extensive filmography is as sweet as it is strange
BY IAN GREY
Singing and dancing zombies. Insane lactating mothers. Incestuous killer sisters. A son rebuilt by mad science from pieces of a father figure. A minotaur-licking loser. Two daughters literally joined at the hip. Images that mix literal, metaphoric and just plain bizarre Oedipal nightmares. Others that gush over-the-top gore and sentimentality in equal parts. In the course of films that shift from abject horror to slapstick comedy, one can easily miss the fact that Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike really is a family guy.
Best known in the U.S. as director of the relentlessly controlled patriarchal nightmare turnaround horror Audition, Japan’s ridiculously fecund auteur is as obsessed with family as Steven Spielberg, but with none of the obsessive kneejerk-normative impulses that mark the US master as an American filmmaker.
Sometimes a Miike family is a “normal” construct under siege by outside forces (The Happiness of the Katakuris). Sometimes, the nuclear family fragments on contact with spiritually void consumer culture (Visitor Q). More often, that “family” is a substitute unit — the Japanese yakuza crime families that fill many of his films. (If this seems a stretch, note that Miike has a yakuza franchise film called Family.)
In the most extreme instances — and when talking Miike, “extreme” takes on new meaning — you get something like Gozu, in which a lonely yakuza separated from his crime family gives birth to himself via a lover’s birth canal, which makes her his default Mom. Or something.
Miike’s family thing is a prime reason why, despite the cultural details lost in translation, his films sink deep claws into a Westerner’s back brain. Viewers can depend on nothing but knowing that the unexpected is the rule. Like an early Brian de Palma on amphetamines, even his most horrid nightmares exist cheek by jowl with tenderness.
Or as Eye Weekly’s Jason Anderson smartly summarized, “Takashi Miike is not just some sick bastard — he’s a sick bastard with heart.”
He’s also insanely prolific. Miike has finished two movies this year and is filming his third, while this month will see the DVD release of 2005’s The Great Yokai War. So, rather than attempt to be comprehensive, the following is a list of representative titles that might help you get a grip on a sizable filmography.
The Bird People in China (1998) — Magical realism, tragedy and comedy blend as a salaryman and a yakuza travel on a Herzog-like upriver search for a mystery tribe. An amazing underwater CGI shot of a flock of turtles powering a boat and a strobe-lit gangster gunfight nightmare are early indications of Miike’s febrile invention, while a character sums up the director’s career-long modus operandi, “It’s a metaphor, dummy!”
Three Extremes (2004) — After two feh shorts by Chan-wook Park and Fruit Chan, this anthology becomes essential because of Miike’s Box, the tale of a woman novelist whose increasingly surreal/frightening memories of patriarchal incest are causing her reality to break into sad, conflicting bits. Elegiac and visually gorgeous in a way suggestive of an Asian Bergman, it’s a meditative, mature look at identity.
The Great Yokai War (2005) — Miike shocks by doing a Jim Henson-y, super-cute kid’s movie involving a boy from a broken family ending up in a supernatural battle between some supernatural creatures of Japanese mythology.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) — The aforementioned zombie musical. What else can be said? OK — it’s a deeply spiritual, family zombie musical. With jokes.
Audition(1999) — Widowed patriarch systematically seeks new wife, finds sexually traumatized girl his daughter’s age. Multileveled hallucinations, mangled desire, acupuncture needles and knives meet body parts in less-than-conventional ways.
Visitor Q (2001) — An emasculated TV reporter tries to reconnect with his family via the creation of a documentary on family; incest, interfamilial lactation, necrophilia and worse follows. In the end, it’s actually an affirmation of familial happiness. Really.
Flawed but freakishly fab
Ichi the Killer (2001) — Thought Peter Jackson’s Dead/Alive was the last word in operatic gore? Think again. With one main character into lacerating S&M (when not blowing away roomfuls of yakuzas) and a meek programmed “assassin” who slices people sideways with his knife-enhanced Reeboks, Ichi is a reprehensible piece of manga slaughter that also manages to be, well, quite funny.
Gozu (2003) — A mystery woman indulges Miike’s lactation fetish, a character gives slimy birth to himself through his girlfriend’s birth canal and a minotaur haunts the director’s incomprehensible but hilarious idea of a road movie.
MPD Psycho (2000) — So there’s this detective suffering from multiple personality disorder. He goes after a cult with bar codes on their eyes and a killer who cuts off the tops of people’s skulls and plants sculptures in their exposed brains. Then Miike’s TV series gets weird.
Zebraman (2004) — This film is Miike in full-on adorable mode: A failed dad gets to “be” his favorite superhero. Despite or because of the loopy premise, it’s a sappy delight.
Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) — In his efforts to avenge the killing of his brother by his yakuza dad, a boy enlists the help of other teen malcontents, including a herm-aphrodite whose vagina shoots poison darts. While boasting unique set pieces and feverish, inventive style, Miike hadn’t yet perfected the mashing of melancholy, gore and comedy.
Other nonessential but fascinating offerings include 1999’s N-Girls vs. Vampire (virgin models become vampires), 2000’s The City of Lost Souls (a moody interracial gangster love story highlighted by a Matrix-style CGI cockfight) and Shangri-La (2002) a comedy that deals with, um, homelessness.
Look, the guy makes a lot of movies; some duffers are inevitable. These are titles you might want to skip. A good deal of these lesser efforts are yakuza films aimed to fill Japan’s ravenous direct-to-video appetite. The best (i.e., most perverse) of the lot is Deadly Outlaw: Rekka (2002), a gang turf–war/inter–crime family soap opera that is alternately dull and almost unbearably hyperviolent.
The most genre-recombinant is Full Metal Yakuza (1997). Equal parts gangster revenge film, RoboCop rip and Frankenstein, it’s a flawed jaw-dropper about an oafish yakuza who is killed trying to protect his father figure, a crime-family boss; a mad scientist “rebuilds” him with spare cyber-stuff and parts from the aforementioned boss.
Graveyard of Honor (2002), Dead or Alive (1999) and Kikoku (2003) prove that even Miike can be generic, and nobody will dis your Miike cred if you skip his competent but inessential J-horror entry One Missed Call and the extended J-pop video Andromeda.
But as career downsides go, and considering his astonishing production speed, these few off entries are small beer indeed. Especially in light of the fact that Miike is only 46 and just now hitting a new aesthetic peak as his ongoing family “project” is gaining a tighter focus. God only knows what images and ideas we’ll be gasping over when this article is hopelessly obsolete in, say, three months.
[NOTE: I wrote this in 2006. As of now, Miike has directed eighty-three (83) films.]